“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.

3 thoughts on ““You can’t speak that language here!”

  1. expatsincebirth says:

    That’s brilliant, Eowyn! I’ve heard once a teacher tell one of my girls that she wasn’t allowed to talk her language in the classroom. She was only talking to a new girl which happened to just arrive and not understand any English. And it was at the beginning of the day, so not during class-hours. – I spoke to the teacher and made her understand, from a linguistic point of view, how wrong she was (ok, I was much more diplomatic than that ;-)). Anyway, I think that many teachers in international schools still don’t know about this. I may suggest that you offer a workshop for teachers at the international schools (and those who just have children from a huge range of nationalities), there is much to do here…

    • Christian Lochner says:

      My daughter is 7 years old and goes to a normal Dutch elementary school (Basisschool). Their curriculum is build around projects (Thema) and the children are encouraged to bring “Thema” related materials to school which are then shared and integrated until that project is finished. She often takes books to school that are either English or German for the pictures that are in it. For instance at the moment they have a Africa project and she took “Tippi my book of Africa” (http://www.amazon.com/Tippi-My-Book-Africa-Degre/dp/177007029X) to school. The children love the book and everyone got to spent some time to look at the pictures. The teacher told my daughter that its great that she brought the book and told her that she can translate for the other children. Reading this article makes me wonder if our school is an exception. In my experience the way bilingualism is integrated in school is quite natural and as I said that isn’t even an international school.

      • eacrisfield says:

        Unfortunately, I know of far more schools that “forbid” other languages than schools that encourage the integration of other languages in the way your daughter’s school does. So congratulations to them, they are ahead of the herd!

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