Many times, as I’m standing in front of a group of teachers that I’m training, I’ll hear the question, “Shouldn’t my students’ parents be speaking English to them at home?  I mean, they hear English all day from me, and then they return right back to the environment of home language.  Doesn’t that undo everything I have been trying to teach them all day?”  This is such a great question!  It would seem to have the effect of undoing all you’ve worked so hard to do all day long.  However, the opposite is quite true, and for many different reasons.  Let me explain.

First, I think that we, as teachers, can agree that our students’ parents are their first teachers.  This is a point I would drive home to my students in front of their parents during parent-teacher conferences.  The concept would often catch both students and parents by surprise.  It caused both to see the role of the parents in a new light – one of heightened respect, and parental ownership and accountability in the educational process.  It also laid the groundwork for what I was about to tell them next:  “Speak in your native language at home.”

Many a parent’s eyes would widen in disbelief.  Was the teacher really telling me it was okay to be who I was?  That my language was valued?  That I didn’t have to speak the preschool-level English I’d learned in my English class this term?  Without them saying a word, I would answer their unasked questions.  “Your language is a large part of who you are, who your family is.  It shapes how you see the world, and gives meaning to your experiences.  Given that you’re just learning English, you can practice your English at home.  However, you should still tell stories, do activities as a family, spend time with extended family, read, praise, and discipline your child all in your native tongue.”  Relief set in, and calm was often restored.

If I stop here, many teachers may not understand why all of this is so important.  For this reason, I would ask you to journey with me in your minds to Changsha, which is a city in the Hunan Province of China.  Your husband or wife has just accepted a fantastic job there, and you know you have to go.  The offer will ensure your family’s financial security for many years to come.  Your children are mostly sad, and a little excited for the adventure that awaits them.

Upon arriving, you note that there are no international schools within reasonable distance of your home, and the traffic in Changsha is terrible.  You elect to enroll your child in a Mandarin-speaking school.  You, on the other hand, want to learn to speak Mandarin, so you, too, enroll yourself in a class.  Aside from the predictable issues of culture shock, you are faring well, learning to count and pronounce colors correctly in Mandarin.  You’re even learning a few key survival phrases.  All in all, it’s going well.

Then, the teacher asks to meet with you.  Your children are behind – way behind.  He informs you that you will have to help him with his Chinese History homework, as well as his Chinese characters.  No English at home, only Mandarin, if your children are to succeed.  You panic, as you have only been taught a small amount of spoken Mandarin – that equivalent to the level a preschooler would learn.  All sorts of things run through your head, none of them positive.  You feel like a failure, a feeling you never had back home.

I have a theory – one of ‘hooks and holes.’  (Swigard, 1999)  Rather than making an impossible request of a parent (to communicate with their child in their second, and presumably less proficient, language), I thought of concept formation, and schema (Anderson; Piaget).  In short, what you know is arranged in relationship to topics, and you bring those to the classroom.  The more you know, the larger your schemata.

Now, it’s easier to take a child with well-formed schemata in their first language, and ‘hook’ words in the new language to the existing words in the native language.  Extremely economical for an educator, as well, second language acquisition is facilitated by a strong background in the first language.  As Cummins (2000) states: “Conceptual knowledge developed in one language helps to make input in the other language comprehensible.”

MUCH harder is trying to hook new vocabulary to holes in a child’s schema.  The conceptual framework isn’t there, so the new words don’t have a place to go.  Unless a teacher spends a tremendous time building background, or teaches the new words in a highly comprehensible, contextualized way, the new vocabulary just ‘disappears’ because there were no hooks onto which the words in English could be hung.

So, have your parents talk to their children in their native tongue – explaining everything that they do to their child.  This will make your job as an educator much easier, and make the child’s school experience much more successful.  If you are not a speaker of the family’s primary language, you may have to have this conversation through the use of a qualified interpreter, which you should be able to secure through your school or district.