I was recently having coffee with a girlfriend, and as we watched my 15 month old daughter playing on the floor, we somehow got onto the topic of toddlers and language. I was shocked when she proudly announced, “When I have a child, I won’t be teaching them any English. They can learn at day-care and then school. I don’t want any English to be spoken in this house.”
I knew that she and her husband were from non-English speaking backgrounds, and when no one else was in the house they only spoke to each other in their native language. But this woman was a university graduate. Though her accent was strong, her English was fluent – both written and verbal. Why would she voluntarily put her child at such a disadvantage?
I immediately launched into a series of arguments attacking her conviction, saying that it would be “cruel to the child”, “unfair to the teachers at his/her school” and (a little rudely) “but everyone outside your door is speaking English!!” I would have continued, but our husbands came to join us and I suddenly realised that I (a child of two English teachers) was surrounded by three people who were all from non-English speaking backgrounds. They had all grown up speaking their native language at home with their parents, and by attacking my friend’s convictions, I was also attacking everyone in the room.
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I pulled back and out of frustration, threw the one comment that a woman with children should never make to a woman without. I said, “Ah well, maybe you’ll change your mind when you have a child.” I know I shouldn’t have gone there – it was as if saying because she doesn’t have a child her argument has no validity. But I had nowhere else to go. She politely ignored me and we diverted the conversation elsewhere before saying our goodbyes.
In the car on the way home, I asked my husband if I was wrong to have such a reaction. He said, “No way. My parents would have loved to have taught me English from the start. They only didn’t because they couldn’t. If you can… you should.”
I thought about the conversation at length afterwards. I knew of a friend’s friend who also spoke no English with her child at home, and she was an ESL teacher. Her daughter was more advanced in her English skills than many of the English-speaking-background children in her class – but it took evening and weekend tutor classes to create that. I know that being able to speak more than one language is an advantage, but surely English should come first in this equation?
Do you think having an ESL background puts you at a disadvantage?