My second real exposure to language came with school. I was placed in French immersion at a school in Calgary and learned to read in French before I did in English. I remember singing songs in French, and studying for endless dictee spelling tests as I progressed through the immersion program.
I guess my experience was so successful that when my brother, two years younger than me, started school he was placed in immersion as well. Unfortunately he didn’t take to it as well as I did. With undiagnosed dyslexia, I remember he spent hours crying and fighting with my parents over his 5 minutes of spelling homework. I also remember sitting in my room, reading my French books, scared and confused by this. French was so easy for me, yet it was so hard for him. Orally, he had no problem, but he’d fight you to his last breath if you stuck a pencil in his hand. I tried helping him, but my Grade 2 mind couldn’t explain things in a way that made it easy for him as well. He repeated kindergarten, this time in English, and was shortly diagnosed with dyslexia.
Grade 3 marked the transition from 100% French instruction into graduated English. I didn’t have much difficulty with it orally. Spelling, however, was another story. Perhaps I didn’t receive enough phonetic instruction since it was my native tongue, but all my grammar stemmed from French. As such, a lot of my spellings followed French phonetic rules, rather than the English ones.
During this time, my brother had made friends with an East Indian boy in our neighbourhood called Herman. After school, I would walk him over to play at his house and was invited in to play as well with Herman’s younger sister. Herman’s whole family spoke English and Punjab, so it was always an interesting mix playing with Herman’s little sister. She spoke half and half without really knowing the distinction of either. She once asked me why I used ‘funny words’ in place of words she knew in Punjab. I didn’t have an answer to this.
We moved to a small town in northern Alberta called Swan Hills. It was the very definition of a company town, with most of the residents living free in housing provided by the local chemical waste disposal plant. Although there was a local elementary and middle school, it only featured an English program. So, every morning at six am, I would stand outside with all the high school students, and take the one-hour bus ride south with them to the next closes town. I don’t remember anything about my schooling there at all, except that I was spoiled rotten by all the big kids. They would by me candy when we stopped half way for gas, and I would help them with their French homework. It worked out great for me.
We moved back to Calgary for a little bit, and I was astounded to find that my very first best friend from years ago not only moved into Calgary, but also attended my school. We became fast friends again, and were inseparable. In my memories, not a week went by without a sleepover at either her house or mine. I always enjoyed spending time at her house, partially because she was an only child so there were no little annoying brothers to mess up our games, and partially because of her culture. Her mother only spoke Cantonese, so my friend, Jackie, had to translate everything for her. I loved listening to her speak – her words were so melodious, so exotic, so foreign. I wanted to learn more and pressed Jackie into teaching me some. Sadly, I don’t remember any of it now.
Our next big move was to Vancouver, and I was utterly dismayed to find that in Grade 7 I was –still- in elementary school! That was my first year with no French in my curriculum. I didn’t think anything of it, only loathed all the English writing since my internal phonetic interpretations hadn’t changed.
The following year I attended high school and was placed in Grade 11 French thanks to my immersion history. There was a lot of grammar involved, which wasn’t my strong suit in French either, but I was able to get by with writing things the way I would say them. In fact, that worked so well that all I had to do was figure out how to spell the different verb conjugations, and spelling things the ‘French way’ was pretty easy for me.
After high school French dropped out of my life; I got married and moved to the states onto an Air Force base. I started working full time in a group home for mentally disabled adults. They all knew English, but for some it was quite difficult for them to speak it. It wasn’t long before I acquired the skill of understanding their speech as it was part of my day to day routine.
Once more I moved to another Air Force Base in the Midwest, but chose to go back to university. I picked up French again, but wasn’t able to skip past any of the lower level classes. It was mostly review of basic terms and another heaping of grammar rules. I aced the class without barely attending, and would have continued this tradition after our next move at Marshall University if it wasn’t for their attendance policy. The constant review of what I learned in elementary school bored me, so I let language fall by the wayside again before finding myself pregnant and leaving school altogether.
My first child, Riley, soaked up language like a sponge. We did all the things a parent is supposed to: read, talk, sing. He was speaking in two word sentences almost before he knew all his ABC’s. Surrounded by a world of adults, he spoke like us, using long complex words that would elicit compliments from strangers. He reveled in the attention, which only deepened his love for expressing his creativity through oral story. He stayed with his paternal grandparents while my husband and I worked during the day. He learned to read with them and had mastered the ‘at’ family and began work on the ‘am’ family. Just before his school days began, we moved away from his paternal grandparents and back home to mine here in Vancouver.
It came as a huge shock to both my husband and I when he entered kindergarten and was deemed one of the lowest in his class. Although he knew all his letters, he couldn’t name them in class. He lost his ability to write, and his skill to speak his thoughts was considered ‘not yet meeting expectations.’ What happened to our brilliant young boy who would use words such as opportunity and revelation correctly in casual conversation? Surely those weren’t examples of a boy who ‘was not yet meeting expectations’ in oral language. It turns out his mastery at reading thus far was just memorization. He could read a book from cover to cover but if you pointed out one word, he couldn’t read it.
He began Grade One, and things didn’t much improve for him. He was falling behind in everything so much that I began to worry about his social skills. We would take him to McDonalds to play on their indoor playground, and I remember watching him standing on the outside watching the other children. He stayed there for a good five minutes before breaking into a huge grin and started screaming at the top of his lungs with the rest of the kids. Was this the same kid that could accurately tell you the plot of any picture book read to him when he was three?
Just after Christmas, and the birth of our second son I went into talk to his teacher. This time I came prepared with samples of his work that he did over the summer, and samples of work he did prior to kindergarten. His teacher was astounded that he could in fact write his name. She showed me samples of his classwork, and I was shocked. Somehow my little boy had convinced her that he still couldn’t write, nor knew his alphabet. We pulled him over and I asked him to write his name and recite his ABC’s, which he did without a problem. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done: he had been given a free pass for the first half of a critical year. While other students wrote, coloured, or read, my son played Lego in the corner, and while they worked on math or science, he was pulled from the room and placed in a remedial language group. At that meeting, his teacher diagnosed him as a perfectionist and decided that his refusal to try stemmed from a fear of failure. I couldn’t completely disagree with this given my own perfectionist tendencies. That just left us with the unique problem of ‘reaching’ him.
Days after my meeting with Riley’s teacher, scheduled at my request, I began my first days of PDP here at SFU. I was placed into the Literacy Module and was fascinated with all the lessons on how children learn to read. They held more interest to me than my peers due to the difficulties my child was expressing in school. I learned many things, and had access to two primary teachers who were considered experts on teaching language acquisition and I eagerly gobbled up everything they said and brought it home to put into immediate practice on my son. Our biggest success that year was his ability to read at a mid-kindergarten level by the end of the school year.
Riley didn’t attend summer school at his teacher’s request. He worked so hard, and had come a long way in such a short period of time. Kids need play, and he was in great danger of hating school before he ever really started it. We went on our annual family reunion trip to visit his paternal grandparents, playing ABC’s and phonetic YouTube videos for my younger son, Ashton. Riley was an eager older brother, and delighted in helping Ashton learn his alphabet. He struggled through board books, pointing out the words that he knew and reciting the rest of the story from memory or imagination. His paternal grandparents were impressed with his reading skill, as if we had stayed there he would just be starting Grade 1 in the fall. I knew better, however, and pushed him to keep a daily journal. We left him with his grandparents for a month, and I left a custom reading program behind for him to work through. It came back untouched.
Now Riley is in Grade 2. I met with his teacher after she tested his reading ability at the beginning of the year and placed him at the mid-Grade One reading level (another huge success for us.) Riley was diagnosed with an audio processing deficiency, and ADD. Ashton can not only sing his alphabet, but he knows it as well. We’ll be in the store and he’ll randomly yell out letters that he reads off packaging. I did my long practicum in an intensive French Grade 7 program. Sadly, not only did I not get to teach French as my students went to their Grade 6 late immersion teacher, but I also didn’t get to teach them reading or writing as those were things my sponsor teacher negotiated with her prep teacher. The first part of the year flew by.
Now that brings us here, after Christmas with me pursuing the 404 portion of my PDP. When I was tasked to write about my linguistic autobiography, I was sure I wouldn’t have more than three sentences: “I was born to a white family that spoke English. I was in French immersion. Now I have kids.” But the truth is beyond the nine pages that I’ve condensed. Language surrounds us. It’s nearly impossible to go through life with minimal exposure to it. My linguistic autobiography is so interwoven in my life that I can’t really separate one from the other. I can’t think of a time in my life where one was not wholly based on the other. But, perhaps that was the real the point of this exercise.