Race, The World, Social Justice

Your privilege is showing when you’re forcing kids to speak English only

Is it racism, or equal opportunity?

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”Nelson Mandela

Something that I have been slightly unsure about is a ‘speak English only’ policy that exists within some schools. The argument behind the rule is this- it is unfair for a certain group of children to speak a language that the others do not understand. Often, this is done out of concern for children do not speak English as their first language, as it is thought they may fall behind due to the language barrier.

And whilst the ‘speak English only’ policy has good intentions, some children can feel marginalised and punished by it. Many schools will enforce the policy within the classrooms, and in lessons. However, some schools have taken the policy way too far, and have banned children from speaking their own languages when they are at lunch, when they are walking home, or just in a private space of their own.

As a result, children tend to feel criminalised and ashamed, simply because they do not speak English. It implies that education is only accessible to those who speak English well, meaning that children who take English as a second language feel that they are unable to achieve due to the language barrier.

The idea that English should be the only language in which people should be educated in is an idea that stems from elitist and colonial customs. The education system is built so that privileged children have a better chance of success. than children from poorer backgrounds.

Children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to thrive, simply because cost, time and resources needed for educational success is not accessible to them. However, being from a less privileged background, and being unable to speak English does not mean that child is not a bright and intelligent individual.

There is a fear from teachers of children swearing and cursing the teacher in their own language, which sometimes motivates teachers to enforce the ‘speak English only’ policy. Teachers can feel scared and out of control, and often see children of color as a ‘threat’, so the rule is enforced so that they can maintain their authority.

The racism that is suffered by these children as a result of this rule can wreak havoc on their confidence, and will inevitably cause them to flout all school rules. This will result in an exclusion from the education system.

I find it difficult to believe that one has to know all their English numbers in order to be able to recite their multiplication tables. Many school subjects do not require a common language to be able to be understood. Plus, the ‘speak English only’ policy gives the impression that the teachers do not want to take the time and effort to try and learn their language, or customs.

Whilst I believe that people should learn the language of the country that they live in, I do not feel that teachers shouldn’t try to help children with their understanding by explaining things in their own language.

It will actually help them and encourage them to learn English, as they will see it as the teachers ‘meeting them half-way’ rather than being forced to put in all the effort. If learning languages is a problem for teachers, this is the perfect opportunity to start recruiting teachers that are able to provide these language services for these children.

In terms of children swearing or cursing in their language, it is almost guaranteed to be less of a problem if there is a teacher around who if fully aware of what they are saying. Because let’s be honest, teenagers who speak English fluently swear too, and they know that the teachers understand the words. Has it ever stopped them from doing it? Of course not.

There is a great deal of social politics involved when it comes to enforcing a policy like this. This is not in any way arguing that teachers who enforce the ‘speak English only’ policy do not have their student’s best interests at heart. But there does need to be communication and honest discussion about why such policies are being put forward. One may find that such a policy is an extremist position, that will result in the further exclusion of children of color.

Therefore, putting emphasis on learning English, whilst at the same time communicating to the children in their own language is in my opinion, a much better and more successful approach.

  • Sana Abubaker

    Sana Abubaker is an English Literature and Journalism graduate from Cardiff University, UK and currently works as a freelance journalist. When she’s not working she enjoys reading, going to the theatre, attending Literature Festival/Poetry Slam events. Her work focuses on Islamic feminism, race, gender, LGBTQ rights and misogyny in wider society. You can follow her on Twitter at @Sana_Abubaker78