International Mother Language Day

February 21 is International Mother Language Day. Recognised by the United Nations as a day

“to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world

It is a day when all involved in multilingualism, whether personally or professionally, should stop and consider where they can make a difference.

February 21 is not a random date choice for this observance. On this date in 1952, student protesters in Pakistan were killed during a demonstration supporting the inclusion of Bengali as the second official language of Pakistan. Yes, they were shot at by police, for daring to insist on their right to use their “mother language”. Throughout history, minorities have been oppressed and discriminated against through the vehicle of language. All over Europe, regional languages died out due to policies disallowing the use and teaching of languages other than the majority, policies that endure, both overtly and covertly, today (France, I’m looking at you!). And all over the world minority languages are dying out due to lack of support: financial, moral and political. Outright violence in the name of language policy may be rare, but people suffer every day from the effects of government attempts to control and proscribe language use.

We don’t always notice it happening, because it isn’t always “newsworthy”. People are more careful about how they phrase things now – instead of saying “Your language is not as good as ours.” they say “Maybe you should speak more of *our* language to your child, so they can learn it better.” Or they say “Only *our* language is allowed in this school, because it is the only necessary language.”. Or they say “Maybe you should only speak one language to your child, so you don’t confuse them.”.

But no matter how they phrase it, the intention is the same – to proscribe to someone what language is acceptable, and which language they should use. And that is why we still need International Mother Language Day (although I’d argue for a more inclusive name). Because linguistic hegemony is still happening, everywhere, and many people still find it acceptable to infringe on the language rights of minority speakers.

I’m trying to make a difference this year by championing the right of every child to have their “mother language” respected and supported at school, and to bring about better attitudes towards multilingualism within schools.

Where can you make a difference this year?

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

—from the United Nations International Mother Language Day microsite

Mother Tongue reading: A “Beyond EAL” project update

As I have mentioned previously, I am working with Dr. Jane Spiro from Oxford Brookes university on a teacher-training based research project this year. We are halfway through the training year, and it’s been both exciting and moving to see how the school and teachers are taking on-board the ideals behind the program of being an “EAL- empowered school” and the practical implications of this.
One of the most important initiatives to come out of the program so far is the introduction of “Mother tongue story telling” at the school. This is a part of the “Parents as Language Partners” program we are setting up during the training year.
I would like to share with you this fantastic article from the Oxford Brookes website, detailing some of activities and the impact on the school and children. I hope you are as impressed as I am with the quick uptake of new methods and ideas at the school, and how well these are being received by the community.
I’d love to hear your feedback, or hear from you if you work at or know a school that may be interested in the program.
MA TESOL students help local schools embrace EAL training

Celebrating multilingualism at school

I’ve mentioned before that my three children changed schools this year. They went from the French system to the European system. In a nutshell, the European Schools system exists to support the children of EU employees, who need to maintain a high level of skill in their home-country language throughout foreign postings. The schools prioritize “L1″ or “mother tongue” support, either by offering a language section (if numbers are high enough) or daily “Mother Tongue” classes (minimum of five pupils). It’s a system heavily dominated by languages, with most pupils coming out with a reasonable level of fluency in 3-4 languages.
Our school is new, and has only three language sections (English, Dutch, Spanish) and Mother Tongue provisions in several other languages. Yesterday we had the pleasure of assisting at the “Holiday Concert”, and what an experience it was! All of the primary school children participated (nursery had their own show). Each section did performances in their own language, which led to a delightful blend of English, Dutch and Spanish songs and plays and poems. However, the school went above and beyond by having all the children also participate in languages not their own. Dutch kids sang in English and English kids sang in Dutch and Spanish. Spanish kids performed in Dutch and English and Spanish. Children wished us a Merry Christmas in many languages, and the grande finale was a multilingual “Jingle Bells” with children singing in German, Italian, French and English.
It was truly a representation of an inclusive system celebrating all languages, and all the different cultures represented. Each child has a chance to shine in at least one of their languages, and to use the other languages they are also learning. It was truly a linguist’s dream, and I can’t wait to see the show grow and change to include new languages as the school grows.

Reblog: Dialect or Not, That is the Question.

After my last post on dialect, Yin kindly directed me to her post about this very same issue. I come to the dialect/language question from a professional perspective; I have never personally been faced with this difficult and emotionally weighted question. So I share with you this post which I think demonstrates very well some aspects of the question from a personal perspective. Additionally, her musings about the upswing of the Shanghai dialect mirror my own beliefs about the relationship between power/economy and dialect.
Thanks Yin, for letting me share this with my readers.

Dialect or Not, That is the Question..

Using the “second language” at home: What’s the etiquette?

This post was inspired by a reader question, one that I think may be of interest to many minority language parents. A Greek couple have just moved to the UK with their young son (almost 3-years old). They are being encouraged by the nursery to use English at home with him, to help him “learn English faster” and are wondering what they should do about this. It’s always a tricky thing to deal with – when educators are telling you to do one thing for your child’s good, and you feel that the opposite is better. How do you work around this? Whose responsibility is it to “teach” the second language? How will it affect the minority language if they parents start using the majority language (in this case, English) in the home? Will it confuse the child or help? Here are some things to consider when making these decisions.

Firstly, you must consider the age and development of your child. If he understands that there are two different languages and can discuss this with you (even in a basic way, like “This is cheese in Greek and in English we say cheese.” then they are more able to handle the parents changing language with them. So, you could then offer some sentences or words in Greek and then say them in English too. However, there are two drawbacks to this method. Firstly, it may not work. If the child has the choice to listen in the language they know the best, or try harder in the new language, guess which choice they usually make? Yes, of course, they may just block out the unfamiliar English input and focus on the Greek. You could push the issue, but then you put yourself in a position of creating conflict between your child’s two languages. The second issue is that when parents start using the majority language, they can be setting foot on a slippery slope – as the child gets older and more confident in English, they may stop wanting to use the minority language (Greek) with the parents. Because, after all, the parents started using English with them first…

Another issue to consider is how good the child’s first language development is at the moment. A child who is still in the process of acquiring the first language accurately (this is a life-long process, but the critical years are up until about 4-years old), they need the continued quantity and quality of input provided by the parents. This is absolutely necessary to provide the child with a solid, well-developed “L1″. If the parents start prioritizing the new language, to the detriment of the L1, this can have disastrous consequences for the child.

So, all these would point to the answer being that the parents should not start using English at home. How then, to deal with the issues brought up (and suggestions from) the nursery.
Firstly, you need to let the nursery know that your intentions are to raise your child bilingual which means that Greek is just as important as English. And that, developmentally, your child needs to continue to grow in Greek, which will also help their English grow as well.
Secondly, you can agree, with the nursery staff, on some critical communicative points that you will help your child understand. Pictures around the classroom can be very helpful for children who can’t communicate yet, but need to express certain ideas.

This is an example of a communication tool that children can use in the classroom before they are verbal in the new language. Nurseries that have non-native speaker children should have a system of helping pre-verbal children to communicate their needs (thanks to the British School of Amsterdam for the photo from their excellent resources).
With parental help to show and talk about these resources in the classroom, the parents can use the L1 – the strongest language – to help children acquire knowledge of classroom routines etc, which they then can learn the new words for more easily.

As children become more aware of their two languages, and able to translate/differentiate, parents can choose to use the majority language at home. They can create “domains of use” in which they use English together with the child, to help them learn some basic skills (turn-taking in games, for example) and vocabulary in English. These should be well-delineated in time and space (we are going to sit at the table every Saturday afternoon and play this game in English) to make sure that the child understands that this is a language-based activity and not a lifestyle change.

The bottom line is that children can learn another language from the “immersion” (or submersion) method, even when they start at later ages. The parents’ main job is to support the growth of the L1 (or mother tongue, or whatever you want to call it!) and by doing so support their child’s cognitive development. If they feel that their child is ready, developmentally, to understand the use of two languages at home (in well-defined situations) then they can choose to do this. They can always support nursery learning by talking about all things nursery-related in the L1, to help the child understand what they are/should be doing while at nursery.
The job of the nursery staff is to provide resources for pre-verbal children to use in the classroom, and to indicate to the parents (via handout or email etc.) what important concepts/routines they want the children to understand in order to be able to participate in class.

And if everybody does their job, then the children will come out as successful bilinguals, which should always be the “end of the road” goal.

“I thought you were going to tell us why English was more important!”

Yesterday, we held a seminar for parents at the primary school we are using as our pilot school for the EAL training project. The point of the seminar was to help parents understand the process of becoming bilingual through school, and how they can best help their children through the process. At the end, one woman put her hand up to say how much she had enjoyed it, and how happy she was to hear that their home language, Arabic, was just as important as English. It reminded me how hard it is for parents trying to raise children to be bilingual in English-speaking places. English is so pervasive, and convincing, that parents and children often end up thinking that it would be better to become “English only” than to become bilingual.
Here are my top reasons why “bilingual” is better than “English only”:

1. Bilingualism is good for (almost) all children, socially, cognitively and linguistically, so why choose against it?

2. The child’s first language(s) (home language, mother tongue, L1) is critical to cognitive development – it’s the language the child learns best in, while they are learning English. It should be used to support the learning that they are struggling with at school due to lack of language.

3. Confidence – children need to continue using the language that they are best at, to promote confidence and appropriate socialization. In the early years of learning English (or other) at school, they can’t really be who they are, as they don’t have the same level of language or social skill. Encouraging them and finding opportunities for them to use their strongest language will give them a niche to be themselves, fully.

4. Culture – Children who grow without the language of their parents (or one parent) exist in a kind of cultural vacuum, where they are part “something” culturally, but are not accepted into this culture because they do not speak the language. I have met many adults in this position, who feel that they have lost their roots, because they do not have access, through language, to part of who they are, and often they feel resentful towards their parents.

5. There is no research evidence demonstrating that it is better, for any reason, to lose a language. In fact, most often research demonstrates negative aspects to losing a language.

The bottom line is that having another language will not interfere with a child’s learning of a new language at school (what many parents are afraid of), and in fact, the stronger their first language, they better their English will grow as well. At our pilot school, the teaching assistants have started using L1 with new arrivals when possible, to help them understand better and integrate. The stories they tell of how use of the mother tongue in school has changed children’s perceptions of school and helped them feel more comfortable are moving. In addition, they have also noted (anecdotally) that the children with mother tongue support at school are actually improving in English more quickly than before.

So, remind someone today that their mother tongue is important!

“You can’t speak that language here!”

One of the great things to come out of our initial training sessions last week in Oxford is that the school we are working with has a very positive attitude towards other languages. Not only do they let kids speak their L1 (first language) but they also encourage them to use it for writing and at home.
That may sound obvious, but unfortunately, it isn’t. Far too often I hear of, or come across, schools with a “majority language only” policy. Most of the time, schools do this for what they believe to be a good reason. If kids need to learn the majority language (say, Dutch here in NL or English in the UK) it seems to make sense to only allow that language at school. Other times, the reason is not as positive, and has to do with disallowing other cultures in school. But really, no matter the motivation, is this good policy and practice?
The answer is a resounding “NO!”. In fact, it goes against language learning theory as well as against (in my opinion) children’s basic rights.
Firstly, school success is dependent on children understanding what is happening. Two small children who share a language and are both learning the school language can collaborate and help each other understand, by mediating what they hear through their strongest language. Sitting in a corner, isolated and understanding nothing, is not a good way to learn the language, never mind learn anything else. And in the process of collaborating, those children are learning to feel comfortable in the school, and learning that there is *someone* who understands them. Imagine the feeling of starting in a new school (and possible a new culture) and not knowing anybody and not being able to communicate, at all. A 6-year old child falls, functionally, to the level of about a 1-year old in terms of ability to understand an communicate. What do you think that feels like?
This leads to my second point, which is that school success is also linked to “belonging”. Children who feel a part of the group, and the school, and who can be themselves, are likely to do better, because their motivation will be higher. Being able to use their strongest language, and communicate at an age-appropriate level with somebody will help kids fit in and feel more comfortable, therefore more likely to try and integrate. Being completely unable to communicate who you are or what you feel, think, need, is not a good feeling for anyone. I watched this happen last week in my older daughter’s new class. My daughter was the only native English speaker in the group (12 pupils) and when the teacher spent a few minutes with each child, the difference in how they were able to express themselves was marked. These are children who are 10 years old, and most of them have been schooled in their L1 up until this year. At best, they were able to communicate their name, age, and how long they had been living here. At worst, they could say nothing at all. In contrast, the teacher walked away with a full brief bio of my daughter – the only child who could use her L1 to converse. Imagine being a 10-year old and being deprived of language?
This leads me to my final point which is, not to overstate things, human rights. I do not believe that anyone, no matter the authority they possess, has the right to dictate language choice to another person, not even to a child. Language and expression are fundamental to humans, and when languages have been suppressed in the past (Spain, Wales) it has been disastrous. Why are we allowing this to still happen to our children, and in our schools?

Post note: I am aware that there are pedagogical reasons for encouraging the use of the school language in classrooms, which is another post. I am talking here about the banning of other languages on school campuses, in particular.