Adventures in ESL

I happened to be listening to Wajahat Ali’s Google Talk – “From Chaiwallah to Playwright: The Rise of a Pakistani American Writer” when he mentioned being in ESL while in elementary school. ESL, which stands for English as a Second Language, was a program meant for students who weren’t as familiar with the English language, it being their second language and all.

This reminded me that I, too, was in ESL in kindergarten. A couple of times a week I had to go to a separate class and was taught basic english words, accompanied by pictures. I’m sure pronunciation was part of this class too.

A respectable program I’m sure, except for one thing.

I was fluent in English in kindergarten.

I did as well as one can do in kindergarten – I got straight E’s (An “E” stood for “Excellent”. What. Up.) and was also a Late Bird. I think other kindergartens had this too: a bit after the school year started, the class would be divided up into Early Birds and Late Birds. The Early Birds would come in earlier in the day and leave earlier and the Late Birds would… well you get the point. In my school, the Late Birds were the smarter kids. Hey, I’m not trying to be an arrogant showoff here, that’s just how it was. Okay, okay, maybe I am being one just a bit ;)*

And yet, I still found myself sequestered off into ESL a couple of times a week despite how well I was obviously doing with the English language, as evidenced by my awesome report cards and Late Bird designation. It was many years later before I looked back at that time period and finally asked myself “Why was I in ESL?”

I asked my mom about this just the other day. Apparently, she had no idea that I had taken ESL classes back in the day. “But you knew English!” was her response. I know, right?

The easiest answer is because I was brown (I actually still am brown). This was the 80s in Newark, California**. Besides my Pakistani self, there weren’t really many kids from different backgrounds in my class and school in general. Most people in my school probably hadn’t even heard of Pakistan. I’m guessing school officials assumed I would need the extra help. This isn’t a case of anyone being racist or anything, they just didn’t realize that there was a possibility that I was fluent in English. And really, that’s kind of cool of them to even offer services like ESL to help those who really do need help with English. I just wasn’t one of them, but all good!

Things are obviously different now in this post-Pakistani/Indian/Asian invasion of the Bay Area. Now it’s weird to be somewhere that’s not diverse with plenty of kids of different backgrounds who know English good (did you see what I did there??).

Now I just need to focus on not losing the language of my Pakistani background, Urdu. I was taught Urdu when I was a kid but I lost a lot of it due to lack of use but I’m still hoping that I can, one day, make an effort and get it all back, despite my refusal to watch Pakistani dramas, which would probably be the fastest way to go about doing this.***

One day, InshAllah. One day.

Wait, what was this post about?

Oh yeah! ESL! I was in it! Dunno why! Hahahahaha.

The End.

*I think the fact that I still take pride in being a Late Bird when I was five years old means there is something wrong with me.

** Random: My family and I moved to Fremont in ’91 so I consider Fremont my hometown more than Newark.

*** Just a note that my comprehension of Urdu is just fine. My speaking ability… not so much.

Found this pic from the ESL page on Wikipedia. She's learning how to cook in English!

3 thoughts

  1. Interesting.. I was talking with my cousin in Minnesota who works in a public school where they have a lot of Somali students. She was saying sometimes the Somali students are put in ESL or even thought to have learning disabilities, when really its that they adjusting to the new culture and major changes in their lives.. The teachers aren’t really trained to understand what these kids need to adjust and are just desparate to find a way to help them.

    1. Thanks for the perspective Lori! Even though they had it wrong with me since I was born here and already knew English, I definitely think the intentions of ESL are noble and glad it exists. I remember there was one kid in 2nd grade who came from Afghanistan after all the war and displacement that happened there and he was in ESL. The problem is though that he had seen so much and had even lost two sisters because of all the turmoil that you wonder if anyone is properly equipped to really help those who need it. In the end though, I’m hoping any extra attention he was given helped out with his transition!

Leave a Reply