Saturday, 6 February 2016

Being multilingual in school

Schooling nurtures development of academic ways of talking about things. This has come to be called ‘education’, in the sense that an ‘educated’ person is able to use language in this way. Schooling teaches us how, why and with whom our languages can be used to acquire knowledge formally, about history, chemistry, or geography, things that not all of us will have encountered at home, by these or any other names. It also teaches us that knowledge, of these and other things, can come to us from strangers, not just from people whom we’ve been familiar with from birth.

Since all of us must be schooled in some language, those strangers will use their language(s) to us. This means that we’ll be facing new ways of using our old languages, or new ways of using new ones. For some children, the ability to switch use of their language(s) appropriately, according to purpose, topic or interlocutor, won’t be new at school start. Preschoolers know how to deal with linguistic register (the technical term for this) both passively, as Laura Wagner and Maia Greene-Havas report in Development in children’s comprehension of linguistic register, and actively, as Melissa Redford and Christina Gildersleeve-Neumann show in The development of distinct speaking styles in preschool children.

For all children, however, using languages in school-bound ways will be new, because school will be a new environment to them. For multilingual and monolingual children alike, home and school uses of language won’t match. Tradition has it that we label such monolingual uses ‘language varieties’ (or dialects, or registers) and multilingual ones ‘languages’, although what the children will need to learn is exactly the same: to sort out their linguistic resources appropriately.

All of us, young and old, learn to manage register switches on the job and because of different jobs. Children will acquire school uses of language by being exposed to those uses and practising them in a school environment, just like they acquired home uses of language through exposure and practice at home. Exposure and practice is what teaches us linguistic skills, and what generates awareness that our languages offer differentially appropriate choices to what we wish to say. We’re not born knowing how to use our languages before we start using them.

Home and school uses of language are, indeed, differentially appropriate, each befitting its environment qualitatively. They do not represent the gradable quantities of linguistic competence that popular and very unfortunate labels such as ‘basic’ (for home uses) and ‘academic’ (for school uses) appear to imply, whether applied to languages or language varieties. In the case of multilinguals, reliance on judgemental labels such as these has meant repression of all their languages except the ‘good’, ‘rich’, worth-developing school language.

Forbidding the use of the home language not just in class but in school premises may no longer involve the physical violence it once did, for both spoken and sign languages, but advice to parents to switch to the school language at home, in order to “enhance” their children’s academic performance still abounds. Such advice may include threatening assertions of dire consequences, for the children, of continued use of “too many languages at home”. Parents in multilingual families keep writing to me agonising over what to do about this, given their inability to use the school language in school-bound ways, or to use it at all, or their unwillingness to comply, objecting to what they deem an intrusion: just like school language practices are decided in school, not at home, home language practices are decided at home, not in school.

School recommendations of this kind reflect an intriguing view that multilingual schoolchildren must strive to become monolingual both in school and at home. They come not only from local schools in places traditionally associated with monolingualism, but also from international schools, whose designation itself traditionally associates with multilingualism. Why should multilingualism be undesirable for academic achievement? The answer might lie in simple ignorance of what multilingualism is.

There is, first, the myth that multilingualism is subtractive by definition, whereby learning a new language means losing other languages. Second, the myth that only one language can promote ‘higher’ academic goals. And third, the myth that only school languages and school environments support intellectual sophistication. What’s ‘basic’, I wonder, about cooking dinner with our children, say? This is likely to take place at home rather than in school, through home languages rather than school ones, and this is doing science, besides being an excellent (and fun) way of honing cultural, gastronomic and maths skills.

Other reasons to promote mainstream monolingualism, equally rooted in zero-sum ideologies, relate instead to power relations within communities. Entitlement to one’s languages (and to calling them languages rather than, say, dialects) carries entitlement to what those languages represent, and therefore threatens the entitlement of the powers that be to decide who is entitled to use which languages. Do we want to pursue the scenario described in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? On first suspicion of Guy Montag’s deviation from standard book burning rituals, Captain Beatty lectures him: “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, [...] but everyone made equal.” And he adds: “[T]he home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That’s why we’ve lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we’re almost snatching them from the cradle.”

Or do we want to make it clear to ourselves and the children in our care that there is no conflict between home and school uses of language because they serve distinct environments? To my mind, school would be an ideal environment to teach children both that using language(s) at home and in school is a matter of appropriate choices, and why these choices matter. Where else, in fact, can we be educated about this? Simply suppressing inappropriate home uses of language in school won’t work, because we can’t make choices if we don’t know that there are choices to make.

School-bound linguistic resources are not synonymous with ‘linguistic resources’, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual. We can talk about anything in any language, if we so wish, because the languages aren’t in charge: we are. If using the same language at home and in school were the key to enhanced academic accomplishment, children growing up in monolingual environments would outperform their multilingual peers academically. I’m sure that the parents who worry about these school recommendations would be very interested to know about research supporting this. So would I.

In contrast to mythical beliefs in redemption through ‘higher’ monolingualism, what research does show is that nurturing the learners’ full linguistic repertoire in school favours academic achievement. Virginia Scott and María José de la Fuente show this in their paper What’s the Problem?, and so does Joana Duarte in Migrants’ educational success through innovation: The case of the Hamburg bilingual schools.

Nurturing schoolchildren’s multilingualism, by the way, doesn’t mean the other mythical absurdity that everyone in school must become fluent in everyone else’s languages. It means nurturing schoolchildren’s multilingualism. See, for example, Maurice Carder’s book, Bilingualism in International Schools. A Model for Enriching Language Education; or Jean-Jacques Weber’s Flexible Multilingual Education. Putting Children’s Needs First, on which the author contributed a guest blogpost to this forum; or Sandie Mourão and Mónica Lourenço’s collection Early Years Second Language Education, to which I wrote a Foreword.

Being multilingual in school is a norm, not an affliction to excise. I mean the word norm quite literally: multilinguals are special only when misconstrued through monolingual lenses. This is why most referrals of multilingual schoolchildren to ‘special/remedial’ intervention come from schools where monolingualism still reigns as unquestionable benchmark of linguistic skills. The next post has some more on this.

© MCF 2016

Next post: Being multilingual in clinic. Saturday 5th March 2016.

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