Bilingual kids: a few words from the finish line

“Look, la muna!” Three little words that encompass two worlds. This is the first complete sentence I remember, the first spoken record of our escapades as a bilingual family. It was a spring evening, so he would have been about 18 months old. He was on his father’s shoulders, walking home from the playground at dusk when he looked up at the night sky, pointed and made this colorful observation. We were still living in Virginia then, so it was natural that the imperative (“Look”) would have been more accessible to him in English, since commands are what kids learn first based on mere frequency (toddlers being particularly bombarded by the likes of ‘Look, a car! Look, an elephant! Look, the moon!) But then he instinctively switched to Spanish because he knew he was talking to his dad, getting the gender of the article right, and finally did that magical thing that shows he knew the next word in both languages by splicing ‘moon’ with ‘luna’ – a perfectly bilingual sentence that encompasses grammar, syntax and sociolinguistic acumen. And this is the way language nerds talk about their kids’ developing language skills.

I have often started to write about bilingual kids, but always abandoned the attempt because I feel like what I have to say is mostly pretty darn obvious. And there’s so much out there on the subject already, who could possibly need convincing that bilingualism is a good thing, even more so when it happens naturally? However, after recently hearing two stories from other parents in which their kids’ language skills were questioned, I’ve decided that it’s at least worth speaking up for the bilingual community here in Buenos Aires, since these two cases would indicate that there’s still just a whole mess of nonsense on the loose out there.

Case 1: Mother (US) of 4-yr-old twins is told by Argentine preschool teacher that their language skills are lacking and that she should stop speaking English to them, because clearly they are confused.

Seriously? The whole language confusion argument still? Rather than questioning their family dynamics, the teacher should be applauding the parents of those kids for giving them the gift of bilingualism; then she could have taken five minutes to google language acquisition in bilinguals, in twins, and twin language, to learn that all three of these factors may add up to some differentiation in terms of the language these two boys are producing at age 4 in comparison to their monolingual classmates. I say differentiation (not delay) because, after four years in a bilingual home, these kids’ amazing little brains have fully incorporated the complexities of English and Spanish by now. Therefore, while what they say may come out as a creative mix for a while still (particularly in the case of identical twins who also happen to be producing their own unique twin-language), this should be cause for fascination, not concern. And in the knowledge that within the next year or so, they will produce both languages appropriately based on context. Right now they are still immersed in a rich duality that is anything but confusing—it is a world twice as large. What young bilinguals do with language is double the fun. Period. Teachers who can’t appreciate this get a bad grade in my book.

Case 2: Parents (mother UK, father US) of a 12-year-old bilingual daughter, born and raised in Buenos Aires, are told by a tutoring institute that their daughter will likely not be fit to take the tough entrance exams for secondary school, since she comes from a home where neither parent is a native-Spanish speaker.

So the assessment here is that, even though this girl has spent her entire childhood in the Buenos Aires public school system, doing all classwork in Spanish, socializing with Argentine peers and immersed in entirely Spanish monolingual surroundings outside her home, and clearly speaks native Argentine Spanish, the fact that she speaks English with her parents and siblings is seen as somehow detrimental to her chances to pass the entrance exams. Interesting.

Similar to the case of the twins, the theory here is that the “other” language must surely get in the way of academic success. Ironically, schools prioritize English as a foreign language in a major way here, with most proudly waving the bilingual education flag. Personally, I think what happens is that second language skills are often seen wholly as an academic pursuit, at least for kids—something to work towards mastering when they get older. And to their credit, many schools do an excellent job of teaching English. The idea of acquiring both languages simultaneously at home, however, is apparently viewed by some educators with skepticism. I hate to lecture, but Linguistics 101, people: language learning (happens in school); language acquisition (happens at home or in natural language setting). The latter is available to us all in mono- or multilingual version, with window of opportunity lowering at around age 12. Those lucky enough to have access to the multilingual version are just, well, luckier!

Enough about the limitations of certain educators. When I was pregnant with my own twins (mine now competent bilinguals and therefore doubly exasperating teenagers), I spent a lot of time reading articles about raising bilingual children, much of it prescriptive. Honestly, of everything I read, only one story from a Greek-American family resonated and has stayed with me over the years. The approach was simple: “Language is always a topic of conversation in our family. We discuss it over meals, ponder why people say what they say, talk about books and how they’re written, make up words, splice grammar across languages, play word games, etc. In general, we just give the subject of language a ridiculous amount of air time, and otherwise try to keep a balance between both languages.”

As for all the other approaches—one language, one parent; half-day one language, half-day the other; meal times always in minority language; exclusive use of minority language in home—I just knew we wouldn’t be able to follow the rules. What I did know was the basic math of language: you get out what you put in. Children acquire language at the rate they are exposed to it, as long as it is has a meaningful place in their life. So in the early years in the US, we aimed for roughly equal use of both languages from the beginning in all possible contexts: we formed playgroups with other native-Spanish speakers, socialized ourselves among both language groups, made regular trips to Argentina and forged relationships between our kids and their Argentine cousins. We happily adhered to and upheld the ‘language as a topic of conversation’ principle, repeating stories of the silly things we’ve all said (my gender gaffes in Spanish: I once went on at length about my wedding veil, referring to it with the wrong gender (la vela). Meaning I was telling people I’d worn an antique candle on my head. Or how their dad once asked if it was ok to use the ‘wheelberry’ to cart the leaves…) And the ‘meaningful place’ was easy: it has always been in books, stories and music, these shifting languages (in the opposite direction) as we’ve shifted countries.

In our case anyway, I think this last point has been just as relevant as frequency of exposure to both languages. Even more so. It’s the meaningfulness that is key. This is what differentiates language in a natural setting from language-learning in a classroom. When our kids were toddlers, their father told them stories he’d make up (ongoing sagas) every night in Spanish. They’d lay there in the dark, completely immersed in the adventures of Max, el perro de rescate, in which they were always protagonists. Or Selena y Tiniebla, the warring queens of either side of the moon. Later, once we’d moved to Spain and then to Argentina, every time we were in the car for any length of time, we’d dissolve hours listening to audiobooks in English of stories by Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl (the H. Potter years I’ve already said more than enough about). And just loads of music in both languages. They knew all the María Elena Walsh songs; went around our house banging buckets and pretending to be orphans as they blasted the soundtrack from Annie; and at age 4 did a strange backyard performance of Don McLean’s American Pie while dressed in sequins and white gloves. Meaningful stuff.

Even though this sounds slightly like a circus house, it was actually a strategic plan. And not always easy. And not always balanced. When they started kindergarten in the US, they stopped speaking Spanish after the first week. Their dad was desperate. A few years after moving to Argentina, Spanish replaced English as the language they spoke to each other. In pre-adolescence, they’d get annoyed if I addressed them in English in public, insisting I only speak Spanish. When they started high school, they stopped speaking English to me at all for a brief period. It made me angry. Now they get exasperated if I speak to them in Spanish in public. If I do, they answer me in English. Go figure. They gossip, text, study and party all in Spanish. One writes songs lyrics only in English; one prefers reading in English. We have come full circle. It has been a worthwhile 18-year commitment.

My point here is that, for any of you out there with little bilingual people in the making, if you run into so-called educators who question what you’re doing with language in your house, please feel free to ignore them entirely. You are doing important work.


Expat Parents, Bilingual Kids and Argentine Schools

Expats face an array of daily challenges ranging from societal values to language, food and eating habits, gender dynamics, bureaucracy, driving, shopping, etc. And for those of us who are parents, raising and educating our kids would likely top this list as the biggest challenges of all, because they touch the core of what makes us who we are: Like it or not, we raise our children in terms of our own childhood experiences, which ultimately laid the groundwork for the people we are as adults. Whether to undo, improve on or maintain the lessons learned while growing up, how we approach bringing up our own kids is a reflection of that experience and therefore heavily loaded culturally and personally. Doing so in a foreign context is therefore fraught with difficulties, because the cultural parameters may be vastly different; and when it comes to school itself, everything from the supply list, to parent attitudes, to education policy in general can serve to complicate our decisions, baffle, frighten or, just maybe, if we’re lucky, free us from old, ingrained ideas and assumptions. After all, the fact that we are expats in the first place likely means that we are people who do not necessarily settle for the standard operating procedure in the places we came from. So what happens when we immerse ourselves in another, albeit foreign, version of “mainstream” when it comes to educating our children?

Having muddled through the Argentine system with my own kids over the past five years, I decided to do a survey of other foreign parents to gain some perspective on the experience. I chose to focus only on expats from English-speaking countries (the UK, US and Australia), given the significant role English plays in most school curricula here and the subsequent effect this has on kids for whom English is a first language. The questions parents answered covered topics related to the process of choosing a school; degree of satisfaction with that choice; school choice as a reflection of their own schooling; Argentine cultural values; and English classes, among others.  Parents addressed several concerns about their children’s education, both universal and specific to Argentina. Their answers also reveal some surprising discoveries that may be useful to others facing the difficult task of finding a school for their children here.

The crisis in education is a phenomenon that knows no borders; however, what that crisis entails and the reasons associated with it from one country to the next are undeniably shaped by the history, society and education policies implemented in each place. In the case of Argentina in particular, the last dictatorship left an imprint on Argentine society that plays out in myriad ways, just one of which is the effect on education – both public and private – and the attitudes and expectations of modern Argentine parents, many of whom were students during the repressive dictatorship of the 1970s. This is no small matter when it comes to understanding schools in Argentina. The dictatorship that came to power in Argentina in 1976 considered schools to be fertile ground for subversion, and therefore in need of a return to traditional values achievable only through order and repression. During that time, high school and university students were blacklisted and reported by teachers to military authorities, detained and often never seen again.  It is therefore not surprising that the generation of parents who grew up during those years of repression would expect the very ethos of school to be radically different for their children.

As a result, many schools here now fortunately take a very child-centered approach to learning, often highlighting group dynamics, democracy in the classroom and a sense of belonging. Particularly for parents of younger children, these features may be all the more appealing in the absence of other education jargon such as testing, standards, accountability, etc. However, the premium placed on learning through play and group projects may have parents wondering about things like academic excellence and individual achievement once their children are older; what seemed ideal in first grade often turns into noisy classrooms, general lack of discipline, no apparent study habits and disregard for authority in sixth. Could it be that what began in the 1980s as a genuine move in favor of kinder, more democratic schools with a critical eye toward authoritarianism may have swung too far in the direction of ‘no room for order at all’ in many Argentine classrooms?

Private, non-religious bilingual schools were the target of parents’ most critical views. Such schools have a broad appeal among professional, middle-class, well-educated and often progressive-minded Argentines. And since many expats living here fit this same description, many of them also initially find these schools appealing. They are more affordable as far as private schools go, tend to have constructivist-based curricula, focus on creativity, foster a sense of community and learning through experience. Despite the draw of such features, however, the educational experience often turns sour for many parents once their children are enrolled. The disparity between the ever-rising cost of these schools (tuitions have roughly tripled over the past 4 years) and the overall quality of education that they provide is no doubt a factor in parent dissatisfaction. Everything from noisy, chaotic classrooms to overt Argentine nationalism (lots of flag-waving and exaggerated reverence for Argentine heroes, yet scarce attention to the rest of the world) are mentioned in association with these schools. Several parents also pointed to the prioritization of group interests over individual achievement. This factor is also echoed in children’s report cards, which parents say do not convey any individual feedback for the most part, focusing mainly on the child’s role in group work. Another overriding concern for many parents from English-speaking countries with a common tradition of reading and love of books is the apparent absence of any similar sentiment in many schools here.

Long hours in English classes that cannot address the needs of native English-speakers is also a major issue for parents with children in these Spanish/English bilingual schools. Initially welcomed as assets to the class, parents claim there is no follow-up effort made to find suitable materials, books, or give these kids any type of role in English class that would make for meaningful learning for both them and their classmates; again, they are expected to “go along” with the group. 

Argentine parents want their children to be proficient in English in order to be globally competitive in the future; and schools likewise take the importance of English seriously. This has resulted in numerous private bilingual schools here that cater to local parent demands for more English. What is interesting to note is the number of hours devoted to English in comparison to other subjects in these schools. As pointed out, Argentine society understandably gives high priority to English, but is it more important than Spanish, math or science? According to the number of class hours, yes it is. Bilingual schools in Buenos Aires (both primary and secondary) devote an average of 6 class hours (horas cátedras) per week to English – some considerably more – in comparison to Spanish, math, science or social studies, which often get only 3 or 4 hours of class time per week. Curiously, this has as much to do with the traditional Argentine school day, which the Ministry of Education sets at 4 hours minimum, as it does with the high premium placed on English. So in the case of most schools that now offer doble turno, all those extra hours are being poured into English instead of an increase in core academics. Not to diminish the importance of English in the world today, but it is perplexing, even if one could make an argument for this many hours per day devoted to a foreign language, why some of those hours couldn’t be used to teach other subjects (science, history, creative writing) in English (or Spanish, for that matter)? Only a very few of the higher-priced private schools take this approach. Perhaps the better question to ask would be: Why are the core subjects of math, language/literature, social studies and science kept at so few hours? 

Given the value placed on English, there is then a certain irony in the fact that children who are already bilingual are actually at a disadvantage when it comes to Argentine bilingual schools. The reality is that all those English hours in the dozens of “bilingual” schools have very little to offer a child whose first language is English; they are about intensive English-learning for Spanish-speakers, and are not designed to address the needs of English natives. It would stand to reason then, as a parent of a bilingual child, to choose a monolingual school and not waste hours on English for learners; however, as already mentioned, the standard academic day is only 4 hours long here. Therefore, if you want your child to have a full day of school in Buenos Aires, you must either pay a very high price or resign yourself to the fact that roughly half of their day will be wasted hours in English class in most cases. Other than the array of mid-priced private bilingual schools, one is left with basically three alternatives: half-day public school; the very expensive American or British schools (price-prohibitive for many); or bypassing English altogether at the German, Italian or French schools. It is this last option that generated some of the broadest support from parents. This is what one US parent had to say about the Lycée Jean Mermoz:

“There were two factors that led us to discard the English/Spanish bilingual option. One is that we did not think that many of them are as good overall academically as the French school and even their English programs are not great; non-native English teachers, for example. So we thought it would be easier to supplement English language skills at home than to have to compensate for a lower quality overall education. And in terms of the very good English/Spanish schools (San Andres, Northlands, etc.), they have a socio-economic profile that seemed elitist for our taste. The French school has a more heterogeneous public, which we love, and the idea of having a bilingual/bicultural family exists there. They have excellent academics and also incorporate a great deal of culture, art and literature into the general education. It is an institution where the cultural values of France, such as equality, respect for rules and authority, are very much present. This is extremely important for me as they are values that I feel are part of my culture as a US citizen, but that are not valued in Argentine culture.”

The diversity mentioned with regard to the French school is also highlighted by parents of kids who attend Lincoln, the American school. As part of an international system that offers consistency as well as a diverse student population, it is an appealing option for diplomatic families and those who work for large corporations and move often; its price-tag, however, offsets these advantages for many families.

As regards the overall state of public education in Argentina, the lack of available resources and teacher strikes are a big deterrent for a majority of parents in the case of public schools. Even if one comes from a public school background with committed ideals to public education, it is difficult to stick to one’s convictions in the face of public school reality in Argentina. Fewer resources means kids are exposed to fewer valuable experiences, such as gaining computer skills, access to quality art and music classes or a proper school library, not to mention the limited class hours. And the likelihood that your child may be deprived of many days of school due to teacher strikes makes this a tough choice indeed.  Nevertheless, some of the most satisfied parents interviewed were those whose children attend public primary school No. 13 in the Colegiales neighborhood. They pointed to the integrity of the school climate forged by its long-time director, and the importance of the school’s cooperadora in pushing new initiatives. Good teachers who know their students well on an individual basis, a strong emphasis on reading, the director’s open-door policy and responsiveness to parent requests, and the enthusiasm for learning observed by parents of expat kids in this school make it stand out not only among public schools, but among all primary schools included in the survey. Unfortunately, this was the only public school mentioned by parents in the survey; as a general rule, foreign parents do not often choose public school for the same reasons many Argentines do not.

As a parent of 8-yr-old twins when I came here, I was quite happy to forgo such things as regular standardized testing, heavy loads of homework and long school hours common in the US, in favor of an Argentine version that seemed kinder and more respectful of childhood. Later in elementary school, however, that conviction began to wane in the face of concern for academics and readiness for serious study. To my surprise, however, on the verge of entering high school, my kids have stepped up to the plate and proven that, even though they may not have been academically challenged in elementary school, they are nevertheless more capable of putting in long study hours and doing well on difficult high school entrance exams than I probably was at their age. I cannot help but wonder if this is not the result of an academic maturity that was allowed to take its due course, along with the advantages of growing up “between” places, which by default makes changing gears easier for them. And one more surprise that I discovered as a result of the “disadvantage” of already being bilingual in school: Using that to our kids’ advantage by taking them out of English altogether at school and hiring a native tutor to use those hours wisely and keep them reading, writing and covering other subjects in English has put them ahead of grade level.

Despite all the issues mentioned here, which have caused me many sleepless nights, I also share the sentiment expressed by everyone in their answers to the last survey question, “What is the most important aspect of your child’s education for you?” Without fail, everyone mentioned the importance of the examples set at home in terms of love of learning, critical thinking, awareness of the broader world and curiosity. As expats, we are privileged in being able to provide our children with this type of education in addition to (or in spite of) any school. And perhaps being in a place like Argentina that provides the circumstances to “make one’s own adaptations” to the school environment might just be a blessing in disguise.