For those of us who love languages, multilingualism is a great source of joy. That joy, though, is punctuated on occasion with moments set to test us, usually when we least expect it. The CELTA course I did last year produced one such memorable moment.
I was chatting to the students as they were arriving for their English class. I remembered that one of them, a friendly woman in her mid-fifties, had previously mentioned that she was also learning French and Spanish.
Intrigued by this, I prompted her to chat with me in Spanish. She clearly enjoyed being able to practice with me for a minute or two. Then it was time for me to teach my lesson, during which I was being assessed, with feedback given at the end of the day.
Imagine my surprise - if not to say consternation(!) - at being reprimanded in my written feedback for having exchanged a few bits of Spanish with a student before the official start of class. I realise that we (the trainee teachers) were meant to stick to English, and I had been doing my best (not always successfully, I must admit) to avoid using German with the students to maximise their language practice opportunities, but this reproach just struck me as downright petty. It had been about two people connecting, very briefly, over a common interest - an act conducive to building rapport, which tends to impact positively later on in class. There were no victims here. What, then, was this comment exactly if not a gratuitous put-down? Why sledgehammer rules onto a context where they run contrary to the spirit in which they had been drawn up?
Being told what language to speak, when and with whom, by an uninvolved bystander, is just plain patronising. I'm pretty certain that everyone who speaks more than one language has experienced an incident similar to this one. I was 19 the first time this happened to me. I was working as an au-pair in the Midlands (UK) and had made friends with a fellow German au-pair living just a few houses further down the same street. The family she was working for forbade us to speak German with each other because it would "confuse the toddler."