Identity language – what’s that? (Spotlight on Good Practice series)

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

First language, home language, mother tongue, family language… all these terms are used in international education, to try and talk about the languages students bring into schools. But what is implied by all these terms, and how does that affect the language possibilities of students in international schools? When international schools offer programmes designed to support the other languages their students speak they generally designate the mother tongue of the child as the language to support. They may use any of the terms I listed (and they may even have found another term that I didn’t list!) but the bottom line is usually that they set out to support a language that is spoken in the student’s home – usually linked to their passport country. Families are normally required to declare one language as the dominant language or most important language, to be supported by extra classes.

So what’s wrong with that? I write all the time about the importance of schools supporting home languages, so I should be happy when they do, shouldn’t I? Technically, yes. And technically, I am! But I’ve learned something valuable from the EAL/MT team at the International School of The Hague recently, and I’d like to share it as an example of good practice, and how paying attention to the learners in your schools will make you a better school.

At the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year, the EAL and Mother Tongue (MT) staff at ISH hosted their annual meeting for parents of bilingual students. This meeting was informational in nature, to present the programmes that ISH offered for language support for learning English, as well as the MT programmes . At the time, ISH was offering after-school MT programmes for some languages, and had a one-hour a week integrated period, where students came together in language groups and worked on accessing classroom learning through their MT. The idea of supporting MT in schools was one that ISH had always firmly believed in, but in practice it was difficult. The after-school programme was run by the school, but was not inherently connected to school learning. The one-hour MT slot in the schedule was unique and working well, but each child could only have one designated mother tongue. In addition, the designation mother tongue didn’t mean that it was the child’s strongest language (and often it isn’t), and so there were varying levels of fluency in groups as well. Nonetheless, they knew they had a better programme than most schools, and were addressing the language development needs of as many students as they could manage.

But at this particular meeting, a parent was to raise an issue that would lead to a year of discussions and ultimately, the creation of a completely unique approach to languages in international schools. The parent in question was American, but had lived in France with his children for many years and therefore they were fluent French speakers. However, by the school’s definition of mother tongue, and indeed  by any traditional MT definition, his children did not qualify for the French MT programme.  It became clear during the meeting, and the “after meeting” with concerned parents, that this was not a one-off issue, and was going to become more common, not less. In an increasingly globalised education sector, trying to categorise children’s language abilities and priorities by their parents’ passports is becoming both limiting and often irrelevant.

ISH formed a working group that included senior management, the EAL managing team (Sue Tee, Mindy McCracken, Nikki Welsh), and the head of MT (Lara Rikers). Together, this group spent a year investigating the profoundly complex issues relating to languages generally, and MT language specifically, guided by the powerful Jim Cummins’ quote:

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

At the end of this journey, they had new names for languages in their school: home languages, to replace the insufficient term mother tongue, and identity language, to represent languages that are important to children, but not related to their parents or home. In the renewed programme, students can choose up to three languages from these two definitions per year, rather than the former structure of “mother tongue hour”, which was one language per child, chosen when they entered the school. If students choose more than one language, they can switch each term, or between projects. In this way, each student can potentially have support in maintaining both parental languages, as well as an identity language that they have acquired elsewhere.

In March 2017 McCracken and Rikers presented the ISH approach to languages in international schools at the ECIS ESL/MT (now ECIS MLIE) conference in Copenhagen, with the support of Jim Cummins. Now that the ISH Identity Language has been launched in international education I hope (expect!) more schools to start having critical discussions about the language profiles of their students too.

Wondering about translanguaging?

 translanguaging

I’ve been promising for years to write a post about pedagogical translanguaging. In fact, probably about five years! But I always get stuck in the details… I want to present it accurately, and really show how it works. So I created (with the help of Ollydave) this short explainer video, so people can have a 2-minute introduction to a complex topic. Click on the picture above and enjoy!

The Perennial question – can children with SEN become bilingual?

… the real issue is not whether they should become bilingual, but how to best support them in their life with two or more languages. (E. Kay-Raining Bird)

I’ve written about the topic quite a few times over the years, because it is one that causes parents great concern. It is also a topic where misinformation is rife – one of the most common pieces of poor advice that parents get is from speech and language therapists, telling them their child is language delayed because they are bilingual. This is an incorrect presumption, but all too common. The following advice is almost always to drop a language, and of course, the language to be dropped is one of the home languages. The potential consequences for a child losing access to a language they have been exposed to all their life range from social isolation within the family to insufficient cognitive development, but they are always significant and avoidable. The article linked below is an interview with Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird, who has been researching bilingualism in children with three different profiles: SLI (Specific Language Impairment), Down’s Syndrome, and ASD (Austism Spectrum Disorders).

The full article is on Francois Grosjean’s great blog Life as a Bilingual. 

Supporting Bilingual Children With Special Education Needs

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.

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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.

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.