Language diversity is a blessing, not a curse, in our classrooms

This title may seem self-evident to many, but I feel it needs to be said.

A particularly nasty little piece of propaganda popped up on my Facebook feed tonight, liked by one of my acquaintances, and I feel compelled to respond to its ignorant hysteria. The post lamented the increase in English as a Second Language students in our schools. I am not going to republish the image here as I don’t think it deserves further distribution, but it was a class photo of a group of students who clearly hailed from a range of cultural backgrounds. The photo has been edited to label each student by his or her supposed “first language.” Every student apparently had a language background other than English, except for the little girl in the middle labelled “English/Irish.” The caption underneath read: “More and more schools now have children with English as a first language as a minority. How can we allow this to happen? Our own language a minority in our own land!”

Now, this post came from a British political group, but I think it speaks volumes for the arguments currently coming out of some pockets of Australia, particularly in our current political climate. And as an educator and a teacher of ESL students, I am horrified.

Such statements are inflammatory, potentially dangerous, and based on ignorance. Among the problems with this post:

1. “More and more schools now have children with English as their first language as a minority.”

Where are the statistics on this? And whilst there may be some evidence of such an increase in some areas where large groups of migrants have settled within communities, what of it?? Schools often reflect the demographic of their local area. I’d assume that if the child with English as their first language is a minority in their school, English speakers are probably a minority in that community too. Don’t like it? Leave.

2. “How can we allow this to happen?”
Your country has immigration policies that allow people from all walks of life to move to its shores. Of course, in Australia refugee policies are a source of heated debate but that does not alter my point. People are ALLOWED to move here. We are, by and large, a free country with freedom of speech, religion, language, and culture. The vast majority of Australians are grateful for this, so should understand why others might want to come here! When people migrate here their children are entitled to an education. They have the same right to learn regardless of their first language. In fact, in an examination system conducted in English and with an emphasis on the written word, the native English-speaker is in a privileged position. From that perspective, the post smacks of people looking to lay blame on the vulnerable and refusing to take some responsibility for their own situation.

3. “Our own language a minority in our own land!”
I’m not even going to dignify this with an extended discussion. No, it’s not. Not even close. So stop it.

The post continues in the comments section, saying that the ability to learn of English-speaking children is being crushed by the high number of ESL students in their classes. Now, as an ESL teacher, I understand the challenges faced in classes where there are a number of students whose first language is not English. Some of these students’ difficulties are increased because they have also witnessed or been subject to horrific violence and suffered great psychological trauma. Some of these ESL students were born in Australia but are impacted on by their parents experiences. Coincidentally, some of them speak and write more effectively than their peers with English as a first language. I also know that we face very similar, if not greater, challenges when there are students (regardless of native language) with special needs, learning difficulties or behavioural issues. All of these students are entitled to a quality education and need support. Their families need support. Their teachers need support. But the only group mentioned in the vilifying post is students whose first language is not English, and they are painted in the light that they are robbing English-speaking children of the education they deserve. This is simply untrue.

Perhaps the one bit of truth in the post is that ESL numbers are rising. We can’t deny that. But maybe a more productive and inclusive discussion would involve the prevalence and development of New Arrivals Programs, greater availability of in-school support, and increased professional development to better equip mainstream classroom teachers for the changing demographic.

Ultimately, how fortunate are our children to be exposed to such a range of cultures, beliefs and languages in their own schools and communities? This is something close to my heart (perhaps I have some bias being an English and LOTE teacher) and I feel that gaining a deeper understanding through their peers can only make them less insular and better global citizens. We have the opportunity to expose our learners to rich and vibrant cultures, if only we will embrace them as a community!

Bottom line: English as a Second Language students are not stopping your child from learning, so that card is not an appropriate one to play.

5 responses

  1. Yes! This post is spot on.

    You also could have mentioned that every student, unless indigenous, has a migrant background. Chances are that their ancestors did not have English as their first language either and, had they been turned away from living here, they would not even be in this country to be able to start up such ridiculous arguments. I am constantly frustrated at the ignorance of people and the fact that history keeps on repeating itself; generation after generation continues to be fearful of migrants/people who are ‘different’.

    While it’s true that ESL students put a strain on the classroom, the issue is more the lack of funding provided to schools. I think that a more significant issue in the classroom that impacts the learning of others are poorly behaved, lazy, rude children who disrupt not only their own learning but also that of their class mates too.

    Rant over.

    1. Thanks, Samara. I could have gone on infinitely on this post, but it just wasn’t practical 🙂 you are very correct in that ignorance often breeds more ignorance and fear. Support really is the key, and this can only happen through funding, staffing and professional development. Schools do the best they know how with the resources they have. The difficulties go above and beyond a single school, principal or even educational sector!

  2. A well argued and inspiring post. I always admire the positive attitude and strong sense of care and compassion that you exhibit in your posts. This is an issue of social justice, and one that extends far beyond mere circumstance, but goes further to fight for the rights of every individual, particularly in a society which prides itself on being multicultural. You have approached this issue with great wisdom and insight!

  3. I really enjoyed this post, Mel (I posted a comment- how exciting)

    Your positive enthusiasm and sense of equality is so inspiring. Keep it up!

    Ryan Brown
    Assistant Head of Middle School

    Cardijn College
    Honeypot Road, Noarlunga Downs, SA 5168
    PO Box 438, Noarlunga Centre, SA 5168
    p: 08 8392 9405
    f: 08 8392 9595
    w :
    [Description: cid:image001.jpg@01CBBE14.68AB9610]
    Inspiring the best

    1. Thanks for your comments, Ryan. It frustrates me when I see ignorance breeding further ignorance so I find writing about it helps me to focus on the issue and channel it into a more productive discussion (or rant vaguely disguised as a discussion)!

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