I knew it was going to come at some point. We have 2 kids, born elsewhere but with fluent Norwegian, with 2 immigrant parents who operate daily in a language that’s not native or totally fluent to them.
And we have an 8 year old who doesn’t like to do things in half-measures. He holds himself to a very high standard when doing any sort of group activity, from doing the plank in karate (3 mins is just ok, seriously..?!) to insisting on no mistakes in homework. I have very fuzzy memories of that childhood period of my life but for some reason, I always pictured homework to be the parent pushing the reluctant, docile child – ‘Come on, make an effort, you can do better than this’. It would be a chance to give all of that lovely, facile encouragement to kids doing their best to ignore you.
In this house, it’s frequently the parent trying to de-escalate the situation saying that ‘It’s fine, it’s good enough, it doesn’t have to be perfect’. It’s not every day, nor even every week. but it happens sometimes that there is stress because our boy is not a hundred percent sure about his answer or approach. And in this situation, it’s fair to say that the natural order is for kids to look to grown-ups for homework support, expanded vocabulary, grammar correction, pronunciations, maths techniques and so on. We’ve been around a bit longer and are just supposed to ‘know stuff’. But what if the parents literally don’t speak the same language? What happens then?
We are the same as many other immigrant families around the world where kids are operating in a different language in school by day than they are at home by night. Our Norwegian is decent but it’s not as natural or as precise as the kids’. So at homework time, particularly in maths, we swing between 2 languages as we, the parents, explain technique and logic in English and he teaches us the Norwegian words for ⅛ + ⅔. This is no one-way street, it’s a motorway with all lanes hopping in all directions.
It’s not something we ever considered as a side effect when changing country and language. We somehow didn’t ponder on whether we’d be alright with the homework in the same breath as whether we’d freeze with the cold. The kids aren’t disadvantaged by our lack of forethought on the homework front, we just have to take the time and effort to sit with them and work it out together. And there is, of course, so much they’ve gained from our move that stretches far beyond this. It does, however, make their learning process different and sometimes a bit more challenging than that of Norwegian classmates. We, as parents, also have to work harder in being able to support them. I’ve a fairly big repository of Norwegian language books and grammar notes at this point and they are often on call. I’ve even resorted to texting a Norwegian friend at times to get a view on norsk words in sentences.
I’ve heard many immigrant friends with Norwegian partners say that their kids turn almost exclusively to the Norwegian parent for homework support. I totally understand this now. The child wants to have total confidence in the homework advisor – you know how it is, it takes them 5 seconds to figure out which parent is better at maths or science or language or generally staying calm, once they start getting homework at school. When it’s ALL in Norwegian and neither parent is totally fluent, it’s a case of who has a better ‘feel’ for the language, who is more resourceful and better at persevering with a dictionary or the google.
There is much debate here about integration, the need for it and what the immigrant population and the state is doing right or wrong to make it happen. Sometimes it’s intimated that immigrant parents are not so engaged in their kid’s education as Norwegians. I now understand why this might be the case and it’s not necessarily because they just don’t care or are less committed about their kid’s education. Maybe it’s because they haven’t made the leap yet from Urdu or Farsi or Arabic or English to a great level of Norwegian, which means they are not in a strong position to help with homework, to participate in parent committees and so on. It’s much easier to confidently participate when you have the ability and skills to do so. In our high immigrant school, there are Norwegian classes laid on in the daytime for parents, free of charge and paid for by the local kommune or council. This is an impressive, sensible, benevolent measure – immigrants who can speak the language will find it easier to find work. They will also be better able to support their kids, not just financially but in doing homework and participating in school activities, all of this improving kid’s engagement and success in school and their chances of going on to college and getting decent jobs. It’s playing the logical long game.
Last Sunday evening was the first time my son got so frustrated that he said, ‘I wish my parents were Norwegian’. He was diligently doing extra maths homework and it was a Sunday, which probably didn’t help. He needed to answer a question about whether Emil or Tuva got more pieces of chocolate. It was Emil of course, that bit was easy, but what to write down in Norwegian didn’t ‘feel right’ to him, even though my feelings and I were totally fine with it. I acknowledged his frustration, reminding him also of the many advantages he has, not least how glad he is, most of the time anyway, that he speaks fluent English. He mumbled that this just leads to boredom in English class but I chose to overlook that one; it was clear that it wasn’t just that his glass was half-empty in that moment, someone had clearly run off with it.
So we have an interesting journey ahead of us. The requirement is of course going to climb as the kids grow up in the school system here. What about when they start writing essays, learning physics, chemistry, history. I can’t wait for the discussions on Newton’s laws of motion or the composition of molecules. In Norwegian. But then, we will figure it out when it comes to that, we always do.
The kids are a huge part of the reason we moved here, to give us a better quality of family life and greater freedom for them. There were a lot of things we weren’t in a position to foresee, and the unique dynamic in multi-lingual Norwegian homework is one of them. It’s interesting and challenging and keeps us on our toes.
I just can’t help but wonder sometimes at what point I’ll walk with unfaltering, foot-to-the-floor steps again.