Saturday, 28 June 2014

Mother tongue education or flexible multilingual education?
=Guest post=


by Jean-Jacques Weber



Mother tongue education is often advocated as the ideal system of education for all children in our late-modern, globalized world. However, in this blog post I provide a critique of mother tongue education, arguing that it is not always the panacea it is frequently made out to be. This is also the theme of my new book, Flexible Multilingual Education: Putting Children’s Needs First, where I criticize mother tongue education programmes for being too rigidly fixed upon a particular language (the ‘mother tongue’), and explore more flexible and more child-focused forms of multilingual education.

A first problem with mother tongue education is what could be referred to as ‘the challenge of superdiverse classrooms’. Indeed, in many classrooms of today’s globalized world, there may be students with a wide range of different home languages, which makes mother tongue education increasingly difficult to implement. This allows governments to opt out of their responsibilities, by means of the commonsensical argument that in any case it would be impossible to organize mother tongue education for each individual child.

A second problem with the call for mother tongue education is that it can involve a kind of arrogance on the part of the (frequently white, Western European or US American) ‘expert’ who tells people what is good for them – e.g. that they should keep up their minority language. It has been too easy for researchers to take an attitude of superiority and to look upon (e.g.) South African parents who prefer their children to be educated through English rather than an indigenous African language as ‘victims of false consciousness’ or as ‘afflicted by an attitudinal malaise or syndrome’.

A third problem is that mother tongue education tends to lead to rather fixed multilingual education systems, because politicians, policy-makers and teachers often rely on a discourse of ethnolinguistic essentialism in attributing a ‘mother tongue’ to the schoolchildren. In many cases, however, attribution of a single mother tongue involves at least a simplification of an increasingly complex multilingual reality. The problem is that ‘mother tongue’ is a politicized concept, and hence not the best one for a pedagogical approach to be based upon.

There is therefore a need to move from rather fixed mother tongue education programmes to more flexible multilingual education. While mother tongue education tends to be focused on the standard variety (the ‘mother tongue’) ascribed on the basis of children’s perceived ethnicity, flexible multilingual education builds upon children’s actual home linguistic varieties, upon the whole of their multilingual repertoires including non-standard varieties, urban vernaculars, etc. Moreover, while mother tongue education tends to provide delayed access to a global language such as English, flexible multilingual education prefers very gradual shifts between local and global languages from an early stage (at least for children with multilingual repertoires).

Furthermore, there is a key difference in the primary aims of flexible multilingual education, as opposed to mother tongue education. The latter is often concerned with the revitalization of a particular local language, which is to be achieved through a struggle against the hegemonic encroachment of (usually) English. In the process, it sometimes overlooks the needs of particular groups of students such as migrant students. On the other hand, the primary concern of flexible multilingual education is to include all schoolchildren and to provide them with high-quality access to the languages that they need for educational and professional success. Take, for example, the mother tongue education systems in francophone Canada or Catalonia. The fact that the system may impede migrant students’ access to a global language such as English is ignored by the mother tongue education advocates, in whose eyes the maintenance of French or the revitalization of Catalan is the overarching goal, in front of which everything else pales in significance.

Finally, with its focus on the standard variety of the assumed ‘mother tongue’, mother tongue education frequently erases non-standard varieties or ‘dialects’, which as a result are not seen as worth preserving. This has happened in Singapore, where the focus on the ‘official’ mother tongue – Mandarin in the case of the Chinese community – involves the deliberate eradication of all other varieties of Chinese. Somewhat surprisingly, even academics tend to look upon this as a highly successful language policy to the extent that it has managed to supplant the different varieties – Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, etc. – with the standard variety, Mandarin. The same is happening in China, where nation-building efforts involve the imposition of standard Chinese – here referred to as Putonghua – and the marginalization of the other varieties of Chinese. In light of the political nature of the distinction between language and dialect, these are very disturbing policies and attitudes that seem to be encouraged by mother tongue education: only the standard variety is perceived as being in need of protection and preservation, whereas non-standard varieties are largely erased and considered to be worthless. Another example of this can be found in parts of South Africa, where some mother tongue advocates object to the use of mixed Xhosa-English varieties in the classroom – though these correspond to many urban children’s actual home linguistic resources – and aim to enforce instead the use of a ‘pure’, standard variety of Xhosa, even though this may seem like a foreign language to many students.

In my book, I explore these and numerous other case studies from around the world and show that flexible and child-centred multilingual education programmes would be preferable to mother tongue education, in that they would allow a full acknowledgement of the hybrid and transnational linguistic repertoires that people actually deploy in our late-modern, superdiverse societies.


Jean-Jacques Weber is Professor of English and Education at the University of Luxembourg. He has published widely in the areas of discourse analysis, multilingualism and education, including Flexible Multilingual Education: Putting Children’s Needs First (2014), Multilingualism and Mobility in Europe (2014), Multilingualism and Multimodality (2013) and Introducing Multilingualism: A Social Approach (2012).


© Jean-Jacques Weber 2014

Next post: Some languages are more languages than others. Saturday 26th July 2014.

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