Central and Eastern Europe, Education, International Journalism and PR, Interviews: Limburg, Limburg, My tips

‘’Teachers: have and show more empathy to bilingual children’’

Gabriela Voicu and her husband come from Romania and before moving to Maastricht they lived with their daughter Victoria in Canada.  Victoria is bilingual and after attending a Dutch school for just a few months she had to move to a bilingual child-friendly school due to serious health problems and social isolation.  

Gabriela is sharing with us her experiences about bad practices of schools,  what problems bilingual children face at Dutch schools and what extra support they need and finally provides other parents and teachers of bilingual children with tips.

We are a couple from Romania who moved to Canada in 2011 and decided to move again in 2018, this time to the Netherlands in Maastricht. Our daughter Victoria is almost 6 years old and was born & raised in Canada. We speak 2 languages at home, trying to keep it equally balanced: Romanian and English. 

Finding a professional school for bilingual children is very important

I strongly believe that it is very important to find a good bilingual primary school, especially for a child that is already fluent in 2 other languages and you’re trying to introduce a 3rd one at the age when most people believe that children can absorb new languages like a “sponge”. However, that doesn’t happen over night or by her own observation. She needed guidance, attention and support to develop a completely new language. Being new to a different country on a different continent is a cultural shock itself, then you add to it the children from school that do not understand you. Over time it becomes frustration without proper support from the teachers.

We searched for a school in Maastricht with the free education philosophy integrated in their daily approach and wanted to continue with it, since our daughter was in a Waldorf School in Canada for almost 2 years and we loved it.

A few months before our moving date, we asked the school in Canada for a recommendation for Waldorf schools in the Netherlands and we have received a list of schools.

So we went and visited the school and had a meeting with the Director and another representative of the school, who assured us there will be plenty of opportunities for bilingualism (Dutch and English) and a culture of diversity (other children speaking other languages). That is exactly what we needed to hear! It was very easy and really great initial experience. Seemed like a warm, close community, the one you want to be part of when you are a new-comer.

Social isolation, health problems

Well, we thought this is it, the perfect school and the perfect environment for our daughter. We were unaware that all bilingual children already spoke fluent Dutch and our daughter was the only one who didn’t. Everything was in Dutch at school: explanations, interactions, songs, etc. Luckily, she was able to communicate with the teachers in English if she needed help, but she wasn’t able to successfully integrate in the children’s play and groups.

For 5 months she was isolated because of the language barrier and was walking around the classroom most days with only occasional and rare interactions to the other children (she came home one day saying “I’m a lonely kid with no friends at all”).

Eventually she developed stomach aches (every morning before school and then waking up at night too), because of the stress at school. That was determined by the doctor and all the medical tests we have gone through to find the root of her pain. Immediately after we realized that, we decided that an international school would be more appropriate. After only 2 months at the new school, the stomach pains “magically” disappeared. 

No extra support for bilingual children having problems with Dutch

The issue with the Dutch school is, there was no plan of her integration, no extra support for assimilating the Dutch language, in part also because there was only one teacher to almost 30 children!! So, we were left alone to help our child learn a new language, which we didn’t know either. To me, this was acceptance of diversity without proper inclusivity.

There were playdates outside the school with Dutch children and support from parents offering to invite Victoria over for home play, but in the classroom, she was treated like any other child that was independent and fluent in Dutch with occasional explanations in English.

I have addressed the issue with the classroom teacher asking for extra support from the school, but I was told the school does not have the resources to offer extra time or support for learning Dutch. I suggested arranging for private Dutch lessons, but I have been advised not to put too much pressure on the child at this age with extra work. So we just waited to see if she would learn Dutch in this manner, but we cut it short when the medical aspect interfered.

Not being able to help my child was for me the biggest issue as a parent. I already spoke fluently 3 languages (Romanian, German and English), but if I knew Dutch too, maybe I could have helped. And it was really hard to accept to continue in a Dutch School when she was already in distress.

Meeting certain requirements by schools would be beneficial for children

For sure additional instructions in a different language than Dutch would help the bilingual kids, as they often do not master the local language. I realize that it is an extra effort and allocation of more human resources would be needed for explaining everything twice. But on long term, that can only benefit a society that encourages children to speak more than one language. 

Proper training of the teaching staff, allocating time and more staffing and available materials in both Dutch and another international language, would be more beneficial for students.

Bilingual kids are extra effort and extra work for the teachers?

The cooperation between parents and teachers is essential because none of them has a whole picture of the child’s environment. If that is not shared, the child is the one who will experience the consequences of that communication gap. In our case, the teachers did not know about our daughter’s perception of school, that she was so stressed that she wouldn’t use the washroom the whole day or that she had stomach aches every morning or at night.

Some may say that bilingual kids are extra effort and extra work for the teachers, but if that is planned properly ahead of time in the curriculum and allocating appropriate human resources, time and materials, it only benefits the monolingual kids as well by learning a second language.

My tips for parents of bilingual children

My tips for parents would be:

  1. to do a serious research, to have a proper discussion with the school and have enough allocated time to be able ask as many questions and as detailed as needed (the devil is in the details!).
  2. ask other parents of bilingual children of their experience at the respective Dutch school. Find online reviews by other parents or expats.
  3. be aware that this is no easy road and the first few months are essential how your child’s perception is built of that new environment and avoid isolation.

My tips for teachers of bilingual children: show more empathy to a bilingual child

For teachers, I would just suggest having and showing some empathy to bilingual children. Ask their own school for support, as the teacher doesn’t need to be the only one taking on that extra task. They are the first point of contact for the parents, but they are not the decision makers when it comes to allocation of resources. Sometimes is all about financial support from either the local government (when available) or of the parents’ group of the bilingual kids (if agreed).

In our case, we decided to pay the price of the private school just to be able to handle and be in control of our child’s education and future, but not everyone is so lucky…


Photo: Gabriela Voicu,
Text: Communications-Unlimited.nl

© Copyright www.communications-unlimited.nl, 2019. All rights reserved.

Our new series of articles is devoted to the issue of bilingualism/multilingualism at Dutch schools. Parents of bilingual/multilingual children will share their stories and tips. Do you also want to share your story contact us via: bilingualism@communications-unlimited.nl and in the title of the mail write: My story.

Read also: