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I stood in the middle of the perfect preschool classroom and listened to the director talk about the importance of play, the small group, differentiated instruction the children receive, and the deliberate room set up to maximize child engagement. It was perfect. Except that three days a week the day is conducted in Spanish.
The director assured me that I would be amazed at my child's progress and how quickly she would pick up the language. She told me how sensitive the teachers are and how they would be in-tune to my daughter's comfort level. I nodded along because I've given the exact speech many times to parents - although always through the use of an interpreter. I know from my own first hand experience how quickly children pick up another language. It's mind blowing to watch young children adapt and learn English. I tell parents all the time that they have given their child the gift of knowing two languages.
But my own daughter?
It's stunning to be on the other side and realize just what those parents are feeling. I always knew the parents were worried but this isn't an emotion that can be described through one word. It is gnawing feeling deep in the gut, along with a panicked and desperate need to protect my child. I cannot imagine dropping my baby off to a place where they are not speaking English. To just walk away and leave her there to figure out what they are saying, desperately hoping she will know enough to follow the rules and make friends.*
I am in awe of the parents of the children I teach. They have no choice but to send their child off every day to an English speaking school. And we aren't a bilingual program designed to nurture your child's dual language development. We are pretty much straight English and if the child is lucky people nearby may know some of the child's language in order to communicate in those first few days.
We talk about a silent period students go through when they first enter English speaking schools. I know enough of this to accept it and chalk it up as normal. But to ask my own child to go through a silent period in school? Nothing could possibly seem more wrong. When it is my daughter it does not seem normal, it seems cruel. And my husband and I have a choice. We can choose this for our daughter (and we might, for a variety of reasons. She loves the idea and is currently obsessed with Spanish although she knows about three words. I can recognize my fears come from the same place as when I gasp whenever she eats a whole grape or is on an extra tall playground)
Standing there inside my almost-dream preschool classroom I was flooded with mommy-anxiety mixed with awe for the parents I work with. In many cases they gave up the comfort and familiarity of their former lives to come to America and to ask their children to go to school in a place where they won't understand the language. Sending their child off to a school where they do not speak the language is a better situation than where they came from. My nervousness about Spanish three days a week for a year seems minuscule compared to the life decisions they have already faced.
I probably will continue to reassure parents of how quickly their child will pick up English and how much they will love school, yet it will never again be a rehearsed speech that I give without thinking.
*I don't write this to sound anti-bilingual education. Cognitively I realize that we would be giving my daughter a gift. In many ways this is the perfect situation and we are considering it. I am writing this to recognize how my own internal mommy-fears must also be what other parents feel, yet on a broader scale.