International Mother Language Day: Putting your money where your mouth is!

Mother tongue promotion in the school helps develop not only the mother tongue but also children’s abilities in the majority school language. (Cummins, J. 2001)

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This year I am celebrating International Mother Language Day at home, speaking many languages with my own children – mother, father and other. Last year, for IMLD 2015, I had the honour of participating in the the festivities at the German European School of Singapore. As the theme of IMLD this year is “Quality Education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes” I thought it would be appropriate to write this post about my visit to GESS last year. GESS is a school of two halves, with a classic German school on one side, and an IB international school on the other. I spent five days at GESS EuroSec last year, doing training with the staff and parents, and sharing in their celebrations of IMLD.

GESS celebrates it as “International Languages Day”, which recognises the fact that children have many important languages in their lives, from their mothers, fathers, school, friends etc. The school celebrates this day with a fair of language tables (Dutch table pictured above, Turkish table below) where children can use their own languages and try new languages, games and food. They also have mother tongue story-telling, with parents coming in to share stories in a wide variety of languages. All of this is a great way to show children that their languages are valued at GESS. However, the school also is putting in place programs that go much farther to support language diversity – past what Sarah Thomas, Head of EuroSec Primary calls “foods, flags and festivals”. The secondary school has a robust integrated program for Dutch and Danish mother tongue, based on a long-term partnership with LanguageOne. The primary school has launched a new “Language Enrichment Program“(LEP) this year, designed to support the home languages of as many of its students as possible. At the launch, they had over 400 pupils in 29 groups, across 13 languages involved in the new Wednesday afternoon enrichment program.

We don’t want to communicate to our children that they need to check their diverse identities and languages at the classroom door, because intended or not, the message is that classrooms are English-only environments. We want our students to bring their whole selves to class, where all their cultural and linguistic knowledge will be valued, so that they, in turn, can value their own emerging, complex identities. This makes for well-adjusted children, and as research tells us, it pays a dividend in academic success too.  

                                                                                       Sarah Thomas, Head of EuroSec Primary, GESS

 This new program is intended to support the students’ home language skills, and also to support the status of their home languages, as languages worth knowing, using, growing. Alongside the LEP, there is also a concerted effort underway to integrate linguistic diversity into the classroom, through the use of differentiated pedagogies such as translanguaging. Although the school has many challenges facing it in implementing and maintaining new approaches to diversity in international schools it is well on its way to being a flagship of best practice for international schools.

UNESCO has made it a priority to promote children’s rights to education in a language that they speak, in order to maximise educational opportunities for all children. In the world of international education we often focus on what children gain from the opportunity to go to school in another language (usually English). It’s important that we also stop and consider what they may be forfeiting if international schools don’t also make an effort to support the continued growth of their home languages.  

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