Hey, you look Chinese, we have a class for people like you

(The title is a callback to this article from a few months ago.)

A member of my extended family grew up near the city of Nanaimo, Canada. While it's true that she's ethnically Chinese, it's also true that she's a fourth generation Canadian. The community is overwhelmingly English-speaking, and English is her first language. She grew up going to an English-language school, she watched English-language television, spoke English with her friends and family, and probably dreamed dreams in English.

Yet when the family moved to Vancouver when she was a child (I don't know the exact age, so let's say eight years old), the school district automatically enrolled her in English as a Second Language, presumably based on her Chinese last name and the fact that Mandarin and Cantonese are the mother tongues in 30% of Vancouver homes.

Since she was only eight years old, she didn't know that the school had tagged her as a non-native English speaker. She cheerfully went to her special class for an hour each day, enjoying her time with a new teacher and new classmates.

It wasn't for a long time (I don't know exactly, so let's say six months) that she realized, "Wait a second, this is the class for people who don't speak English well!" Once the mistake was recognized, it wasn't long before she was transferred back to the regular class.

Though I'm kind of surprised the school district (and the class teacher) never figured out that her English was native, or, failing that, that her English was plenty good enough that she didn't need the class any more.

Comments (30)
  1. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    Here in Irvine, CA, the kids go through a language test before they get enrolled to ESL. And some 20% of population here are Chinese.

  2. Chris Walton says:

    I moved from Germany to the US. In High School, they made me take tests twice a year to show that I can speak sufficient english. I grew up in a household speaking both languages, so even then I spoke both languages fluently. Yet, I still had to take the tests (which were the 1st-grader kind of test). They never realized that there’s no point in me taking the test, so I started refusing them, resulting in calls to my parents from the principal. After the principal spoke with my mother on the phone (perfect english), and spoke to me in person (perfect english), I didn’t have to take the test anymore.

  3. calloatti says:

    I’am a non-native English speaker, but “that they school had tagged her” does not sound right to me.

    [I fixed that typo at the exact same moment you reported it. So don’t worry about your English. -Raymond]
  4. Gabe says:

    I wonder if they ever enroll a European (who just happens to have a Chinese-looking name) into ESL classes.

  5. Roastbeef says:

    A friend of mine in college was a German national whose family moved to the rural US south when she was 7. She was fluent in both English and German, but also had the ability to turn her southern accent on and off at will.

    After acing  three semesters of intro German she finally admitted to the prof that she was a native speaker. He had a well known rep for being much much tougher on native speakers, so he wasn’t that pleased. But at that point my friend had satisfied her language requirement…

  6. I occasionally demoed some products at Uwajimaya. I’d alternate between bad Japanese and passable English, but I would usually initiate speaking Japanese to people with nattou (fermented soybeans mostly popular in Tokyo and points north in Japan) or local Japanese magazines in their carts.

    The nattou thing was a guess, but a fairly reliable one. But I was frequently mildly surprised at the number of people with the Japanese-language newspapers/magazines who then explained to me that they didn’t understand Japanese. I discovered that some people will just take anything that they can get for free, regardless of how useless it is to them.

  7. ERock says:

    @Michael: You’d have to be pretty litigious (and have deep pockets to afford council) to bring suit over such a thing. It’s definitely the school’s fault for not testing, but, what damage was made? The post doesn’t go on to say if she fell behind in her English for Native Speakers coursework as a result, so, since that’s an exception to the happy path of doing fine in school, I’m assuming she didn’t.

    That all said, I only speak English yet, I don’t think I dream in English. I can’t recall reading, writing, or hearing words in any dream ever. Maybe something’s wrong with me.

  8. jcoehoorn says:

    <cynic>In the US (and I’m sure many other places as well), federal money is allocated to school districts based on enrollment.  Special needs students get more money.  So if you can tag more kids as special needs, your budget gets bigger.</cynic>

  9. rob says:

    @Michael: We Canadians are generally less inclined to sue over every little thing. Sometimes a simple, "hey, maybe you shouldn’t do that" is enough.

  10. MadQ says:

    Speaking of special needs students… the girlfriend of a friend of mine had to take lessons to drive the short bus. The jokes never stop. It never ceases to amuse me.

  11. Michael says:

    I’m surprised a lawsuit didn’t ensue.  And I’m not sure I’d be against it ("the school wasted *how* many months of my child’s education?")

  12. Duncan Bayne says:

    Wow, six months before someone noticed?  And it wasn’t a teacher who noticed, but the eight year old child in question?

    Goes to show just how much care and attention teachers are able to give to students in large classes (assuming of course that it was a large class; probably a safe assumption if we’re assuming public education).

    Basically modern public education is something of a cross between daycare and indoctrination camps; not because the teachers don’t care or are incompetent, but because the system itself is incapable of producing a better outcome over time.

  13. man says:

    welcome to british columbia, where the teachers themselves don’t know if you can speak english.

  14. xxxevilgrinxxx says:

    I bet you anything the school got extra money for having so many students in special classes, whether they needed to be there or not.

  15. Chris says:

    Did your friend actually speak any Mandarin or Cantonese?

  16. tekumse says:

    I can confirm jcoehoorn’s point. Our schools were trying to put my kids in ESL because of non traditional sounding names.  After I asked why are they pushing this so hard even though they have <quote>"exceptionally"</quote> language scores I was let on that it is a huge money maker for the school.

  17. Falcon says:

    I migrated to Victoria, Australia at age 14 from Europe – areas of former Yugoslavia. We were entitled to ESL education/status for the first 7 years of living in Australia (not quite sure of the current regulations). I had fairly good English skills when I moved.

    In my final years of high school, I chose to take regular English classes, however I was told by the coordinator that I could still be marked as having ESL status, therefore getting special consideration in scoring. I figured, "OK, why not???" :-D

  18. Rafal says:

    Actually, this sounds remarkably like my experience in Calgary, Alberta, in the late 80’s. I was 14 and my English was very poor when we arrived and at first I enjoyed being an ESL student. Most Fridays we’d go on a trip to a park or museum instead of sitting in class and certainly other teachers would take our language abilities into account for marking purposes… However, after around 6 months in ESL I wanted to join the regular program. This turned out not too be easy at all — my ESL prof was against it and the other kids could not understand why I’d want to do that at all. Only later in high school did I realize that ESL was basically an easy ticket all the way to university…

  19. Eric TF Bat says:

    @Roastbeef: Remember the story that was going around about university linguistics courses teaching Klingon?  I bet it was primarily so they could reduce the chances of stealth native speakers acing the course…

    I am of course reminded of the old (European) joke:

    What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.

    What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.

    What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

    (Although in the original it was "English", and it could just as easily be "Australian".)

  20. Worf says:

    Hey, I used to speak a little Klingon (hence my nickname from 15 or so yeards ago).

    But I remember having to take the TOEFL simply because English isn’t my first language (Mandarin was, even though I moved to Canada when I was two, and speak unaccented English because I’ve been using it the better part of 30 years since).

    That was the easiest standardized test ever… the verbal listening was a cinch. Still, had to take it out of a technicality.

    Though I still remember ESL being a major problem during university – enough so that we were warned it was an automatic fail if the English was incomprehensible (written assignments or otherwise).

  21. Drak says:


    when we moved to South Africa back in the eighties (yes, apartheid still existed then), my brother and I spent 6 month learning English from my mom (who happened to be an English teacher) and after that we were just dumped in with the regular kids. I managed to finish and pass the school year in the 3 remaining months :) I was only 7 at the time though, so the classes weren’t all that difficult, and Afrikaans was a breeze (I’m Dutch ;)

  22. I can confirm that at least here in California ESL brings funds for the school. Worse, they take kids out of regular classes for ESL support, making it harder to keep up with core material. Getting out of ESL is a big pain in the rear and takes time, effort, and persistence. If you are enrolling your kid in school, do yourself a favor and don’t say you speak anything other than English at home (unless you really do need help with English).

  23. Sohail says:

    Dude, when I moved to Canada from Pakistan, I spoke and wrote English fluently because it was my *first* language. They still put me in ESL for a year. Must be some sort of quota system.

  24. Jeffrey says:

    All this talk of suing the school is nonsense.  Where were the *parents* in all of this?

  25. Morten says:

    @Eric TF Bat: Or German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian… :-) In my experience people from large countries seldom see the need for learning more than their own language. It’s OK with the rest of us, it makes it easier for us to compete as we’re the only ones who can deal with everyone. Competitive advantage and all that.

  26. My brother got stuck with one of these technicalities when he enrolled in university.  He wrote that French was his first language (it was) on his application so they made him take an English proficiency test, despite his having graduated from an English high-school with the requisite grades in English class.  And given that this all took place in Ontario, you’d think the schools would understand that some Ontarians are, you know, bilingual.

  27. Cgomez says:

    While actual policies vary wildly from state to state and district to district, most of the time it’s to the ESL teachers’ and perhaps even the school’s and/or district’s advantage to shove everyone into ESL that they can.

    They either get paid, get bonuses for meeting arbitrary political criteria, or justify their existence.

    When I was very young, I constantly was shoved into ESL simply for my name.  The only language I have ever spoken is English.  Fortunately, the assumption was often corrected in minutes when it was clear I didn’t understand the teacher at all.

  28. Anonymous Coward says:

    @Morten: I wouldn’t know about that. I have been surprised in the past by Germans who spoke passable Dutch, of all languages. And I’ve been all over western Europe and most people speak at least some kind of English. So that makes them at least sesquilingual.

  29. Artak Kalantarian says:

    ESL is a huge scam.

    Children, especially in elementary school, learn English much faster in regular classes.

  30. ram says:

    I agree with Artak.  We moved to Canada from India in late 1969 (I was 7 at the time). I didn’t speak *any* English.  The school threw me into 2nd grade (several months into the school year). I picked up the language in a few moths and have never looked back. No ESL, no hand holding. Ironically the only time I’ve been asked to take an English test was when applying to grad school. The university (in southern USA) asked me to take TOEFL (test of English as a Foreign Language).  I’m talking to the admissions officer in perfect (albeit Canadian accented English) explaining, "no as you can see we do speak English in Canada". (I’m not from Quebec)

Comments are closed.

Skip to main content