This past weekend, over a round table discussion with friends (not necessarily the academic kind), the question “What is a native English speaker?” was thrown into the mix. The talk was inspired by Michael Griffin’s latest post, A letter to Korean English teachers. This discussion reminded me of all the times I had to tick that dreaded box on application forms: identify your mother tongue.
You see, as soon as I ticked that box, I already knew people would approach me with a whole lot of misplaced assumptions: they’d speak to me in French; I’d respond in a standardized version of French speckled with intermittent structures of Franglais and my Acadian dialect; they’d have a hard time understanding me; and finally we’d start speaking English anyway. Why did this happen?
a little history
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post (Practicing Nonviolence in My Mother Tongue Isn’t So Easy), I grew up in an Acadian-French speaking community in Nova Scotia, Canada. French is considered to be a minority language in this province.
As my grandparents’ and parents’ generations were growing up, they faced confusing linguistic messages. During the early 1900s officials in the Nova Scotia Department of Education, who were of English descent, created curricula for Acadian public schools that were designed to ‘integrate’ French-speaking children into the dominant English culture (Deveau and Ross 1992, 154). Deveau and Ross (1992, 155) describe the dualism that my grandparents’ and parents’ generation faced between this school system and their home life:
Acadian children were doubly disadvantaged: they came to school speaking one language and were expected to learn everything, including reading and writing, in another language. Their mother tongue, the very basis of their culture, was thus placed immediately in an inferior position.
The regulations of this educational system created immense linguistic alterations for the Acadian community. In 1931 thirty-two percent of Acadians had stopped considering French their mother tongue; then in 1971, 59.3 percent felt the same (Deveau and Ross 1992, 164). The assimilation was a quasi-success.
But by the time it was my turn to go to school (early 80s), things were changing. I went to a francophone elementary school. When I was in middle and high school, I had the choice to continue my studies in English or French. I chose French.
The community was bridging the gap between school and home. Then finally, in 1996, a decision was made to find a more suitable working balance between both languages, when the *Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (Acadian school board) was lawfully established. As a result of the unrelenting efforts of Acadian educational and parental organizations, children of Acadian heritage must now be educated solely in their native language. Children of English-speaking families also have their own schools.
*I’m happy to say that my father was the superintendent of this school board from 2001 to 2006. The story of what he’s done for the Acadian community could be a blog/book in itself. Something I hope to see one day.
Why the Conflict with the box?
I’ve been speaking English my whole life. I don’t remember when I started. I’m sure cable television, the Sweet Valley Twins, Video Hits, and all those rockin’ 80s radio tunes had something to do with this learning. I’m also sure that this, connected to the teasing I got for the way I pronounced “th” from my English-speaking cousin, and the English classes I had since I was in third grade, made for what I consider to be a seamless learning experience. With this practice and knowledge, I went to an English university, and since then I’ve been living my life in English. When I decided to make English teaching my career, it came with a lot of reflecting on what I just shared with you.
My mother tongue is a dialect. I speak it with family, friends and people in the wider Acadian community. I rarely read French books, but when I do, I enjoy them. Though it would take a lot of work to write a good French essay, I teach an advanced EFL writing course. When I speak French to francophones from other countries (Quebec included), they hear my accent (stemming from years of living in anglophone communities, and from my dialect) and assume I’m an English speaker. Due to the discomfort and confusion, we usually revert to English.
So now when I’m asked what my native language is, I just tick the English box. I’ve made my peace. It’s just easier. Not just for me, but also for whoever is at the receiving end of that box.
But is this what it’s come to? In order for you to believe my English ability, I have to fit into some box? What’s the criteria for that box? It’s obviously not as clear as you think.
Have you ever felt confused about how to answer when asked about your native language? How have you felt, and how do you respond?
Deveau, A. and Ross S. (1992). The Acadians of Nova Scotia: Past and Present. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing.