Changing the language about language

I was reading some online information about the recent local elections, to see what the different parties were campaigning about this time. I was reading it in English, because I am lazy that way… I came across a couple of references to special preschools for children with a “language deficiency”. Hm, I thought. I wonder what they actually mean by this? So I went back to the original sources, in Dutch, to see if it was more clear. And unfortunately, it was definitely more clear. The Dutch word used was “taalachterstand”, which does translate to “language delay”. And it was being used to classify children with “one or more non-Dutch speaking parents”. Wow. What a negative way to refer to the language development process of *bilingual* children. What message does it give to children, to be thrust into early preschool, to help them with their “deficiency”? What impact on their self-confidence, and their attitudes towards the other language(s) spoken in their home? And what message does it send to the parents of these children? That having another language is not a benefit, or a gift, but makes you “deficient”? Seriously, it’s like being back in the 1950s. These children are not delayed. They are language learners who are in the process of learning a new language, in addition to the one they are already proficient in!

We know that being raised bilingual is overall a positive thing for children’s development. We know that a key element of the “positive” comes from the development of both languages. We know that successful bilingualism is far, far better than forced monolingualism. We know that positive attitudes and maintenance of the home language are the best route to successful acquisition of a new community or school language.

Why is it that there is so much information available about bilingualism – research-based, solid information, available from many academic and non-academic sources, and yet the “people making the decisions” seem to have read none of it. Not one word. Do the people running these preschools know this research? I don’t know. I hope so, but given the mandate of these schools, it’s seems that they are unlikely to be havens of positive bilingualism. And if this is true, what attitudes are being espoused, and what advice given, by the teachers and administrators in these preschools, if they are coming from the angle of trying to fix deficient children?

There is no excuse for this kind of dialogue about bilingualism anymore. None. So if you have a child that has an “indicatie” for one of these preschools, please, please talk to them about the importance of the language we use about language for, and with, our children. Or just point them in the direction of this post….

13 thoughts on “Changing the language about language

  1. LJK says:

    Thanks for this! We have encountered a lot of issues on this topic! My son with a milk form of autism DID have a language delay. He didn’t speak before he was 3. He needed extra help. He’s almost 11 now and his entire school career he has been given lower grades than peers without a basis for it. We ask about it and ask other parents and every kid in his class that got a low grade for vocabulary is from a bilingual family! Now with our daughter who has never had any issues with speech (she’s been bilingual since her first words.. unlike son who chose to use only dutch till 6 yrs old). She’s scoring low in ‘taal’ also and being sent to speech therapy for the same issues as our son was! She has no other issues! We’ve heard it all.. experts telling us to lose the English entirely, etc. We have met a few teachers who see the benefit in being raised bilingual luckily but it’s certainly a rare thing down here in Limburg.

  2. Nicki says:

    I think you are probably taking the Dutch article about children who are lagging behind in language out of context. As a native Dutch woman I have had first hand experience with problems children face who were not raised Dutch when I was in primary school. These kids predominately came from low socio economic back grounds and were only able to understand their own native language; usually Moroccan Arabic or Turkish. These kids were NOT raised bilingual and only knew their own language and perhaps very little Dutch. Also they were not read to by their parents who, in general, did not spend an awful lot of time on language development in any way in general.
    This in stark contrast to most of the people whom this blog posting is probably meant for, who do spend copious amounts of time on both language development and teaching their kids more than one language from the start.
    These kids are obviously not from disatvantaged homes and do not have the same “taal achterstand” as the kids these special schools are actually meant for.

    • eacrisfield says:

      Actually, I did not misinterpret the language or the article (and it wasn’t one article in particular, but several), I am fully aware of who the “language deficient” label is aimed at, and I still completely object. I’ll be back when I have more time with some links that demonstrate (through research) that this type of linguistic discrimination is not the road to success, but in fact the contrary. And disregarding the research evidence, it is morally and ethically wrong to label a child as “language deficient” when they have a language, it’s just not the “right” one.

    • eacrisfield says:

      Here is a very good article that presents clearly the need for mother tongue support and growth alongside the acquisition of a new language at school. He also addresses the issue of attitudes towards the home language of children and how that can be detrimental to school success. Nobody is saying that children living in the Netherlands should not learn Dutch – which means that these children will grow up to be bilingual. The parents job is the home language, not to teach them Dutch. But the route to successful bilingualism is not more of the second language earlier, it lies in the promotion and use and growth of both the languages.
      Here is the link, Jim Cummins, one of the foremost experts in this subject, says it better than I do.
      Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education?

  3. The European Mama says:

    I agree that daycares and CBs are not very informed about bilingualism (either openly against it or give you a lame: “Juse speak your mothertongue with them”) because that;s what hey’ve been told. However, changing the language about language is NOT enough because it’s like battling a disease by managing the symptoms instead of fitghting the disease itself. IN Germany, they have a similar problem with the word: “Auslaender”, foreigner. They changed it to: “a persona with migration background” Did it bring on any real change? It did not. Now the media say a “person with migration background” instead of foreigner, but he is still shown breaking into the car and stealing things.Even with a change of language, people will still be able to use the new positive word, to express their negative attitudes, for example by applyaing sarcasm (that’s the beauty of it, I think) or by tone of voice. You need to change the underlying assumptions about something and the language will change, too but it doesn’t work just as well the other way round.

    • eacrisfield says:

      Olga I agree with you completely that changing language does not always mean changing practice. However, in this case I believe that challenging the language is a way into a discussion that also challenges the beliefs underlying the choice of words used.

  4. eacrisfield says:

    There is a large body of research to support the need for first language/mother tongue growth, and the improved educational outcomes from supporting positive bilingualism.
    For the clarity of his expression and his dedication to championing the language rights of minority children, I always defer to Jim Cummins. Here is a great article on the subject.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Given the way that I’m constantly amazed by the standards of Dutch people’s English, I’m surprised to hear that the schools you mentioned didn’t have a more enlightened attitude to bilingualism.

    • eacrisfield says:

      It’s true that the Dutch are known to be excellent learners of other languages, but they tend to learn the same few languages. And the views on becoming bilingual as an older child or an adult are very positive. For the rest, well that’s a political hot pot I’ll not open tonight…

  6. Nayr says:

    It still amazes me that in the 21st century we still label children, with the wrong types of languages, as having a language deficiency – it’s a kind of discriminiation. I was brought up bilingual, with Portuguese at home and English in the community and, NO my parents never changed the language of the home and NO, my parents weren’t great readers – they had a tough upbringing in fascist Portugal – and NO I did not go astray – I managed to get a Honours degree in French and Portuguese language and literature and am working on a PhD, in English, on trilingualism. I thank my parents for never having changed the language of the home, because they gave me a love and respect of my home culture that I cherish today. They also maintained and nurtured my bilingual identity and I was never embarrassed of being one or the other. Thanks for the links to the articles.

  7. dieuwertje says:

    Your story needs some nuances I think. Although I realise Dutch vision on language education is far from perfect, I find it hard to imagine Dutch political parties would look at bilingualism as a language deficiency. Unless you were talking about the PVV, who are known to be shamelessly xenophobic.

    Also, language deficiency does not exactly translate as ‘taalachterstand’. In school we use the term ‘taalachterstand’ when a child lacks vocabulary compared to children their age, and therefore is unable to write texts and understand texts as their classmates do. Not something that could be cured with speech therapy (as suggested above). That would only be useful if a child needs help with the pronunciation of that horrible Dutch language ;-). A delay is not a deficiency, I should say, and is far less negative for that matter.

    Taalachterstand in this case refers to language delay in both mother tongue and second language.

    I know in many Dutch schools the old fashioned and incorrect advise is given, if Dutch grades remain low, to try and offer Dutch at home. Fortunately, more often teachers now learn that in order for a child to master their second language, they need to be proficient in the first one to start with. My daughters school definitely advocates this vision, and encourages parents to work on the mother tongue development.

    Nicki is referring to a big study that was undertaken in the Netherlands (Anna Scheele e.a) to try and explain the delay in Dutch language development (this would probably be a slightly better translation for ‘taalachterstand’) among children with a Moroccan background. Compared to other immigrant children, the delay among these children is bigger. This causes large problems, since these children are very often 2nd or 3d generation, and are here to stay. They drop out off school earlier, which has enormous effect on the overall rise of socio economic status of this immigrant group.

    The study shows that parents from a lower social background read less to their children and use a less elaborate language (let’s say level A). These children don’t always develop the language skills for them to be academically successful (level B). It has a negative effect on Dutch children. But children with an immigrant background who are often only exposed to the Dutch language at primary school (4 years), hence when the ‘simultaneous language learning period of the first years’ is over, learn Dutch (their second language) from their first language and so depend hugely on it. Since their first language is not strong, it is very hard for them to ever pick up the delay they have in Dutch. If their future is going to be in the Netherlands, that seriously damages their future prospects, and is cause for great concern.

    This delay is most seen in children with a Moroccan background. Parents from children with Moroccan (in NL mostly Berber) background, often do not speak the Berber language with their children, because it is not a written language and it does not have much status among the immigrants themselves. There seems to be no pride in teaching their children Berber. Reading in Berber is impossible. So parents offer children Dutch, but a ‘weak Dutch’ very often spoken in a direct sense. Reading to children and speaking more elaborate Dutch to them is for these parents often impossible. These children go to school at the age of 4 with a serious language delay in both their mother tongue as their second language. They are not proficient in any language. A delay, as studies show, that is hard to catch up.

    This now is recognised by Dutch politics. It is a problem that is hard to tackle. The thought is that if these children are offered good quality preschool at the age of two, in a language rich environment, the delay will not be as big. Research has shown that obligatory American preschool has had great effects on the academic development of immigrant children.

    The language used in these preschools could be any, as long as it’s done well. Since these children live in the Netherlands, Dutch could come in handy since it’s the lingua franca of all these children. The focus in these schools will be on language learning, although other subjects will not be overlooked as well. I hope that parents will be advised on how to develop/ continue to develop their mother tongue in their children.

    I really don’t think these ideas have to do with considering bilingualism a speech deficiency, or favouring one language over another. It’s about offering immigrant children more chances in life.

    One of the parties that is in favour of these preschools is actually in favour of introducing English as a second language at an earlier age too.

    Of course there are many other mishaps in the Dutch school system, that cause bilingual children problems. What about the end CITO test ( a very Dutch language based test) that children take at the age of 11 to determine which ‘secondary tier’ they can go to? Almost impossible to score on for children who have Dutch as a second language. However, the system is such that the road to a good quality university is always open, even though it might take you longer. The fact that these are basically free (and often bilingual) creates a lot opportunities also for bilingual children in the Netherlands.

    It seems a bit unfair to judge the idea behind these preschools, without this background information.

    • eacrisfield says:

      Thanks for your comment. I am actually aware of the reasons behind the creation of the “voorschools” and I understand the issues faced by immigrant children, not only here in NL but is other countries too. However, the “bee in my bonnet” is simply about the language we use to talk about these issues (thus the title of the post). The word “taalacherstand” is actually the word used to diagnose children with speech and/or language delays (“speech delay” being related to articulation/sounds and “language delay” being related to structures, comprehension, vocabulary etc.). This label is then allows access to the services of speech and language therapists (or logopedistes In Dutch, of course). My objection is to using the same word for children who are not actually in the same position at all. A child who has an actual, diagnosable, speech or language delay would have the same delay even if they were not bilingual. It’s to with either physiology or neurology. A child who has not been exposed to enough/good enough quality language to fully acquire a language is not the same profile, and to group the two types of children under one label is, in my opinion, of detriment to both groups. Children who are “language learners” sounds very different (to me, as a language professional, and to me, as a parent) than children who are “language delayed”.
      So, all that to say, it’s about the words we use to talk about the children in this situation, and not about the good intentions of the programs. For me, anyway.

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