It must be tough to be a white teacher in such a “multicultural” society. Every September, you dread the moment that you take a look at the attendance list and are greeted with a dozen “Ahmads,” “Khadijas,” and “Mohammads.” At lunch time, you plug your sensitive, white nostrils as they unleash every spice known to man from their lunchboxes, and pray that one day they’ll just bring some Lunchables. You watch their parents pick them up after school, and listen to their tongues flickering in a language that feels like sandpaper against your eardrums. Cue the sweet relief of the English as a Second Language program, a separate world for first-generation and immigrant children to unite and eat their stinky food. You know that Ahmad, Khadija, and Mohammad will be much happier there, among their own kind. And so, “ESL” is stamped next to their names.
In Alberta, ESL students are kids who may be immigrants, or kids who were raised in a non-English speaking home (according to the Alberta Education website). The official purpose of ESL is to help kids who may be struggling with English, which is, for the most part, a noble and inclusive cause. But there are some obvious issues with the vagueness of who exactly can be put into ESL and why. To open up the definition to anyone who doesn’t speak English at home is opening up the opportunity for further marginalization of minority students. It’s the exact type of smiling racism, camouflaged in a cloak of “helpfulness” that we Canadians are famous for.
I was born in Calgary, Alberta to Arab parents. I have lived within five minutes of the hospital I was born in for most of my life, and have met the doctor that delivered me—that’s how “Canadian” I am. Growing up, my parents spoke to me in both English and Arabic; the latter less often, but just often enough to ensure that the language of my ancestors didn’t die with my parents’ move to the West. I was barely bilingual, but that didn’t stop me from proudly teaching my third grade classmates every Arabic word that they could almost pronounce. The next thing I knew, I was in a class of five others, being taught the pronunciation of single-syllable words. When my mother showed up to a meeting with my teacher to discuss the switch, she was greeted by a translator, even though she had already spoken to the teacher in perfect English on the phone.
As a kid I was frustrated, and I didn’t know why. I was bored “learning” material that seemed basic to me, and began to mentally check out of lessons. Thankfully, my mother was able to get me put back into my regular classes. But from that moment on, we only spoke English at home, and when the registration forms came, I watched as she checked “no” next to “does your child speak another language?” The assumption that we didn’t speak English was made before we could even open our mouths.
This is a sad reality, but it wouldn’t really be worth talking about if it was unique. From my family, to my friends, to almost every first-generation Canadian that I have spoken to, we all have a similar story or know someone who does. This is a symptom of a much deeper issue rooted in both a lack of tolerance in the Canadian education system, and a deeply flawed racially unjust society. Our cultures are being erased in the name of assimilating into a country that so proudly claims to be “multicultural.” And this is not to say ESL as a whole should be abolished, but there needs to be some sort of reform and reevaluation. I’m sure the program has been great to the students that needed it, but there needs to be a net to catch those of us that slipped through the cracks as a byproduct of stereotyping.
The “white voice” I put on for a phone interview, my obsession with making sure I don’t have an accent, the way I’ve learned never to speak Arabic in public, these side effects pale in comparison to slowly losing my language. These things solidified in my mind from a young age that I can be Canadian, or Arab, but I can’t be both. I can be ethnic enough to keep the veil of inclusivity alive, but not too ethnic as to threaten the foundation of white beams that this system was built on. So no, it’s not ESL as a program that is the problem, but the intentions behind it.