#IMLD: Supporting Mother Tongue (everyone’s!) at school

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Nelson Mandela

I’ve been really excited to write this post for the International Mother Language Day campaign, because this topic is at the heart of what I do and why – *every* bilingual needs a “Mother Tongue” and every child has a right to use their Mother Tongue at school. And I don’t use the word “right” lightly – I really mean it. Far too often, language is used to marginalise minority speaker children. “Only X language is allowed here.” is a rule in more schools than I care to count, and breaking the rule often leads to punishment. Imagine, for one moment, what it must feel like to be a child who is being punished for using the language in which they were raised, in which they think, play and love. And now imagine for a moment what school would feel like for that child – is it a warm, welcoming place where you feel welcome and included and ready to learn? Or is it a place where you feel insecure, unhappy, unwelcome. A child’s mother tongue is a fundamental part of who they are and where they are from, and they have the right to take that language with them to adulthood, without negative interference from their schools.

Here are some ways that all schools can embrace the challenge of languages, and support all their learners

1. Bilingualism is beneficial to children. All children, no matter what two (or more) languages are involved. Even if one or more of these are minor languages, or dialects, or not really “useful”.  This is a message that all schools need to hear and understand. All too often, bilingualism is seen as desirable and worth working for if the children are middle-upper class and the languages are high status, but bilingualism is viewed as  “problem” if the children are from immigrant or refugee families, and speak a low-status language at home. The brain does not differentiate between high and low status languages, and bilingualism should be supported at school no matter who the children are or what their mother tongue is. Educating staff and moving forward with a “additive bilingualism” attitude will be a first step in supporting the diverse mother tongues spoken in your school.

2. Let the children use their languages, for socialising, and for learning. If you make their language something “bad”, they will use it in this way. I hear all the time “but when they use their own language it is to mock or exclude” as an excuse for banning any other languages in school. If children are forbidden to use their language because it is unwelcome, not as good, or even “bad”, then they will use their language to prove what they are being told. In schools where language diversity is embraced and encouraged, there are fewer language-related problems, because all the children feel accepted and use their languages in more positive ways because of it.

3. Integrate knowledge about language across the curriculum. You don’t have to be a multilingual yourself to discuss how languages work  – the school language is talked about all the time, but let the other-language speakers talk about their mother tongue when language is being discussed. A conversation about how pronouns work in English can be enriched by comparing how pronouns work in other languages – for all the learners, including the monolinguals.

4. Use translanguaging as a pedagogical tool to help your minority language speakers thrive. Also known as “dynamic multilingualism” this strategy for deepening learning and improving language, both mother tongue and school language, is growing in prominence in research and literature about multilingualism in schools. Translanguaging is a practice that plans for the use of mother tongue in the classroom, so that early emergent bilinguals can understand and learn better, and later emergent bilinguals can continue to grow in their mother tongue by using it to mediate academic content.

Schools that enroll large numbers of non-native pupils, whether they be high-status  international schools or regular state schools, have a duty to understand the needs of these learners and provide for their growth and learning in ways that respect the whole child, including their mother tongue.

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