Poor advice from a 1st grade teacher

Our first-ever parent-teacher conference

Last week, we had our first parent-teacher conference with our 1st grade daughter’s teacher. It was uplifting. Her teacher told us that our child is wonderful that she wishes she had a classroom of thirty children just like her. To be entirely honest, we weren’t surprised by her feedback, but it was nonetheless lovely to hear this spoken aloud.

By the way, given that I dedicated a poem to our beloved teacher, you would be correct in assuming that my wife and I are both very happy with her. She’s wonderful and warm. She’s loving. She’s dedicated. Our daughter simply adores her. So, it’s in exactly that context that I was so surprised and put off by one particular piece of advice that she gave us, which I want to push back against:

She suggested that we speak to our child in Hebrew at home.

Our family’s three languages

I’ve shared my thoughts about and suggestions for raising multilingual children in the past, which I am not going to rehash.

For those of you who have joined my journey somewhat recently, my wife, our daughter and I speak three languages. Living in Israel, as we do, we speak Hebrew, of course. However, at home we hardly use any Hebrew at all. I speak and read to my daughter in English, while my wife speaks and reads to her in Russian, and we usually speak in Russian together.

English is our daughter’s strongest language, largely because most of the movies and videos that she watches (lots and lots of Disney, among other things) are in English. While she’s never set foot in a predominantly English-speaking country, her English is at a third or fourth grade reading level, by American standards.

Her Russian is weaker than her English, but she and her mother have been working on developing her reading skills, and she reads in Russian better than she does in Hebrew, I’d say. For those who are not familiar with Russian, it is grammatically more complex than either English or Hebrew – in fact, even though I was raised speaking Russian at home, I often use the wrong conjugations when speaking because I never formally studied the language.

The 1st grade teacher’s logic

Our daughter’s teacher recently gave the class a test to gauge the students’ command of Hebrew grammar. There were 22 questions on the test, and 15 correct answers were officially considered a “passing” mark. Our daughter answered 16 questions correctly.

Now, to her credit, the teacher was not especially concerned about this, given that she is familiar with our child’s intellectual aptitude. Also, the mistakes that our daughter made were entirely natural for somebody who doesn’t speak Hebrew at home – the children had been instructed to pluralize singular nouns, which she did, but plurals may take differing forms, which one needs to simply know, and which she doesn’t always.

So, the teacher suggested that we make more use of Hebrew at home so that our daughter can develop her intuition for Hebrew grammar. She didn’t push this issue, and she didn’t say that she felt it absolutely necessary, but she did pose this to us as a recommendation.

The obvious drawback

What the teacher did not say, but what is abundantly obvious, is that speaking to our daughter in Hebrew at home would, of necessity, come at the expense of either English or Russian. In fact, it would come at the expense of her Russian – because my wife’s Hebrew is stronger than mine, so she would be the one speaking to her in Hebrew (instead of Russian).

As noted above, our child’s English is stronger than her Russian. Also, her entire family on her mother’s side lives in Russia and communicates almost exclusively in Russian. If she couldn’t speak Russian, she wouldn’t be able to communicate with her Russian grandmother, for example. Beyond this, any language is a gift for a child, especially one that is spoken by so many people worldwide.

Where does a child’s native tongue come from?

I spoke Russian before I ever learned English and absorbed English by osmosis in preschool from other children. Further, even after I’d learned to speak English, my parents continued communicating with me exclusively in Russian. Whenever I would attempt to speak to them in English, they would pretend to not understand me, forcing me to communicate with them in Russian.

Still – having grown up in the USA (school, college, graduate school), there is absolutely no question that English is, by far, my strongest language, which leads me to believe that our Israeli-born-and-bred daughter will not have any problems with reading and communicating in Hebrew. That should become just as natural to her as English is to me.

Of course, a child with a learning disability could have difficulty in a multilingual family, and I’ve spoken with some parents of such boys and girls; but this is clearly not our daughter’s situation (thank goodness). Clearly, her developing a full proficiency in Hebrew is merely a matter of time, given her intelligence and complete lack of inhibition in asking the teacher to translate unfamiliar words for her (and, luckily, the teacher speaks English fluently). Our child is a very fast learner.

My surprise

Mostly, this post is about my surprise at receiving such advice from our daughter’s teacher, for we (continue to) hold her in high esteem; and she was raised in an English-speaking home in Israel herself, which granted her and her siblings fluency in a language other than Hebrew.

Ultimately, my primary takeaway from the above exchange over language is that all advice should be taken with a grain of salt… even if it’s coming from a trusted source with the best of intentions.

I suppose this is this fairly cliché, and perhaps I should be more surprised at my own surprise… Nevertheless, our parent-teacher conference, as encouraging and wonderful as it was, greatly reinforced my trust in our parenting choices and in the importance of involved, thoughtful parenting generally (over other authorities).

84 thoughts on “Poor advice from a 1st grade teacher”

  1. I am a speech language pathologist and am often asked to weigh in on this issue. I’m in America and the language of instruction is English but many of my students are coming from non-English speaking households. I describe the home language as the language of love. Whatever language is the parent’s most comfortable, the most familiar and the one they read, speak and share small loving moments is the language to speak at home. School language will come. Your daughter is having a wonderful childhood learning three languages and nurturing all three is a blessing and a responsibility. You can grow three flowers by watering, weeding and making sure one plant doesn’t crowd out the other. Will the flowers grow a bit unevenly? yes but all will thrive if tended with love.

    1. I describe the home language as the language of love.

      That’s exactly how I describe my relationship to Russian… Even though my English is better, I was raised speaking Russian with my parents!

      School language will come.

      Exactly! That’s how we feel about it too, and this was my experience as a child growing up in the USA.

      Will the flowers grow a bit unevenly? yes but all will thrive if tended with love.

      Thanks, Cindy ~ that’s a beautiful metaphor!

      Much love,

  2. I am so glad that your resolve to continue in the trilingual lifestyle was only strengthened by this experience. Young children often lose their family’s heritage languages when they go to school as a result of suggestions from their teachers, however well-intentioned. All the best in your language journey!

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