‘He only speaks English’

English is a beautiful and user-friendly language. I love it-even though it’s my second language and I break it countless times. Learning the tongue has broadened my knowledge base and opened many doors of opportunity.

Sadly, some parents (who speak English as a second language) have developed an unhealthy love for the Queen’s language.

‘He doesn’t understand vernacular,’ the mother of a five-year-old boy told me when I visited. The father looked at his son with pride ‘He only speaks English.’

The parents speak the so-called vernacular as a first language and I couldn’t understand why this couple didn’t want their son to learn the indigenous language.

‘Barring him from speaking an indigenous language won’t make him speak English with a British accent, you know,’ I felt like saying, but decided to keep that thought to myself.

The parents wanted the kid to speak good English in order to kick-start his education. As a control measure, they gave the child’s minder strict instructions to use English when speaking to the boy.

Are these parents doing their child a disfavour by denying him the knowledge of a language? Aren’t they underestimating the child’s brain capacity to effectively learn and speak more than one language?

My mother speaks a different indigenous language from the one spoken by my father. Unfortunately, I’m only fluent in one of these languages. I mourn the loss of the other language when I’m among close relatives and I understand little of what they say. To speak to me they have to switch to English, making me feel somewhat alienated. I feel like I’ve lost a part of my history and heritage. Learning a new language is easier when you are young than when you are constantly checking your head for grey hairs.

Parents of children who speak English as a second language should encourage their children to study that first language at school. Kids should not be told that their home language is ‘useless’ because it won’t help them to get a job. If a child is taught to respect her own culture and language, she’s likely to respect other people’s cultures and languages.

A couple, friends of mine, have set a good example in this area. She’s Russian and he’s African. She taught her sons to speak Russian from a young age. Whenever the family visited Russia, the young ones did not feel out of place because they can speak the language. The boys, now young adults, both speak at least three languages, including English and their father’s indigenous language.

My own love and respect for the English language is not strong enough to make me deny my child the knowledge of my first language.

Do you think children should learn one language at a time? How have you handled this issue?

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