The Problem with Telling my Foreign Volunteers Speak English


For two years I worked for an organization that coordinated exchanges between youth from Canada and from other countries. Often, when outside of our sessions, our exchange country (EC) youth would speak their local language. Noticing that some of the Canadians were trying to socialize with the EC youth and could not because of language, I would find myself reminding the EC youth to speak English when with the Canadians so that everyone could participate in the conversation.  I told the EC youth that they had an advantage-they could speak English if they wanted to but the Canadians couldn’t switch to their language.

A few years on, I look back and groan. I was essentially telling them to accommodate the Canadians.

There are issues with that and I see it now. 

Although I had told the EC youth that they were at an advantage because they were multilingual, it was really the Canadians who were at an advantage.  To speak English as a first language and only English is a privilege resulting from British colonialism. It is a privilege over everyone else in the world who must learn to speak English in addition to their first (and second and third languages), in order to gain certain levels of success in this world. Canadians learn other languages for fun, not out of necessity.

The Canadians were also at an advantage in both of my groups because we started the exchange in Canada. This meant that at the awkward beginning stage where no one knew each other (most of) the Canadians had the comfort of being familiar with the landscape, food and cultural norms. They had the comfort of being in a place that was new to them but ultimately, normal and they were normal in it.  For the EC youth, everything was different- the bus system, the way you ask for directions, how to speak to employers and host parents, religious beliefs, food, money, the existence of sales taxes. They were adjusting to all these things almost 24 hours a day and also deal with people treating them strangely because they were from a different country and had an “accent”.

Sure the EC youth could speak English well.  It is the language of instruction in school (again, colonialism) but why shouldn’t they get to relax when not in session and speak the language in which they could laugh? The language they could reflect on their daily experiences most fluently?

In asking my EC youth to speak English around the Canadians, I was encouraging common language as the grounds for cultural exchange. I wanted them to be able to get to know each other. But I was really asking the EC youth to do more work.

To balance this, I should have told the Canadians that to only speak one language and expect everyone else to learn it and speak it around them was such a bursting example of privilege I could not have set up a workshop with a more clear demonstration.

We were in the program to learn about all these concepts: equity and equality, power and privilege, oppression and justice. Here it was, playing out in real life. And there I was, supporting some of these structures, in retrospect, from the wrong end.

I should have told the Canadians (the English-only speaking ones) that they would have to one: recognize their privilege in terms of language and program structure (starting in Canada where they already had an inherent understanding of how things work) and two: deal with letting that privilege go for a few hours, weeks and yes, eventually months.  They had signed up for experiential learning and cultural exchange and this was it.  It would be inconvenient, inefficient and uncomfortable.  It would mean losing control and power. This would be necessary for those who had power and didn’t recognize it for who did and didn’t want to ever lose it. It would be necessary in order to understand what it is to be other to be made to feel “not normal”. And it would happen first through the loss of their most potent tool: English.

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