“I’m a stranger in a strange land.” – Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The image was the view from my classroom in Paris where I taught English. I had 3 classes of 4,7 and 10 year olds. They were mainly French and some were newly arrived immigrants. The centre where I worked was popular and there was a long waiting list. The children loved coming to class and there was a reason for this. They had engaged guardians dropping them off for lessons and were able to learn in a secure setting with graded materials to scaffold their language development slowly but surely. My favourite class was definitely the 4 year olds. Their eyes would light up greeting the class puppet. They loved the colourful flashcard games and quickly picked up all new songs. All students were streamed into appropriate areas of the school. There was an English as a Foreign Language section where I worked. There was English as a Second Language for those who were not native speakers but had spent significant time in an English speaking country. They were normally fluent but could not read and write so well. The last one Bilingual. These children usually had one parent who was a native speaker of English or they were British living in France and their parents wanted them to study the UK National Curriculum right up to GCSE and A-Level.

I loved working there. My colleagues were from all over the world with a vast range of language teaching experience. The resources department abundant and there was always someone available to bounce off ideas. It was also a relief. The job I had before very trying. It was in a private primary school north of Paris and marketed itself as a bilingual school. French parents were very keen to send their children there so they could learn anglais. The brochure was glossy and the setting exquisite. The problem was there was no EFL being taught. I delivered the UK National Curriculum and this was all well and good for the British or American children who could access it. Not so for the local French kids who joined the class. I tried to make this plain to the Canadian director.

“Kids are sponges,” she said. “No EFL in this school!”

“No, they aren’t. Learning languages is never easy,” I countered

“My son speaks perfect French,” she challenged

In actual fact he didn’t but that’s another story.

“Your son has lived in France most of his life. Some of these French children have never even been to England. I’m probably the first British person they’ve met.”

“It’s against our inclusion policy. I don’t want any children excluded,”

“They are already excluded,”

“No EFL. It’s not even real teaching.”

I had no idea what she meant by the last point but it’s not the first time I’ve heard the slur. She didn’t even speak a foreign language and had certainly never taught one so I felt she was not qualified to comment. So, back I went but it went against all my ethics as a teacher to see the French children staring at me blankly. I ended up speaking in French to them most of the time. They copied from the whiteboard and out in the playground they spoke French. When I could, I did oral activities with them but I never had enough time. The director would show off the workbooks but eventually the parents started questioning why their child wasn’t speaking much English. What could I tell them? That I wasn’t allowed to teach it? The director started hounding me as to why progress wasn’t being made. I explained why like a broken record. It went in one ear and out the other.

ESL, ELL, ESOL, EFL, EAL. So many acronyms. The last one somewhat strange to me. It describes children in UK schools whose mother tongue is not English. It means English as an Additional Language. The word additional troubling. Additional means extra or supplementary. How can English be so for such children? Isn’t necessary a better word?

I would know. I’ve been in their shoes. When I was 4 years old, I moved from Zimbabwe to France. I was put into the local maternelle or kindergarten. There was no intervention of any kind with practical, everyday French. The staff berated my mother for still speaking to me in English. This was apparently not at all good for my assimilation. I was a pariah in the playground where I understood one word. Stupide. It was like being underwater where you only hear muffled soundsI became a mute. Except for with my doll which was the only thing that didn’t speak to me in white noise. But this was taken off me for fear of making the others jealous. My mother pulled me out after seeing me alone on the steps at playtime one too many times. I was enrolled in the International School of Geneva where I blossomed. This new school just across the border in Switzerland, our passports checked every morning, but already a world away.

That was back in 1983. Times have and have not moved on. There are exciting developments in what we understand about languages. I have seen how schools and communities can integrate them. And the evidence is now clear that being an EAL student or equivalent is no barrier to academic success. But in various countries and contexts, old attitudes like the ones described above still predominate and are insidious. That’s why whenever I walk into a classroom and a child before me can’t speak English or is shy at being introduced to French, I am especially sensitive. My job is to facilitate them finding their voice. I always remember the mute that was me.