Two Minds: native & foreign language practice at home and school

Selma and Katja 6

A German mum reading the Three Little Pigs to her daughter in French

Here’s a mum like many I have met during the course of my research. Her native language (German) is not the same as the language her daughter, Katja, is schooled in (French). Her daughter is having ‘problems’ according to more than one teacher. Maybe her mother should speak to her at home in the school language instead?

Selma and Katja 5

and he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down!


shot 10

playing school at home. Katja’s the teacher. The interaction is in French. (Katja):What’s that, a ‘choux’’? A ‘choux’, What is it? (Mum): Something you eat. (Katja): Correct. Next one. ‘Le cheval’…

Let’s find out more about this family’s language choices and obligations:

Mum: Well, Katja began learning both languages when she went to nursery school at the age of two and that’s why she makes… she doesn’t conjugate her verbs the right way. If I correct her, then she’ll repeat the corrected expression but she’ll say it the wrong way again the next time. ‘Have’ and ‘be’ are often different in German; they’re used differently. That’s the same mistake Alsatians make, by the way, and that’s how you know they’re Alsatians.  Or the two forms of ‘your’, they’re different in French as well and that’s how I can tell she’s translating from French into German because French is the language she’s at home in, actually. (…)Neither of my children are any good at translating. But if you speak to them in French, they naturally say everything in French. If I speak to them in German, they naturally speak in German. Whereby… Katja less so. She’ll often reply in French and, erm, I continue to speak to her in German anyway.

Me: You say that Katja first began to speak at nursery school. She was two years old at the time.

Mum: Well, no, it’s not true to say that she didn’t say anything at all, but it was more, well, like: mama, dada, papa, wow-wow, so it wasn’t, she wasn’t really making proper sentences. In fact she first started to say individual words, to describe things, or to say real sentences, three syllable sentences, first when she was two years old, that’s right.

Me: So what you’re saying is that school played a key role in her linguistic development?

Mum: Absolutely. For both children, I would say that school was the most important factor in helping them to speak properly. French, too, because I myself couldn’t speak French at the start. And, erm, well, yeah, so that they learn to speak properly. That happened at nursery school for the most part. Yes, I would say, the ground was laid at nursery school, yes.

 Me: We’re talking about French here, aren’t we?

 Mum: Yes, about French.

 Me: And about them speaking French properly…

 Mum: That’s right.

 Me: What about German? I mean, it’s their native language…

 Mum: Yes I know, but there are loads of words that the children don’t even know in German because they learned them within the school context. I dunno… So they’ll only know the word ‘cahier’ or at nursery school, too, I dunno, they’ll have done some work involving the colour ‘rouge’ and then they’ll simply use the French word.

Me: So you’re saying they’re storing the word in the language they ‘felt’ it in.

Mum: Precisely. Of course I read stories to the children or I speak to them but at school they deal with different themes to the ones dealt with at home and that’s how I even noticed what kind of vocabulary they were learning at school and that they were dealing with different themes to the ones at home because they were using these French words from school. So I then looked up these words myself and that’s how I began to learn French myself.


Some time later, half a year or so, I speak to the family again. They have moved to a different region in France, far away from bilingual Alsace, and Katja has just completed her first term in her new school. What’s the situation like for her now?

Mum: Well, when Katja joined her new class, we had the problem that her teacher got in touch straight away and told me that she thought Katja couldn’t speak French at all and that she’d need a speech therapist. I told her that that can’t be right cos Katja grew up bilingually and that in Alsace it’s quite normal to speak German and French. Katja was two when she went to nursery school and she learned both languages, French and German, at the same time, and I even know that she dreams in French, for example. She said, ok, but we’re not in Alsace anymore but in France, in a French school, and French is important, it’s the main language, and that I should speak French to Katja so that her French improves. Then I said to her that that wasn’t a good idea because I can’t speak French properly and Katja would only make the same mistakes as I do and that I didn’t want her to lose her German, which is also important, and that growing up bilingually is an advantage, a gift for life and not at all the same as simply speaking French and learning a second language at some later point.


language maintenance: spelling cards used by this family to train reading in German at home. (Mum): Katja doesn’t write at all at home. She likes to play school or other things but not writing.


shot 2

Katja and her mum planning a day trip, speaking German. (Mum): Look. Here it says: ‘for up to…’ how many adults? (Katja): Two. (Mum): There’s no two there. Which number is it? (Katja): Four! (Mum): Ah!

No matter which second language you learn, it has the same value, the same worth as French. She said okay, but Katja wouldn’t come to terms anywhere in France and we’re living in France after all and she’d just have to adjust. I said that might be, but I wasn’t in a position to help her, that it was her, the teacher’s, job to help her because Katja’s at school most of the time, from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, so in the two hours she spends at home she can speak German. The same goes for the weekends too. And she’s got homework as well, and all of that’s done in French. When Katja talks to herself or to others, then in French, so you can’t say that her main language is German. She said that Katja translates from German into French, and I said I didn’t think so because Katja makes loads of, the same grammatical mistakes in German. I don’t know about French, but her word order, well, sein, son, le and la, she gets it wrong in German too and she translates from French into German. So she said, well, then Katja has a problem with languages in general and that it wasn’t good for children to grow up bilingually because they never really learned either language properly and that we desperately needed a speech therapist because Katja hadn’t a clue at school, she didn’t know how to read, how to write and she couldn’t speak French properly either. All I said was that I needed her help because she was the one who is French and she’s Katja’s teacher, She’s the one teaching her all day long. I didn’t allow myself to get drawn into a debate about the fact that she had a problem with bilingualism, and it wouldn’t help Katja at all if I said her teacher was crappy and didn’t know how to motivate children. Fortunately, Katja is a confident child. She thinks her teacher’s just daft (…)

If you ask me, either they prepare the children well at school and then they manage, or you don’t and they don’t, but then it’s not the children’s fault.  My own opinion is that the teacher has a problem with German in general. I think it’s to do with the past, because the Germans were here during the war and occupied the area. Lots of horrible things went on at that time and I think Katja’s teacher has a problem with German that’s somehow linked to her family’s past. There are several children in Katja’s school who speak French and German, as I have now discovered, and where one parent is German, so Katja’s not a single case. But our problem’s that I’m a single parent; I don’t have a French husband, so that’s why it’s even harder for Katja to learn French, much harder than for the others. (…)

I think the real problem is the fact that the teacher can’t come to terms with the fact that you can be bilingual at home because the idea doesn’t fit into her little world, because she probably has problems herself with English and German, which she can’t speak at all. That’s the true nature of the problem. But whatever, Katja will just have to get through this year with that teacher. Next year she’ll have someone else. I won’t be able to solve the problem. I won’t be able to change the teacher. It’ll just be a rather long, hard year for Katja, but she’ll manage all the same, she’s got all the confidence a child needs.


I won’t offer you any conclusions. What are yours?


2 thoughts on “Two Minds: native & foreign language practice at home and school

  1. Heather Wyborn

    Goodness me! can’t say that I’m in the least surprised though. Poor family and what a short sighted, typical french response. I am an EAL teacher in an international school in France, and we get lots of children from the french system with similar stories – though things are gradually changing. There is a whole world of children out there with different languages spoken by different parents and where the family do not live in either of those countries. Schools and teachers have to adapt to these students, it’s not the student’s job to adapt to the country he or she is living in. Thankfully our school copes extremely well with a whole host of problems like that above. It is not always clear if it is a multi language problem or a deeper learning problem. Until a student can speak one language well enough he or she cannot be tested. When they are tested however they can then receive the appropriate help and support. But this subject is a huge can of worms so good luck Joan.

    1. joanbarbarasimon Post author

      Thanks for your comment Heather! I agree with you, it’s a tricky situation and without the emotional and pedagogical support of the teacher/school, multilingual pupils may continue to have a hard time and run the risk of being wrongly labelled. The other thing I have noticed is a hierarchy of foreign languages at school. Certain foreign languages enjoy more prestige than others. I’m going to watch what I say here, but you get me, right? Tricky, tricky, tricky indeed. But fascinating. Not only (certain) schools need to rethink, and we cannot ignore that there are families who are also in two minds about bilingualism, or where bi/multilingualism simply isn’t ‘working’. There needs to be more dialogue. I’m doing my part, trying to see the topic from all sides without jumping to conclusions; as a mother of multilingual children, as a teacher, as a researcher.

      PS: this entry will surely interest you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.