A Mother’s Tale
Synopsis: There are many learning difficulties facing Asian Britons today, language being one of them. Despite the success of the second and third generation, the British Education system still largely remains, hostile ground. Because of this many Asian parents, especially mothers, feel they are not doing enough for their children. How have they managed to overcome this problem? We talk to one mother, and find out how she learned to cope with this dilemma.
A COMMON DILEMMA
Research has shown that when parents are actively involved in their children's education, they do better in school. Therefore a large part of the homework routine centres on children interacting with people outside their normal school life. This helps them practice the art of communication and assists them through a wide range of subjects at school. In other words, children need to communicate at home so that they can fulfil their academic potential. Unfortunately, this is not always possible if a child does not have a relevant peer or parent at home to help, or if a language barrier is preventing their parents from lending a helping hand. This is why the ETC is attempting to help children for whom English is not an active language at home, and give them an equal chance at exam and coursework success.
As part of this ongoing effort to highlight the difficulties parents from different cultures have with the British Education system, I spoke to an Asian family from Kent, who spoke to me about their hopes and fears for their children.
Over thirty years ago Satvinder Kaur stepped into a country that was very cold, very grey and very English. It was the first time she had left her country, and the pavement she stepped on, would very soon become her new home. Like many Asian women in the 1970’s, Satvinder had come to England with her children to join her husband, and start a new life abroad. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Coming to live in a better place with viable prospects for both herself and her children was one she had only dreamed of. But things had been different in her dreams. Though the destination and opportunities were the same, she saw herself communicating fluently with other residents, because she knew the language of this ‘better place’.
“I came from a tiny village in the Punjab in the north of India,” Satvinder told me. “I had only gone to school until I was fourteen, where I had learnt to read and write Punjabi, and completed a few homemaking classes. There was never any need to learn any English at all.”
Satvinder also had three children, all of whom were born in India, but would now have to study in England. Although English was gradually accepted as a first language, her children held on to the accent and words of their mother land. But for Satvinder it was a different story, because for her, Punjabi is still dominant. “I find it incredibly difficult to change the entire style of how I speak with others in everyday circumstances. But when you have the added pressure of knowing no one will understand you if you go to the supermarket or go to pick the kids up from school, it is even harder,” said Satvinder. “My husband found it a little easier to learn English, because he worked with people who spoke it; but for a long time I didn’t work, so it was very hard.”
It is easy to assume Satvinder had not made the effort to learn English, and it’s perhaps silly that after forty years of living in a country, she knows less English than people who have lived here for less than forty days. But Satvinder and her family were first generation immigrants and faced the financial, emotional and cultural burdens that came with emigrating. Consequently, the brief English classes she joined when she first came to England, had to be left behind.
“As anyone will tell you, being a parent is the hardest job in the world. My children took up all of my time, and I didn’t want them to miss out on going to an after-school club because their mum had English classes to go to. My children always came first. Over the years, I eventually learnt small pieces of English and just made do with what I picked up from my children and friends. It was enough to get by on.”
However, Satvinder faced many more challenges with her children as a Punjabi speaking mum. Although she wanted the best for them, it was difficult to help them when she often didn’t know what teachers wanted from her children’s homework. She often felt teachers saw her as a bad parent for not helping her children, when in reality; she would have liked nothing more. Initially, rather than ask teachers for assistance, her children would translate information sent home for their parents. In despair, she turned to a family friend, who would often come round after school to help.
“I would have to communicate with the children in two different languages. They would ask me something in English – I would understand a few words to make the full sentence, and then I would reply in Punjabi. It wasn’t ideal, and sometimes I could tell it was just as frustrating for them as it was for me and my husband.”
It is important to remember that a large number of Asian families feel this way today, because they are first generation immigrants – the first of their family to formally start a new life abroad. Although it is clear that adults have more difficulty in making this cultural transition; it is surprisingly similar for their children.
Growing up in a country that was different to the one your parents were familiar and comfortable with, also affected the younger generation. It could cause confusion and stress in children trying to identify themselves. Are they like their peers who they meet, greet and speak to in English everyday, or are they like their parents and family who they meet, greet and speak to in their native language? Satvinder’s son, Kamaldeep, 23 said, “It was a bit difficult when we were younger, as I was assertive when speaking Punjabi at home. But my teachers told me I was being ‘held back’ by my of English outside of school. It was a catch-22 situation, as I couldn’t speak anything other than Punjabi at home.”
GOING IT TOGETHER – BREAKING THE MOULD
Technology and new subjects as well as the usual English and Maths tasks mapped out a difficult journey that Satvinder had to take with her children. Although it was difficult, she did eventually overcome it. The whole family knew that trying to blend into an English culture could be difficult. But as Kamaldeep explained to me, it was the everlasting support of those around him, namely his brother and sister, which helped them realise the positive effects of having a language other than English.
Efforts such as their mum turning any negative into a positive provided them with the belief they could succeed. She was able to make them realise that although they would be classed as British, the Punjabi language would simply need to be realigned to this other culture. English was how they would succeed in school, and eventually lead them to fulfil their career ambitions.
“If anything, I wanted them to realise that their Punjabi was separate from their English. Punjabi reflected their life in the way that they chose to live. English simply helped them to communicate those valuable choices.”
Satvinder encouraged her children to do well by displaying her own social skills when they went out together. Her English may have been limited but there was no reason why she couldn’t attempt to communicate with other people. Surprisingly, both she and her children found most people were very receptive and went out of their way to help them too.
Satvinder said, “As the children grew older and their workload got heavier, I would actively try to talk to their teachers and try to work out ways to help. Teachers were very nice and went out of their way to help the kids with projects they knew I could not.”
By actively participating in her children’s education, Satvinder helped allay her fears, as she had the chance to experience what her children were learning in a non-threatening environment. Now almost thirty years after she first stepped foot in England, and years after her difficulties with her children’s schooling, she still finds many aspects of her life daunting when required to communicate in English.
“It’s things like starting a simple conversation in English, which then gets complicated because of the speed at which people talk, or new words that catch me off guard – it can get very confusing! But you make do, because helping your children at school is the most important thing. ” Satvinder successfully raised her three children and helped them become fluent in English, despite being born in India. She explained the key to keeping a balance between languages, exists in supporting your children. It is essential to focus on the positives of society and educate one another on the issues of being torn between cultures.
As an educational organization, the Extra Tuition Centre hopes to increase sensitivity and awareness of these positive values between people of different ethnicities and the larger community. The ETC wants to work with a diverse group of parents, some of whom may not easily understand all of the information sent to them from their child’s school, and may see themselves as unprepared to help their children with schoolwork. The ETC feels that like Satvinder, many mothers struggle to balance their children’s cultural ties with those expected of them at school - a struggle which they should not have to face alone. Every mother wants the best for their child, and with the help of the ETC, this can be achieved.
By Hardeep Sandher
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