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Yes, My Daughter With Down Syndrome Can Learn a Second Language

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As a former grade one French immersion teacher, I comforted anxious parents signing their children up for the program by telling them not to worry, “Second language learning is for everyone! Except for, maybe, if a child has some sort of language delay.” I considered myself to be forward thinking, after all, many teachers were actively discouraging the families of students with any sort of learning difficulty to pursue the French immersion program, effectively weeding many students out, and creating a scenario where French immersion became the symbol of the elite few who could “handle it.”

I was a French immersion student once myself. I studied French in university and lived and worked in a French town to fully immerse myself in the language — then I became a French teacher. When traveling, I’ve been fortunate to be able to navigate in French speaking countries and make connections with French speakers around the world. Speaking French also got me a teaching job in a competitive market. As neither of my parents spoke any French, it was a love and appreciation for languages that was fostered early on through my schooling that steered me toward bilingualism. I wanted to share the opportunities that open up and my affinity for the French language with my own children when they arrived one day. I pictured signing them up for the French immersion program, just like their mom and dad, and they too would become bilingual.

Fast forward a few years into my teaching career, I’m 27 years old and my first-born arrives. A beautiful baby girl, born 6-pounds, 4-ounces. She fits right in with my perfect plans for her. A year after that, I’m pregnant again, but this time we find out I’m carrying a child with Down syndrome. This wasn’t part of the plan.

Remember my words of wisdom? “Second language learning is for everyone, except maybe if the child has some sort of language delay.” Then I have a child born who has a language delay, and boy, did that change things for me.

While still pregnant, my initial thought, which seems so primitive and uninformed when I read back on it now, was that my daughter, Elyse, would go to some separate school where only kids with Down syndrome went. Maybe I’ll even teach children with Down syndrome, I thought. Even as a teacher, I didn’t realize full inclusion was not only an option, but the best option for any child when fully realized with the necessary supports of school boards, classroom teachers, support workers and the like. I could only see that different would mean, well, different schools, different ways of doing things. But adopting this narrow viewpoint doesn’t take into account what is in the best interest of the child and the community.

As Elyse grew older, we signed her up for a local preschool program, and then another until we found the right fit. I sought out certain qualities in the schools I approached, namely, an inclusive, welcoming and loving environment. I knew we found a second home when at an initial meeting the director said to me, “we have smaller chairs we will bring up to accommodate her,” before I even had to ask, after first mentioning they would keep all aisles clear because our feisty 2-year-old wasn’t walking yet, and used crawling to get around. These people understood my daughter and saw her as a whole person; they got my need for her to get an education. By the end of that year, at age 3, Elyse knew all of her alphabet letters, and I had to learn to adjust my expectations, holding them higher still.

By the time kindergarten sign-up arrived, I did my homework. In our community, there were two options for French schooling — yes, she would be going to a school where she could learn French as a second language. How could I take that option away from her? Did she not deserve the same opportunities as her big sister?

In the end, the decision was simple. Choosing the right school — when you have a choice — comes down to the people and the community. I walked into public school A, and asked what supports would be available for our daughter who has Down syndrome in the French program. “That’s a really good question!” was the perplexed answer I received in return. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I walked out knowing I would not be back. When I visited public school B, I was told our daughter would get 100 percent support. They were prepared to meet her needs. As toileting and safety needs were paramount, I knew our daughter needed the extra support, but especially because her education and academic needs mattered too, and she requires additional help to manage and learn these skills as well. School B ended up being a French-first language school, primarily for native speakers, meaning, my English-speaking daughter is learning and spending the entirety of her school day in French. My rationale in choosing French-first language school was that Elyse would have to learn the language — there would be no easy way out on her part and her teachers would have to get her there,  and if it didn’t work out, we would reassess then and we could always move her to a different school.

I wish I could take back what I said to those few anxious parents when they asked me if second language learning was right for their child. Now I can speak from experience. Whether my daughter has language delays in English or French does not change the obvious: she is capable, extremely capable of learning a second language. She may need more time. She needs support. But that does not mean, and it should never mean, that we exclude a child from an opportunity, from broadening their scope of the world and their ability to connect with the people in it. Creating elite programs where we exclude students is a misguided approach. What we should be doing is finding more ways to bring students with diverse needs in.

Our family has big travel plans in the fall and I cannot wait to listen to both of my eldest daughters chit-chat with fellow travelers in French. Elyse’s vocabulary may be somewhat limited, and her language skills continue to be delayed, but she is learning in a second language every day, she understands so much, and I’m proud to be her mom.

Follow this journey on Adelle Purdham.

Originally published: June 17, 2019
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