Will Repetition Cure Anti-Bilingualism? I Didn’t Think So

April 15, 2010 9 comments

I usually don’t tend to blog about situations related to my current job. When and if I do blog about something related to my current position, I typically will speak in general terms and not be too specific about the details. My rationale for this is: 1) I really want to draw a fine line between my life and my blog, and don’t want anything that I say to ever be misconstrued as representing the school district; 2) I feel that as an administrator, it is my job to work with school administrators and teachers in order to implement quality bilingual programs, and this sometimes requires much patience when working with people who are not knowledgeable about bilingual education; and, 3) I feel that when working with administrators and teachers that I owe them the professional courtesy of confidentiality with our discussions.

Today something happened that just pushed me over the edge and just decided that I just had to blog about it. All day long I have been debating whether I should blog about it, but then I have come to the conclusion that I have had enough patience with a certain situation over the past couple of months and I have finally expended all patience that I might have left.

It all started a couple of months ago when a vice principal at a school called me in order to discuss his bilingual program. I listened patiently as he bashed the program for fifteen minutes on the telephone. I was trying to have patience with him, because during my first year teaching he was actually my mentor and I felt that I owed him the professional courtesy to hear him out.

“These teachers are so stubborn in sticking to their bilingual schedule and their fifty percent of Spanish during the day in third grade. How can I get them to understand that they need to add more English if the kids are going to learn English?” he asked.

I patiently went through a thorough explanation about the fact that it is not the amount of English, but the quality of instruction that is most important. I discussed that there are some bilingual programs with more Spanish in our district that outscore programs that have less Spanish. I also pointed out that there are bilingual programs in our district and throughout the nation that outscore English-only classes. I offered to come out to the site and observe some of the bilingual classes, and later meet with bilingual teachers in order to tailor staff development specifically to meet their needs.

I thought that we had such a productive conversation. Yet over the past couple of months we have had three additional conversations about the same exact topic. It’s even been brought to my attention that a couple of times that he has gone behind my back to my boss and has had similar conversations about the bilingual program.

This morning was the day that I went to finally go and visit the site. I walked into his office and met with him as well as the principal and the repetitive questions once again reared their ugly heads.

“If we are going to have them proficient in English, how are they going to do it without adding more English? How can we get them to add more English?” he asked.

I once again explained everything that I have already explained to him on numerous occasions and then I finally just said, “You are NOT going to get them to do only English. It is the district expectation that this program will be implemented in this particular way. If there are components that are not present in your program in order to have a quality program, then we need to address them-and adding more English is not going to address any underlying issue that are causing you to have an ineffective bilingual program”.

We went on to discuss additional information about the program and he said, “Yesterday I called all the teachers into the room and I told them that they are causing the test scores to go down in our school. I will not stand for them pulling everyone else down. I told them that if they can’t step up to the plate that they will be moved out of this school”.

I asked him if he had any data on him that I could look at, because it has been my experience that some administrators make blanket statements about their bilingual programs without even having any data to back up their claims. He of course didn’t have any data on hand. You can bet your bottom dollar that I will be investigating this claim with a fine toothed comb.

At one point in our conversation, he mentioned that the bilingual fourth grade teacher had the highest test scores in the entire school. “So, the bilingual program must not be that ineffective,” I stated. “This is often what we see in the research-that students in bilingual programs begin to outperform students in English programs in the upper elementary years”.

He of course was not accepting that explanation. He just simply explained to me that the teacher was a great teacher.

I patiently walked through the classrooms and observed the teachers, jotting down notes as to what I would like to discuss with them when I meet with them at a later date. And then I set my dates and exited the building.

Yet there has been a nagging feeling all day long in the back of my head, a nagging sensation that it is not fair to the bilingual teachers to be placed in a situation where an administrator is telling them that they are pulling down all the test scores in the entire school. It’s not fair that bilingual teachers need help, and they are given no help, assistance, or guidance from the administrator who is supposed to be leading them. I’m tired of many bilingual educators being scapegoats for leaders who aren’t fulfilling their responsibility to implement a high quality, effective bilingual program.

Something tells me that no matter how much I will try with this man that he will do nothing but turn around and try to sabotage my efforts. But I still owe it to the students and the teachers to do everything in my power to try to support them in any way that I can to try to enhance the quality of their program. Wish me luck!

Categories: Bilingual Education

Why Am I Staying in Taiwan? Because I Am More Me Here.

April 14, 2010 2 comments

Here is the ritual greeting that takes place in Taipei when I pay the fare to the taxi driver, order a latte at a Starbucks, or pay the bill in a restaurant.

How much is it? 多少錢?

NT$100. Are you Japanese / Overseas Chinese / Korean? 100圓。你是日本人/華僑/韓國人?

I am from Japan. 我來自日本。

You speak Chinese really well. 你國語講的很好。

Thank you. 謝謝,不會。

How long have you been here? 你待多久?

5 years. 五年了。

That’s awesome! 怎麼厲害!

If I am talking with a person over 40 years old, this question pops up.

Why did you choose Taiwan? 你為什麼選擇臺灣?

Because… 因為

And then I always pause. Each time, an internal voice whispers I still don’t know, followed by But I love being here, that’s for sure. I say things like “Because Taiwan is a great country with great people and great food” (which is all true, by the way). I get nervous thinking the person in front of me might suspect I am merely trying to please her, which makes my response even more robotic and suspicious.

I can list things that make Taiwan/Taipei great. Inexpensive yet tasty food. Relaxed atmosphere. Mild-mannered people. Near-flawless public transportation. Unbelievably cheap and sophisticated medical care.  A modern city with accessible nature in its backyard.

But none of them hits the bull’s eye. I had access to all of them back in Japan, except for the inexpensive food and relaxed atmosphere. Food prices never affected me much. So is it the ability to relax more? No, a critical factor is still missing.

One weekend, while riding on a train and looking at the streaming landscape, I got it. The clue has been there all along, right in my view, like in these photos.

There is nothing photogenic or remarkable about these scenes, to be fair. Miniature balcony jungle flourishes inside an old apartment. A golden temple shines brightly inside an office building. A makeshift playground replicating Gulliver in Lilliput lies in front of a memorial hall. If there is any theme in them, it is that there is no theme at all—what we see is only the co-existence of unrelated objects. Yes, they are what makes Taipei, Taipei.

Wait, hadn’t I experienced it in Japan, a place more famous than Taiwan for accepting weirdness? Well in Japan, every foreign object must go through a “transforming” stage before lining up in the stores or being introduced in a media outlet, its cuteness exaggerated and any threatening element de-emphasized. In other words, foreign stuff must be assimilated and sanitized. That’s why Japanese cultural items are always, er, Japanese. Might be peculiar at times, but always safe.

In Taiwan, things exist more as they are, not falling into sameness under the “Taiwanese” label. That same principle applies to people, or expatriates in this case. Looking back on my five-year experience living here, one of the most remarkable things is that I’ve never had to compromise my identity to be like someone else. I do not say I could always do what I wanted to. But no one forced me to behave like someone I am not, either. In fact, I already wrote about that experience in expat+HAREM.

The Taiwanese view me as “Laowai”, a foreigner. Not Japanese, more like Overseas Chinese. I act the way that feels right to me, and the Taiwanese view me the way that feels right for them, and we both feel fine about not understanding each other’s point of view.

I am like those odd objects in the photos. I am alien to the local culture, and also part of it. Folks, now I have the answer to the original question; why I have been sticking to Taiwan—and the whole story, which has taken me five years to figure out, has taken you three minutes to read.

P.S. It is time for me to take a nap at lunchtime in the office—an important part of the Taiwanese business culture—and I safely close my eyes and bend my neck toward the ceiling (opening my mouth is optional), against the proper manner of burying one’s head into the arms, like my colleague sitting next to me.

About the Author: Isao Kato is a nomad Japanese technical writer living in Taiwan, melting technology and communication in the Asian pot.

Categories: Uncategorized

Attention Bilingual Parents: Student Needs Assistance

April 13, 2010 2 comments

Yesterday a student who is writing a paper about bilingualism posted in our comments section that she needs assistance from people who are raising bilingual children. She is requesting assistance with the following questions:

1. What is the language spoken in your country of residence?
2. How many children do you have? Where were your children born?
3. What language/s do you speak? What language/s does your husband speak?
4. Do you believe in and encourage your children to speak more than one language? Why or why not?
5. Have you tried different methods to teach your children to be multilingual? Which ones?
6. Which method do you think worked better?
7. Many parents just give up because it takes too much work or they do not get support from their friends or husbands/ wives. Did you, at any point, think about giving up?
8. What advice would you give other bilingual parents who might not know how to help their children learn the home language?

If you have a little free time, it would really help her out! Please take the time to answer these questions in the comment section!! Apart from the paper, it would be really interesting to also learn more about you!!


Categories: Bilingualism

Learn About Other Languages and Never Stop

April 13, 2010 1 comment

“To be a teacher, you need to first become a good student”

I was taught to read and write way too young compared to fellow kids, having an aunt who is an Arabic language major student who used to teach me the classical basics of it since I was 5 to 6 years old. I have a special kind of relationship with Arabic language.

“Discover the beauty and richness of the language you teach”

I become passionate about  Arabic language, its history, literature, grammar and all arts. It has a very rich content and a precious heritage being spoken and understood the same way it has always been spoken since more than 1,000 years ago. This means that what was written in the old ages is still the same, with the same grammar and vocabulary, unlike most languages where you find great variations between classical and modern versions of the same language.

Since the time I started using the internet (2003), I have been doing language exchange with non-Arabic native speakers interested in learning Arabic-that was how I improved my English as well as Italian ( I focused on them as I studied both academically) and learned the basics of other languages such as Spanish.

Later on, I decided to teach Modern Standard Arabic as Egyptian dialect to non-natives, especially English speakers.

“Learn about other languages and never stop”

I still do language exchange with people of different nationalities, as I think learning more about different languages is the best way to know about common mistakes non-natives tend to make due to interference with their mother tongue.

I believe that the more teachers learn about other languages, the more efficient and better they become while teaching their mother languages to foreigners. You can always find something similar in other languages to the language you teach that would make it easier for both you and your student while teaching.

“Hey, did someone here say Arabic is hard?”

Moreover, Arabic language tends to have some specifications and characteristics that may be absent in other languagse, which is why it’s commonly known to be harder to learn when compared to other languages. Well, this is not very accurate. Based on what I’ve read and experienced with non-natives, I can say that Arabic is not really that hard, it just requires more patience, commitment and determination.

You may sometimes feel disappointed and feel that you have not learned anything at all, and it may sometimes seem as if there is just too much to learn. This doesn’t necessarily mean Arabic is hard-it’s a rich old language, so think about it that way! When facing some challenging matter in life, we should never give up on it-we only need to believe that we will always lack knowledge and need to learn more about it.  No one will ever know everything about something… but still, there are those few bright hard-workers who believed in their abilities and therefore managed to learn a lot about something.  Try to be one of those people then!

About the Author: Alshimaa M. Helmy is a university student majoring in Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering while teaching Arabic part-time as a foreign language in Cairo, Egypt. She has deep interests about foreign languages and cultures around the world. You can frequently find her writing on  her blog, In All Languages.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Trials and Tribulations of a Bilingual Coordinator

Sometimes it is extremely frustrating being a bilingual coordinator.

On the outside I have to make it appear as if nothing is ever wrong, because I need to look strong and confident for the bilingual teachers that I work with. And I also need to maintain an outside appearance as if my feathers are not ruffled when I am around some of the other people who try to do everything in their power to undermine the bilingual program.

But inside I have started to become increasingly sick and tired of all the b.s. that I am subjected to on an every day basis.

Every day at some point there never fails to be a person who will send me a rude email or will blatantly tell me that they just “have a bilingual program on paper and are just doing English” -(imagine that-actually having the audacity as a school leader to tell the bilingual coordinator at the district office that you are thumbing your nose at the bilingual program design–yes, that’s how much disdain some of these people have for the bilingual program).

When I am not receiving rude emails or being told that they don’t have to do the bilingual program, I am constantly frustrated because I am blocked from other managers in the district who I believe hate the bilingual program. I am strategically left out of important conversations or I always find out something at the last minute, which always makes it appear as if my department is lagging behind everyone to catch up. I am too much of a professional to say, “No, these assessments came one month after the English assessments because the English language arts department didn’t even bother to tell me that they were changing the assessments until a week after they sent them out to you”. So instead I just work 60 hours a week and throughout the weekends on occasions such as this weekend so that I can wipe the egg of my face and try not to look bad.

Here’s another tactic that they love to use with me: I trust in my capabilities and sometimes I know that I am extremely knowledgeable about a certain topic. Yet when I open my mouth in meetings sometimes, I can see them blatantly rolling their eyes, snickering, and other such nonsense. Even some of the resource teachers and teacher coaches in other departments begin to talk to me in a very rude, disrespectful and condescending tone with me -even though I am a manager and am technically above them in rank. It’s not as if I am one of those school managers who believe that I am better than the teachers or the coaches, but I do think that their behavior is representative of a larger issue of people just having utter lack of respect for the bilingual department. Even some of the resource teachers treat my resource teachers like crap and act like they don’t know anything, although I am inclined to think that they are much more competent than some of the other teachers.

It’s starting to weigh down on me and I begin to question what I am saying, but then my boss loves to tell me that they are just jealous of me and try to make me look stupid because I am intimidating them. Pfft. Get a grip. I do think that is part of it, but I also think that when they look at me they hate me for what I represent-bilingualism and advocacy for latino, black and other underrepresented student populations.

In the meantime, my dear friend just bought me a book with a pretty provocative title, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. I’d have to say that this book is somewhat helping me maintain my sanity at the moment, and just might inspire an entire blog that my friend and I have been talking about creating regarding jerks in the workplace. Apparently we need the stress relief.

Yeah, well, there really is not a point to this post. It’s just a “feel sorry for me” and “I’ve got to get this out on paper before I explode and tell someone off” kind of moment.

Categories: Uncategorized

Happy Birthday to Us!

The past week literally happened in the blink of an eye, and I just realized that we have not posted anything in almost a week. Initially it was done intentionally, as I was so in love with our last guest writer’s post  about multilingualism and autism. I wanted to leave it up at the top of the page for a few days because it is an underdiscussed and misunderstood topic that is very near and dear to my heart.

It’s been quite a busy week at work, to say the least, and so you can imagine my surprise when I just realized that I sailed right on past the first anniversary of this blog.

I might sound silly to say that I am excited about a blog anniversary, but I am. When I first initiated this blog last March, I began this journey as a way to blog out my heart’s content about a topic that I am overly passionate about-bilingual education. It’s tough to be in the field of bilingual education, and you tend to sometimes get beat up a lot and acquire many battle scars, so I had initially conceptualized this blog as a safe space to blog about my passion as well as to vent about the challenges facing those in the field of bilingual education.

When I first started, I didn’t post much and I wasn’t even sure if there was anyone out there in internet land who wanted to read a blog about multilingualism. I posted infrequently, and honestly didn’t even start posting on a frequent basis until a number of months ago.

And then suddenly we just exploded, meeting many other people who were interested in multilingualism and even had blogs about multilingualism! It’s been a safe haven for me to come to the internet every day in order to engage in interactions with people who have similar interests.

Since I started, a few collaborators are beginning to join the ranks and I am hopeful that you enjoy their stories as much as I have. Over the past couple of months I’ve been reconceptualizing the blog, and it will be moving towards  as a place where you will find:

  • Information about bilingual education
  • Information about raising bilingual children
  • Personal stories about bilingualism and multilingualism
  • Bilingualism in the news
  • Coming soon: Foreign film and translated literature reviews
  • Coming soon: Bilingualism and politics
  • And much, much more!

P.S. It’s been over a year ago since we bought hosting for this site, and we just haven’t gotten around to moving this blog over to its hosted domain. In the next few weeks, you will notice a slight change in the format of this blog and it may possibly be offline for a couple of days. Stay tuned!

Thank you for stopping by and reading!! Your support has been greatly appreciated.


Categories: Uncategorized

Autism and Multilingualism: A Parent’s Perspective

Today’s guest post is a topic that is very dear to our hearts: fostering multilingualism with children who many people believe should not learn two (or more) languages. In honor of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, 2010, we are hosting a guest post by Sandrine Berges, a mother who is raising a multilingual son who also happens to be autistic. The following post is proof that ALL children are able to learn multiple languages!

It happened again last week. I was enjoying a cup of coffee with a colleague when she asked me point blank what language we spoke at home. I often get that question as my husband and I come from different countries and on top of that we’re expats in Turkey. This makes us, for all practical purposes, a trilingual family. But people don’t buy that and they want to know which of our three languages we really speak, when no-one is watching. It isn’t a question I much like to answer, and I usually try to shrug it off. I say vaguely, ‘it depends’. And it’s true, it does depend, and it’s not always easy to explain why we do what we do.

So let me try: my husband (British) and I (French) mostly speak English to each other – except when we slip into French, which happens. To our daughter, we’ve always both spoken French. Now she will allow us to speak English to her in non-francophone company. Just about. When home alone with her, I sometimes use a mixture of French, English and Turkish – occasionally all together in the same sentence – because it’s fun, and because it is sometimes the best way to express what we think or feel. My daughter who’s ten, is equally comfortable in all three languages, highly skilled at grammar and has a very rich French, English and Turkish vocabulary.

To our son, until last year, we would speak mostly Turkish. Now it’s become mostly French, with him still occasionally addressing us in Turkish. He’ll speak Turkish to Turkish speakers, and, in the last few months, he’s been trying out his English on our non-French-non-Turkish speaking friends.
So, yes, it’s complicated. And I don’t like to explain it because usually, before I’m done, I’ll be interrupted and told I’m doing it all wrong. ‘It’s really important’, they say, ‘that each parent should speak in their own language, at all times.’ Right.

If I was rude, (which I am on occasion), I would turn around and ask them what they knew of people like us, how much research had actually been done on trilingual families with one gifted child, one autistic, and two Ph.Ds, dealing with some circumstances that are not all that common, at least that are not usually found together. We wanted the children to learn French, but we knew it wouldn’t be easy if they also had to learn English and Turkish and only heard French from me. We’ve seen children failing to pick up a language because it was only spoken by one parent, and it wasn’t English. Or we’ve seen them learn it only to lose it because they spoke it so little. So we decided we’d speak French at home. We feel that was probably the right decision.

The kids were learning Turkish at nursery school, at home with their minder, and pretty much everywhere they went. By the time she entered kindergarten our daughter was fluent in both French and Turkish. We put her in an English speaking school and a couple months later she was fluent in that as well. By Christmas, she could not only speak English but also read it.

Our son started to speak late, a bit later than his sister, in both Turkish and French. But aged three, when he started developing symptoms of autism, he decided to ditch French, and from then on his Turkish developed very slowly. So we took him to a speech therapist, Turkish of course – we had no choice in the matter, because there were no others, and because our son had clearly chosen Turkish for himself. After a year or so he spoke better. We encouraged him as best we could by using all the Turkish we had to communicate with him, and by reading to him in Turkish every day. When his Turkish was good enough that he was beginning to communicate, we then sent him to a French school and he began to speak French again.

At that time our household was truly trilingual, with all three languages being spoken at dinner, and yet, this was a time when we were really able to communicate as a family. We started to develop a sort of dialect of our own, with a lot of loan words, borrowed turns of phrases, and accents that people simply could not place. I believe our speech was all the richer for it, and certainly, our writing never suffered. I started writing a book then, our daughter got top grades in her essays, and my husband published several articles. Around that time I took a trip to Ottawa and was delighted to hear groups of children speaking a mixture of English and French, people having conversations in two languages at once. A home from home, I felt, if we ever have to leave Turkey.

Now seven, our son speaks equally well in both French and Turkish. Not very well, true, but any difficulties he has are most probably linked to the autism, rather than to straightforwardly linguistic abilities. For example he still mixes his pronouns in both languages. And he sometimes speaks inappropriately, failing to answer questions, repeating the same thing over and over. But he speaks.

Now I’m sure you can imagine what kind of criticisms we received over the years and how we felt about them: if we’d been consistent, people said, our son would have spoken earlier. Or maybe we’ve confused him by exposing him to too many languages, caused him to become autistic, even. People suggested we go back to either France or England and speak only one language at home from now on. At this point I usually bite my tongue because I really need to keep my expletives for when my computer plays up or I spill hot tea on myself. Of course all this was nonsense! The autism had nothing to do with how many languages he spoke. True, his particular strand of autism is linked to environmental changes which trigger crises. But as he was born in a trilingual environment, that really wouldn’t have bothered him!

One woman once told me that a child could not develop emotionally unless they identified with their mother tongue. This woman was headmistress of an international school where most of the students were multilingual! What’s more, she wanted my children’s mother tongue to be English, i.e. their father tongue. I can’t even begin to describe how I felt about this conversation. I was glad to find out later that she was in fact entirely unqualified to make any such judgements (and possibly to be headmistress, but that’s a different matter). She felt she could pass judgement, assign blame, on no basis at all.

A few months ago, we were considering moving to England, and I got in touch with a group of people who either care for autistic children or, mostly, are autistic themselves to ask their advice. They unanimously were impressed that our son already spoke two languages and suggested I start him with English flash cards immediately, just in case. One person told me that as a child with autism they had been much more disturbed by the idea that there were several languages being spoken around them but only one at them, than later on, by learning to speak another language. The technicalities of having to learn another grammar, another set of words, were nothing compared to having to get one’s head around the idea that you’re allowed to communicate in one language but not another.

It is simply not the case that autism is a counter-indication to multiple language learning. It’s just another one of the many misconceptions that people have about autism. As Temple Grandin puts it, language itself is a second language for many autistic people who tend to think in pictures rather than words. So what harm is one or two more going to do them? And just think of the good it could do!

About the Author: Sandrine Berges lives and works in Ankara with her husband and two children. She teaches philosophy at a University and when she’s not busy blogging with her sisters, writes books on Plato and Mary Wollstonecraft. Both her children now go to the French lycee in Ankara, but she’s very glad they’ve learnt Turkish as she can really use their skills as interpretors! You can read more from Sandrine on her blog, Paris-Ankara Express.

Related Resources:

Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning

Bilingual Special Education Interface

Categories: Uncategorized