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).

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

  1. I am right there with you. I regret that I didn’t teach my daughter more languages (other than English and my native Tami) when growing up. I myself know three- Eng, Tam and Hindi ) and can sort of understand a few others (Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada). I hope your child speaks in all three. Even if falteringly. Faltering in multiple languages is better than being perfect in just one.

    1. I think it’s hard to teach more than one language at home – we manage doing two because we’re each operating in a different language – but it takes real commitment…

  2. There is a bias in every country toward the official language… I think you are taking the right stance and probably the teacher is required to “recommend” speaking Hebrew at home. It would be an entirely different matter if it was not a recommendation but a mandate that Hebrew only be spoken in the home. That would be a tough decision. I know here in the US there are many students who speak only Spanish at home but become fluent in English – out of necessity for translating for their parents.

  3. Hi, I enjoyed reading your post. Obviously, you, your wife, and teacher both have good intentions but from a personal experience, I wish I had spoken in my native language more than I did English. English was encouraged in school, but what that did was erase my native language which I am ashamed to admit. Now that I am older, I just wish I had put more effort in my language.

  4. What really stood out to me while reading this essay is how a six-year-old girl can speak three languages, while over here in the States there are so many monolingual people who don’t have a basic understanding of proper English grammar. It’s embarrassing. I don’t know if you noticed this during your time in the States, but it’s prevalent in my extremely rural area. (Incidentally, there are several prominent languages in my area including English, Spanish, Navajo and Ute.) I applaud you and your wife for the love and care you show your daughter, and for raising her to understand not only various languages but the cultures behind them. I learn something new every time you post, David. 🙂

    1. Mike, thanks for the kind words 💝

      I lived in the USA for nearly three decades… So I’m familiar with what you are describing. There’s even a joke…

      What do you call someone who speaks three languages?

      Trilingual.

      What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

      Bilingual.

      What do you call someone who speaks one language?

      American.

      My mom really loves that joke 🤣

  5. I think most advice, regardless of what it is or who gives it, is generally worthless. (Mostly because people give advice like it is one-size-fits-all, when it all reality, advice is extremely context-specific.)

    By the way, I give advice, solicited and unsolicited, all the time. Takes an expert to know these things. 😉

      1. <20%. Then again, I don't solicit much advice (partly because I expect it will be non-applicable at best), so that would make the denominator lower which would make the percentage of advice followed by default. Hmm, I'll have to think about this more. I don't like inaccurate estimates.

        What percentage do you follow?

        1. I don’t tend to solicit advice and don’t receive much of it… But probably 50-50 when I do.

          Although – now that I think about it – it’s not black-and-white cuz I might follow part of somebody’s advice, but not all of it…

          1. I’m only taking into account the advice that I solicit – if I don’t solicit it, it’s a very low percentage that I actually end up heeding.

  6. I heard a similar story of a school failing to understand the child’s home context. We knew a little boy (similar age to your daughter) whose mother was Thai and his father was Finnish. Both parents spoke to the child in their mother tongues. Both parents could speak English to a good level but neither were at native speaker level. But the school wanted them to speak English at home to the child when he is living in an English speaking country and attending an English speaking school. The parents were not impressed with the suggestion at all. The child would have lost his other two languages.

  7. First of all, congratulations for having such an adorable and intelligent daughter! 😉 I loved reading your post and it reminded me when, living in Paris, my son’s primary school teacher strongly “encouraged” me to speak to my children only in French because we were living in France. I never did it for the exactly same reasons that you described so well. Result: they are totally bilingual and fluent in Spanish. As you said: “any language is a gift for a child, especially one that is spoken by so many people worldwide.” You’re doing a great job as a father David. Keep following your ❤.

    1. Result: they are totally bilingual and fluent in Spanish. As you said: “any language is a gift for a child, especially one that is spoken by so many people worldwide.” You’re doing a great job as a father David. Keep following your ❤.

      Thanks so much, Filipa ❤

  8. i didntlearn English till I went to school when I was five. I spoke Polish and understood some German (which I have completely forgotten)
    all the English I learnt was at school. though I must admit that I learnt to read very quickly depite not being able to speak perfectly at first. But by the time I was seven I was equal to anyone in the class. Just let it happen, honestly, and encourage her to ask if there is anything she does not understand.

  9. Goodness me , this brings out all sorts of emotions.
    But first of all is the medium of instruction in your daughter’s school Hebrew?
    If it is then she will be able to learn as she goes along.
    Please continue with the Russian and the English at home because that is your most natural language.
    When she is older she will have friends who speak Hebrew in their homes and she will learn a lot there. I cam in for a lot of criticism with my children because when our third was born, who didn’t speak at all for three years we consciously decided to only speak English to her to avoid any confusion or lack of confidence. the older two spoke Polish but hated Polish school so we stopped sending them.
    My mother was disappointed we didn’t insist on the Polish as she did with me ( I didn’t know she spoke fluent English till I was nineteen) but when push came to shove she spoke English perfectly well with all three.
    now, my eldest who is forty took herself off to Poland for a few years and her spoken Polish improved enormously because it had to. Our son is interested in family history so he can now read polish fluently. and the little one (who is 28) feels Polish but thinks and speaks in English. But her fiancé is going to take her surname, so as to keep the Polish spirit . So the moral is you must do whatever you feel is right – but without forcing any issue. Your daughter has many advantages in already being fluent in two languages. Well done.
    and if she needs a Hebrew tutor later, well you can always get one. But I doubt very much that it will be necessary.

    1. Basia, I can relate to much of that. In our case, our daughter has been in Hebrew language programs since daycare at seven months old. She does speak Hebrew. But it is not as advanced as her other languages because she doesn’t have sophisticated discussions in Hebrew… Those interactions have always been at a daycare, preschool, or first grade level…

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