What if you believed your teacher at school was trying to make you forget how to speak? What if when you tried to resist their efforts, you were lectured about diversity and acceptance? Confused? So was my son, so was I, so was his teacher, but I finally cracked what was happening and found a way to fix it.
We live in a country where the native language is not the one we speak as a family. Most people here can and do speak English, and it is the dominant language in terms of usage; but Maori is the native language and one of our official languages, and children are exposed to Maori from their earliest years. This language exposure is part of the school curriculum. Furthermore, my son’s school is a highly multicultural one, where Mandarin, Hindi, Maori, Samoan and many other languages are children’s first languages instead of English.
Within this multilingual environment, my son is constantly exposed to people who cannot speak English well, and where people often turn to speaking in their own native tongue. Not only does this confuse my son at the simple level of not being able to understand some of his peers, it turns out it has also created the premise for him to fear and resist other languages altogether.
But my son’s fear of other languages does not stem from non-acceptance or resistance to diversity and difference; he is not being racist or elitist or a bigot. I’ve put up with people suspecting his home environment is anti other languages or other cultures, which is very far from the truth; I actively promote empathy and positivity towards difference within our home. I’ve also told him that I have been taught three other languages, and his own extended family can speak other languages. Yet as teachers and parents we weren’t able to break through my son’s seemingly irrational fear (and even hatred) of other languages, all our talk about difference being OK and not a threat to him got us nowhere. But tonight I finally got it and found the solution.
The problem was my son was working with this piece of information: People who can speak more than one language, speak English poorly (which will typically be true of young children adapting to a new second language). Add to that his own experience that English is the first language people speak, and he reached this conclusion: Learning more than one language will make you speak English worse, or more generically as he understood it, learning more than one language will make you worse at your first language.
I only started to figure this mess out when he argued strongly against my claim that learning a second language would make you better at the first (while I tried to convince him of the many benefits and advantages of learning other languages). He was adamant that it would make him worse at English; he didn’t want to speak, hear, sing, or otherwise interact with other languages because it would make his own English worse. (Considering how hard my son had to work to even get and use the spoken language in the first place, and how hard it can still be for him to use his own language, I can easily see how he may be that much more sensitive to anything that might be a threat to his current speech and comprehension.)
Once I knew the problem, I was able to find a way to redirect his thinking, to correct his premises. I created pictures of people who started off speaking various languages, and used a chart to illustrate each of them learning a new language (and then a third language). I used percentages to represent how well they used and understood each language they knew or learnt (he loves percentages). In this way I was able to illustrate that getting a new language doesn’t impact on the percentage of how well you understood a previous language (except in as far as it may improve that initial language usage). I was also able to show that just because someone might not be very good at a second language doesn’t mean they’re not completely fluent in a first language.
I used a stick-figure to represent him and his future language proficiencies (letting him choose what language he might choose to learn one day; he went with Spanish then French). I showed how he might only be 80% good at one of those other languages, he’d still be 100% good at English (for example). Similarly I got him to tell me the name and languages of a child in his class that he doesn’t understand (and therefore finds a bit threatening). I showed how just because the other person doesn’t speak English well as a second language, doesn’t mean they’re not great at the first language. I used cross-over lines to show how someone speaking Mandarin to his school friend would find his school friend perfectly fluent.
After all this – and a few more questions and examples – he simply, clearly and happily said to me: “I learned it.” He understood. He got it. He spent the next half hour writing down ridiculously high percentages of how good his own English could get if he learns other languages, and playing around with the figures.
When he gets back to school this week, I’m looking forward to explaining the breakthrough with his teacher. I think understanding the problem (and its solution) sheds light on the way my son’s mind works, and on why it’s just so important to pursue an understanding of how he’s seeing the world instead of presuming he approaches things like every other child. You can’t take things for granted with my son, his minds works in interesting ways that both fascinate and confuse me, but I constantly endeavor to keep an open mind to how he views and is experiencing the world. In doing so, I can help others do the same for him.
It’s a good reminder too that if the solution you’re trying to use over and over with a child isn’t working, then don’t presume the problem is with the child: Consider that the stumbling block lies in how we understand the problem in the first place, and that the first place to start to better understand the problem, is by letting the child find their own voice; in whatever manner or language that voice may take. We need not fear those other voices; just like learning a new language, those voices may even enhance the strength of our own.