‘They wanted their children to be ready to return to Poland’

Polish school manager says parents’ motivation for bilingualism has changed

Agnieszka Matys-Foley, pictured with her children Martina and Klara, runs a weekend school. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Agnieszka Matys-Foley, pictured with her children Martina and Klara, runs a weekend school. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


When Agnieszka Matys-Foley moved to Ireland from her home near Poland’s Baltic coast seven years ago, she sent her two young children to a Polish weekend school in case the family decided to return.

Now married to an Irish man, with a newborn baby and knowing she will not go back, she continues to speak Polish to her children and raise them as bilinguals, but her motivations have changed.

“When they came over here we did not know how long we were going to stay and I wanted them to be able to catch up on their education when they got back to Poland, ” she said.

She wants her son Mateusz (13) to have the option of living with his Polish father some day or studying in Poland. “But without the ability to read or write it’s not an option,” she said.

‘Huge mistake’
Even though her three-month -old daughter Klara is Irish- born and has not yet uttered words in any language, Matys-Foley is also determined to bring her up with two languages . “I will only speak Polish to her and hope one day she will be bilingual,”she said. Sometimes parents give up on bilingualism because children are slower to begin speaking but this is a “huge mistake”, she said.

Matys-Foley works as a manager at one of Dublin’s fast- growing weekend schools, named Dublinie SEN, which is based in Cabra and has over 300 students of all ages and 30 staff. She first got involved in the Polish schools as a parent when she offered to teach English to other parents while they waited for their children’s classes, with many travelling long distances for the schools .

She has noticed a shift in recent years which reflects the change in her own motivations. “At the start the majority of children were born in Poland . . . the main reason people were sending them over was that they wanted them to be ready to return to Poland and back into its system of education.”

She notes a “big switch” in the last few years. “More and more children are born here [to Polish parents] and often if they go to creche their English is far better than their Polish.” The school now has 60 children in the early years course with increasing numbers starting unable to speak Polish. “Not so many parents are planning to go back but they still want their children to be able to speak [and write] Polish,” she said.

Matys-Foley does not think the schools go against the integration of children into Irish society. However, her own children were slow to tell others about the Polish school. “I think they were a bit ashamed that when others have a day off they have to be up early going to another school,” she said. She notes that this is changing as more mainstream school teachers come to know about them.

Bilingualism makes it easier for children to learn a third language, helps them to learn faster and results in better memory and concentration, she said. She said the children mix very well and do everything they can to integrate.

She feels there are major benefits to children being bilingual and going to the weekend school. It means they have “no problem emailing their grandparents and friends”, she said.

However she did worry about a lack of awareness among Polish parents that the schools exist or that their children could take Polish for their Leaving Cert with only an eighth of Polish children in Ireland attending the weekend schools. The children think “it is normal to read and write in Polish”. However, “they don’t realise how things could have been if they had not gone to the Polish school,” she said.