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You don’t tell me when I should speak English — multicultural parenting and language rights

From @@JRhodesPianist
From @JRhodesPianist

Last month, this story from Wales:

The most perfect thing I have ever seen just happened on the replacement train bus service between Newport and Cwmbran:

White man sat in front of a mother and her son. Mother was wearing a niqab. After about 5 minutes of the mother talking to her son in another language the man, for whatever reason, feels the need to tell the woman “When you’re in the UK you should really be speaking English.”

At which point, an old woman in front of him turns around and says, “She’s in Wales. And she’s speaking Welsh.”


Apocryphal maybe, but perfect nonetheless. It’s got all the elements of a great story: some ignorant rube makes an ass of himself in public and gets his comeuppance.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of publicly ignorant rubes get away with it.

Unsolicited parental advice is horrible enough, but for immigrants, unsolicited parental language advice is all too common. When it comes to a parent speaking a different language to their child, the rules of polite society are left on the curb at the bus stop.

Imagine the scene: you are on the bus and a (let us say for argument’s sake) an Asian mother is speaking Japanese to her two daughters, getting them organized for the long ride or some such. Then, out of nowhere comes the interruption from a neighbouring seat: “You should speak English to them.” Being a reasonable person, you facepalm. By what right!? How is this act impinging on your freedom? Furthermore, think of the victim: how can the mother react? If she isn’t fluent in English, she is already at a disadvantage, never mind the fact that she has children to organize and no time for a confrontation. A sheepish smile, a shriveling of posture, a switch to English… and the rube gets away with casual racism in public.

When I am riding the bus and speaking Japanese to my children, do you think that I get interrupted like this? Of course not. In fact, I often have curious people ask me what language I am speaking and then proceed to congratulate me on my perseverance in teaching my hapa children some of their heritage. This is obviously a double standard and an example of white privilege, but is there another word? We have “racism” and “sexism”… is there such thing as “language-ism”? Someone who studies Quebec and the politics of language might know.

Back to the immigrant experience: the inverse situation happens to visible minorities as well, and I don’t know which one is worse. For example, an immigrant parent is trying their best to speak English to their children. Then, some insensitive rube pipes up, “You should speak your native language to them! It would be so good for them to maintain a link to their heritage.” What a word: “should.” It is like a glass filled with a mixture two-parts assumption, three-parts ignorance with a hint of asininity and a bitter twist of good intentions.

Bilingualism is often pushed like a drug, and often by monolingual people (in my experience). They do not know how difficult it is to raise bilingual kids in a non-cosmopolitan community, nor do they understand the risks, such as semilingualism. There are countless reasons why a person might not choose to speak their native language to their children. Let us consider just a few of the potential scenarios: maybe the parent already met the previously-mentioned douchebag on the bus, and has (sadly) changed their public behaviour as a result. Or maybe they have, a long time ago, set the rules to speak the native tongue at home, and English out of the house. Or maybe they had some sort of traumatic experience back in the home country and do not want their children to have said link to a horrible heritage. If someone feels they cannot speak their mother tongue to their own small children they must have a very important reason. It might even signal that they need some other kind of support, so be mindful.

In a multicultural family, the choices and variations of language education are myriad. Just in my family we endlessly discuss our dreams for our kids and the realities they are dashed upon. If you are such a concerned bystander, rather than offering unsolicited advice, maybe engage with the person, strike up a friendly conversation and ask them about their choice. They might be happy to share their perspective with you, and then both of you are better off. If they do not want to share their reasoning, or if you do not feel close enough to the person to ask, then the answer is simple: STFU. We moved here because it is a free country. The choice of what language to use in public is that of the speaker alone.