What I learned this weekend from Cummins, Krashen, and Genesee

Why are we using the terminology ESL and mother tongue, when for many students English is not actually their second language and they have multiple linguistic identities? How does this term reflect the multilingualism of many of our students?

J. Cummins, ECIS ESL/MT conference, 2017

I wrote this article on LinkedIn two days ago, but just had a request to repost here for those who are not on LinkedIn, so here it is! 

It’s not often that one gets to spend a weekend listening to, and meeting, the textbooks from your bookshelf. And yet that is what I spent the weekend doing. At the ECIS ESL/MT 2017 conference in Copenhagen, I opened the textbooks of my undergraduate and graduate studies, and I heard them tell me their stories.

From Stephen Krashen I first learned about comprehensible input, and “i+1”, and that teachers need to give students a safe space to learn by lowering their affective filters. And Krashen certainly did that for all of us, in his witty, intense, informative, and at times scathing keynote, which reminded us why he is one of the greats, and also, why it’s important to consider for ourselves the message of any speaker, and compare it to our own inner knowledge of teaching and learning. For while he did convince us all of the benefits of reading for learning, and made us all feel good that reading every day will help our brains stay healthy, he also provoked us by claiming that grammar teaching is never useful or necessary. Some had the courage to stand up to him (Mindy!) and some did not, but the discussion was always lively.

From Cummins, many years ago, I learned to think about the whole child, and to consider what it would feel like to be unseen in school, with your language, culture and identity denied. I learned that children do not need teachers to put barriers between their languages for learning to happen, and than we can integrate all of a child’s language repertoire as a scaffold and a guide for learning. And that no, using the home language during school won’t mean kids never learn English. This weekend I learned again what it is to listen to someone who truly believes that they can make a difference, and that teachers can make a difference too. And I learned that being in the speaker slot right after a Jim Cummins’ keynote is a mighty uncomfortable place to be – following in the footsteps of his amazing talk, with three Cummins’ quotes in my presentation, and a room full of people who had just heard “wow”.

From Fred Genesee, whose work I have known and followed since my days as a graduate student in Montreal, I was reminded that yes, children with various language and learning challenges can and do become successfully bilingual. I was also reminded that it is okay to say that bilingualism is not the right fit for some children, if their needs and circumstances don’t require it, and the school setting can not give them adequate support. I’ve been making this point gently over the last years, with the fear of seeming elitist worrying me – I don’t mean to say that bilingualism is only for “smart” children, or for children who speak the “right” languages. But Fred gave me the courage to be stronger in standing up for children who will not thrive in bilingual programs, not because they couldn’t become bilingual, but because the programs are not set up to give them the support they need to become bilingual.

Those were my great lessons of the weekend, but there were many smaller moments as well. From Mindy and Lara from ISH, I learned that passionate teachers who believe in doing the right thing for their bilingual learners can convince a whole school to do the right thing too.

From Susan Stewart from ISL Surrey, I heard new ways of talking to parents about raising children with languages, and of contextualising the discussions we have with parents in different ways.

From Paul Kei Matsuda, I was reassured that being against numerical evaluations for language development and grammar isn’t a radical position that is incompatible with modern education. We can, and do, assess students’ language on many measures that do not correlate to a number or a letter or a pass or fail.

I don’t expect I’ll ever have the chance again to pass a weekend with my textbooks, but I’m certainly exceedingly lucky to have had the chance to do it once.

 

 

Privilege and Paradox in Bilingual Education

A few weeks ago I sat down with Donna Bardsley at Amsterdam Mamas, to record a podcast on bilingualism and bilingual education. The topics ranged from my own experience raising three kids with three languages, to the more complex, and compelling, issue of how language status affects children who are becoming bilingual. I’ve written about language status here before (like this one) but in this podcast we get a chance to go in depth on a topic that is often overlooked in discussions about bilingualism.

Many of you may have heard me speak over the years at different events, but for those who haven’t, here is a chance to hear me live, on the Web! Click on the logo below to link to the podcast. Interview starts at 3:40.

logo

International Mother Language Day: Why is it important?

On the occasion of this Day, I launch an appeal for the potential of multilingual education to be acknowledged everywhere, in education and administrative systems, in cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General

Every year I write a post about this day, but it’s important to remember that “Mother language” isn’t about a day in a year, it’s about a lifetime of language. Like so many of these celebratory days, we take a moment in time to consider an issue that impacts children every day, all year. Here are some facts about why “mother tongue” is important:

  1. A child’s mother tongue/home language is their primary vehicle of cognitive development in the early years. This is why changing language at school-entry is difficult, and often detrimental to, young children. When you take away their strongest language for cognitive processing and put them into a new language, you set them back significantly in terms of what they can understand and learn.
  2. This fact correlates with educational research that demonstrates that children who are schooled in a second language, with no access to their mother tongue/home language tend to do less well in school and have lower rates of school attendance in many parts of the world.
  3. A child’s mother tongue/home language is also an integral part of their character and culture. Not allowing them to use it at school essentially sentences them to who they are within the limits of their second language development, rather than who they are as a whole person.
  4. There is no different in value between languages and dialects. No one language is superior to any other, in grammar, vocabulary or expression. Any language with a written script can be used for education, even if it has not traditionally been used in this way. Languages can be developed to meet educational needs if the will (and the funding) is available. Consider all the words that English has had to invent to keep up with the technological revolution: computer, internet, mouse, googling, blogging, vlogging…
  5. It is possible to design and implement a broad spectrum multilingual curriculum, in which children can access learning in their own languages, while simultaneously developing a new school language for further use. It takes time, effort and leadership (and money…), but it has been done and can be done again. A brief example is the growth of Mother-tongue based, multilingual education (MTB-MLE) in the Philippines, where diverse communities have been making every effort to provide for community languages to be used in the early years of primary education, rather than an abrupt submersion into English and/or Tagalog at school age.

All of these factors also apply to children in international schools, not only to minority language speakers. There is often a mistaken perception that children in international schools who are in language-immersion situations, without the presence of their mother tongue/home language are somehow exempt from the complications that can arise from going to school in a language you are only learning. This, of course, is not true, and even in high-status international schools children benefit from accessing education in their own language, if not as medium of instruction then by way of robust multilingual classroom practices.

We all – parents, educators, administrators, policy makers – need to start paying more attention to our own participation in the dialogue about, and progress towards, a more inclusive education system for all students.

100 Words for a children’s endangered language dictionary is a project I recently supported, let me know if you know of others.

Happy Mother Language Day 2017!

 

Promoting home language use: How do we make a difference?

When I was in Hong Kong last week and meeting with parents and teachers, the subject of discussion was often the issues raised in my previous blog post about HK parents choosing to speak English with their children rather than Cantonese. Inevitably, someone would ask how we can change this pattern of choosing the higher-status English over the natural mother tongue of Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong families. It’s certainly not a problem unique to Hong Kong, I’ve had similar discussions about Arabic in the UAE, Kiswahili in Kenya, and Dutch in international schools in the Netherlands, just to name a few. Although these languages and situations may seem unrelated and distant, in fact the pathways to making a difference are very similar.

How families can make a difference:

Make sure you are addressing the various languages in your family and your environment with your children, and having positive discussions about the role of each. No matter how long you will be in a country, and whether or not you personally choose to learn any of the language, you can make a difference for your child by being positive about their opportunities to learn and use another language, if only briefly. Model positive attitudes about all languages, whether you can speak them or not, and model making an effort to communicate with others – we can all learn to say “Hello, how are you?” or “Thank you” in other languages, and if we expect it of our children we should surely be willing ourselves.

If you are a parent passing on a minority or low-status language, be firm in your own belief about the usefulness and benefit of your language, and pass this belief on to your children. They need to know that the parents’ languages have value, no matter what other people say, and they will be able to use these languages to access their own heritage. Praise them for their efforts in using multiple languages, and acknowledge to them the hard work they are doing!

How teachers can make a difference:

Show, through your words and actions, that all the languages of the children in your classes are equal in value and status. Practice language-integration in your classroom, by varying the language of greetings, taking the roll, and other classroom routines. If children are unable to answer questions or respond in the school language, let them do it in their own language and then use the resources available to you (other students, teaching assistants, technology) to translate the answer if necessary. In areas where the local language is perceived as being of lesser status than the school language, address this issue in class, to let the children know that you value their language and support them in continuing to use and grow in that language.

How administrators and policy makers can make a difference: 

Create in-school (and community) environments in which language diversity is celebrated rather than discouraged or shamed. Provide staff (teaching and support) with adequate professional development to understand bilingualism in development and how to support students who are learning language while also learning content in the classroom. If “every teacher is a language teacher” in your school, make sure you are giving the teachers the knowledge and tools they need to fulfill that role. Create a school language policy that is inclusive rather than exclusive, and that creates spaces in the school for the students to develop their home languages as well. This can be metaphorical space, in the classrooms, or physical space, for home language/mother tongue teaching. And when staffing these programs, ensure that the pedagogy and methodology of these lessons is a good fit for the mission and vision of the school and the daily school experiences of the students – the quality of the programs and the alignment with the school curriculum sends a powerful message to students and families about the value of their languages.

And finally, the most difficult aspect… consider carefully the value of language-based requirements for school entry. Many parents make decisions about language use with their children based on what school/schools they hope to have them attend. However, a child who “speaks English” at home with their parents who are not fluent speakers of the language is not necessarily better set up for success in an English-language school than a child who speaks no English but arrives at school with a well-developed home language/mother tongue (and the latter child is easier to provide support for in many ways).

How the government can make a difference (why not aim high?): 

Have knowledge about language development, bilingual language development and the importance of home languages/mother tongue as a fundamental part of any support or information you provide for parents and parents-to-be. Ensure that all professionals who work with young families (pediatricians, nurses, child care workers, etc.) also have accurate information about these topics, so they can advise parents accurately; they are the front-line for parental support and they need to be able to convince parents to make the right decisions. Engage the community in discussions on language use and development – blog, tweet, spread the word in whatever ways work in your community. The more knowledge and support parents, educators, professionals, have about language development and bilingual language development the more the children in your communities will become successfully bilingual and able to participate fully in education and society.

The bottom line is that in complex language situations, there is no one stakeholder who can make all the difference. Each parent, teacher, administrator, policy-maker, has a role to play in changing the linguistic landscape to create together an environment in which the language priorities for children – parents’ languages, school language(s), community language(s), other languages – are clearly understood and supported.

Please, speak Cantonese to your children!

Waking up to a beautiful morning in Hong Kong!

This is a post that I wrote several months ago, and I am reposting it because I am once again in Hong Kong (Clearwater Bay School, the International Montessori School and LanguageOne HK) and I know this question will be an important one for many parents attending the Parents as Language Partners seminars. If you know someone facing this decision (for Cantonese or any other language) please share!

Obviously this applies to Cantonese-speaking parents… 🙂 but the underlying principle is the same, no matter what your home language is. I’ve been thinking about this issue since I visited Hong Kong in March, and met with many lovely parents who were all attempting to raise their children to be bilingual. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, of course. What was wrong – if that is even the right word to choose – was that these parents were choosing *not* to speak Cantonese to their children, in favour of English. Again, what’s wrong with that? The answer is, of course, it depends. But for most of the families I met, what was wrong was that they were favouring an outside language over the language that their children need to be a part of their families, community, culture. They were making this choice for many reasons, but the ones I heard the most were to have a better chance of getting their children into an English-language school, and because English is “better” than Cantonese. In an effort to give their children the best start they could, several of these families explained to me that they had chosen to use only English (a second language for them) with their children from birth, for anywhere from 2-5 years. They had thought that Cantonese would be “easy” to add in after, and were finding that this was not the case.

So what are the issues in choosing to speak a language that is not your “mother tongue” to your children? Again, the answer varies according to circumstances (and I did this myself, so I am not adamantly against using another language with your children). But in the Hong Kong context, what is happening is a deepening divide between “high” and “low” varieties of language, with English and Mandarin in the front seat as the high varieties and Cantonese firmly in the back seat. In some of these cases the most pressing issue is the use of a non-fluent language as a parenting language. The potential issues when parents use a language that they are not fully fluent in as the main language with their children range from issues with bonding to issues of language development. Focusing on the language aspect, children need a robust and varied input to fully develop in a language, and to be exposed to a level of language that promotes on-going vocabulary and structural development as well as increasing cognitive proficiency in the language. The worst case scenario is that the children end up struggling in school because their language level and abilities are not age-appropriate due to lack of the right types of input. So in this sense, the parents choice to use English to help their children in English-language education may very well actually be working against them. Far better to arrive at school with a very well-developed home language and then build English on that strong foundation.

A second, but not secondary, issue is related to culture and identity. Children in Hong Kong also take “Chinese” in school, but rather than studying the Cantonese used all around them, they almost exclusively (in English-language schools at least) study Mandarin, which is a completely different language. So then the children are learning in and studying two foreign languages – but not their own language. In some cases, they may have enough family members speaking Cantonese to them that they can use this language too, but at least some of the families I met were in the situation of having school-aged children who had very little Cantonese. This means that the only language they can use to communicate with their extended family is English, rather than the language of their community and culture. These children are essentially third-culture kids being raised as strangers within their own culture.

So what should parents in Hong Kong, and elsewhere (this problem is not limited to Hong Kong, of course) do to give their children the best chance of being successfully bilingual and acquiring the languages that the children need and the languages that the parents want? My answer is to start at home, doing what you do best and what your children need first – your own language. Choose at least one parent to pass on the home language, and to be active in this process. If the other parent wants to use English, and is fluent enough for this to be a viable choice for a parenting language, then you can do both at home using the one-parent, one-language model. But the community language should not be sacrificed or neglected in the chase for higher status languages – the better you do your job at home with your own language, the better prepared your children will be to add other languages. The bottom line is that Cantonese children should speak Cantonese – for them, it is more important in the early years than any other language. It’s what makes them a part of their family, extended family, culture and identity. Give them this first, and then plan to add in the other languages (within reason!) that you think are important for your children too.

When Family Languages are in Conflict

A different language is a different vision of life.

  • Federico Fellini

The vast majority of families I have worked with over the years have been in agreement about the decision to raise their children as bilingual/multilingual. Usually they come to me for family language planning advice because they want to “get it right” and ensure that their children are able to use both languages of the parents, and other languages (school, community) as well. But every once in a while, I work with a family in a situation of language conflict; they can not agree on language goals or priorities for their children.

Sometimes, it’s a direct consequence of a divorce/separation which leaves the parents in disagreement about language priorities. As many things become contentious as a family dissolves, so too can bilingualism, and language choice become a serious issue. This is often the case when one parent feels that their language is “more important” than the other parent’s language, and needs to be the priority. Juggling two or more languages in a family home is often challenging, but stretching two or more languages across shared custody adds an additional level of difficulty.

I’ve also worked with intact families struggling with language issues, where one parent is not supportive of the other parent’s language choices. This is particularly hard to deal with as it also impacts the children’s views on language. It can be extremely divisive when parents do not understand or value each other’s language priorities. In these cases, it is often that one parent wants to use a dialect or minor language in place of a “more important” language, and that choice is not supported or encouraged by the partner or extended family, who feel there is no reason for the choice.

And finally, I’ve worked with families in which one parent simply does not like the language of the other, or doesn’t being “shut out” because they don’t understand the other language. This leads to pressure to shift towards monolingualism in the family, to alleviate the discomfort the monolingual parent feels when confronted with conversations they can not understand.  Again, this creates tension in the family that the children can feel, and they may often then choose to stop using the disputed language, in an attempt to “keep the peace”.

In all these cases, the red thread is generally language status. In multilingual families, there are often differing views about the status – high or low – of each language, and this is linked to the perception of usefulness. If a parent determines the usefulness of their partner’s language as being low, they are more inclined, in some cases, to consider that language a hindrance, rather than a benefit for their children and family. I see this most commonly when the father speaks a high-status or majority language, and the mother speaks a low-status or minority language, and in these cases the children very often end up losing the mother’s language, which is at the least detrimental to their bilingual potential, and at worst, detrimental to the parent-child relationship.

In all cases, when we choose to marry someone who speaks a different language than we do, and we choose to have children with them, we have a duty to support our partner in their language choices, and make a family language plan that addresses the need for each language. This means that language choice must be respected, and supported, regardless of personal opinion or personal comfort level with other languages. The language we choose to use – need to use – with our children is highly personal and strongly linked to our own backgrounds and families. Each parent must be given the opportunity to choose the language that they feel best able to parent in, and that choice should come from the heart, and not from the head, or from someone else’s judgement. This holds true as well after separation/divorce; families need to plan for the children to continue to grow in both parents’ languages, to ensure they remain connected to the part of their identity that is linked to that language/culture.

In all bilingual families, it’s important to start from a place of mutual respect and support, and the understanding that the languages of both parents are equally important for children, regardless of the immediate or eventual usefulness of the language.

Raising Bilingual Children: Parent seminar (Amsterdam)

A brief announcement that on Thursday, October 27, I will be returning to the Jacaranda Tree Montessori in Amsterdam, for an open seminar “Raising Bilingual Children: Six building blocks for success”. This is my most popular seminar, and mainly given at schools, so an open event is rare! In the two-hour session we will look at (a little) theory and practice, to help parents understand why they should pursue bilingualism (or multilingualism) for their children, what it takes to be successful, and how to make a plan to get them there. It’s always a fun evening (for me too!) and a chance for parents to meet others who are on the same journey with their children.

Registration at via the Jacaranda Tree Montessori website.