A young Asian girl sits in a high chairs, eats with a spoon, has milk on her face


The Time I Was Told My Daughter Needed To Speak English in Order to Do Well

May 18, 2021

I'll never forget the moment I was told my daughter needed to learn English in order to do well. 

A couple of years ago, I took my daughter to her parent-tot program. It was two hours of free play, including songs, stories, snack and gym time — all meant to help prepare a child for school.

My parents are the ones who would typically take her while I worked, but they were out of town so I took her instead. About an hour in, the program facilitator, an older white female, called us to the back of the room for songs and storytime.

“She needs to understand English in order to do well in preschool"

The facilitator glanced at my daughter every few minutes to see if she was participating. Except my daughter does not understand much English, since we mainly speak Cantonese at home. She’s quiet, and perfectly content watching and listening intently but not singing along or following the instructions. The facilitator stopped singing and looked directly at me in front of everyone. Here's what she said:

“Can you translate for her while we sing so she can follow along?”

I responded flatly, “Sure. I can do that.”

I was slightly annoyed because I just wanted my 2.5-year-old daughter to observe and enjoy the situation. She didn’t seem to mind that she wasn’t doing what the other kids were doing. And honestly? I was exhausted from doing mom stuff all day and didn’t want to put my translator hat on.

Given the rise in anti-Asian sentiment, Katharine Chan reflects on an experience she and her daughter faced during the pandemic. Read that here.

After storytime, the facilitator pulled me aside. She started lecturing me about my daughter’s language abilities.

“She needs to understand English in order to do well in preschool. I’ve mentioned this to your parents before but I don’t know if they understood me. Did they relay this issue to you?”

I told her they did. Then I explained that my husband and I want to preserve our native language, that we have no qualms about her learning English since we had no issues when we were her age. This falls on deaf ears. Instead, she continued to berate me in a condescending tone.

“I’ve worked with kids for over 30 years. You need to teach her English or else she’s going to fall behind when she starts kindergarten. Her teacher will be speaking English and it’ll be hard for them to communicate with her. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded and bit my tongue. At this point, I was livid, but I don’t want to make a scene. So I grabbed my daughter’s jacket and we dashed out of there. Why was I so triggered?

She reminded me how I used to hate my “native language”

Growing up as a Chinese Canadian in a predominately white community, I hated my “native language.” If anyone thought I had an accent, I was mortified.

I prided myself on speaking English perfectly, enunciating every syllable with precision. I wanted anyone speaking on the phone with me who didn’t know my last name to think I was a white person.

Despite my objections, my mom forced me to go to Chinese school every Saturday morning. I dreaded every single class.

I resented her for making me speak Cantonese to her. I remember fighting with her often, demanding her to speak English because we live in Canada.

I wanted her to learn English just like the facilitator wanted my daughter to. For a moment, my insecurities took over and I questioned whether I was doing the right thing for my daughter.

Katharine Chan writes about why her immigrant parents thought it would benefit her to stay silent. But as a parent, she no longer feels it's the course she wants to take. Read that here.

As a mom, I’ve realized the Chinese language is the glue that holds our generations together

Over the years, I've been learning to love who I am. I can appreciate where I came from, I embrace my culture and I'm eternally grateful for my mom's relentlessness.

My parents raised me so I could be fluent in both languages. And now, as a mom myself, I’ve realized how important the Chinese language is to me.

"I wanted anyone speaking on the phone with me who didn’t know my last name to think I was a white person."

It allows me to socialize with my family and community. From jokes, idioms to certain phrases, there are so many things that lose their meaning once translated. In addition to the food, the language is the glue that holds our generations together.

As my parents have gotten older, they’ve started to revert back to their native tongue. I want my children to be able to understand and converse with their grandparents. Although the primarily language my husband and I speak is English, we have made speaking Cantonese a top priority in our household. We don’t want to lose that part of ourselves.

A sign of the times

I’m certain the program facilitator had good intentions, and I believe she was merely concerned about my daughter’s development. I understand she was providing advice based on her perspective, but despite her decades of experience, her behaviour is stuck in the past. I see it as reflecting a time when ignorance was tolerated and cultural sensitivity was about treating everyone the same.

I’ve evolved and grown just as the social landscape has changed. I parent in a way that aligns with my values, morals and beliefs depending on my children’s needs.

Since this incident, we’ve pulled our daughter out of the program and I’ve met dozens of educators who are inclusive and celebrate diversity. I stand proud of my decision and I can already see how it’s taking shape.

Recently, as I was picking my daughter up from my parents, I overheard a conversation between my mom and my daughter.

My mom (in perfect English):

“Remember it’s Mother’s Day on Sunday."

My daughter (in perfect Cantonese):

“係啦係啦, 婆婆! 我會祝媽咪母親節快樂啦!”

(Yes, yes, Grandma. I will wish mommy a happy Mother’s Day!)

And going full circle is the best Mother’s Day gift I’ve received so far.

Article Author Katharine Chan
Katharine Chan

Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP, is an author of three books and a Top 30 Vancouver Mom Blogger. She has over a decade of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality improvement projects and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services and women's health. Her blog, Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve is a raw and honest look at self-love, culture, relationships and parenthood. She shares personal stories to empower others to talk about their feelings despite growing up in a culture that hides them. She’s appeared as a guest on CBC News Radio and Fairchild TV News and contributed to HuffPost Canada and Scary Mommy.

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