Wednesday 15 December 2010

Schooling in tongues

Schools gather together teachers and pupils who, like everyone else, must use some language to communicate with one another. Since schools are meant to teach you, it follows that whatever you learn in school you must learn through some language.

In some parts of the world, the languages that schoolchildren naturally use are naturally catered for. The Swiss village Bivio is one example. Rebecca, “a curious Yankee in Europe’s court”, tipped me about this report (thank you!). I should perhaps add that the “linguistic curiosity” noted by the reporter in Bivio is not so curious around Africa and Asia, where it is routine to use several languages and several dialects of each language within the same community.

In other parts of the world, being multilingual and in need of schooling appears to belong, well, to different worlds. Below is a sample of comments that I’ve heard/read in different countries, and my own comments on them.

  • Immigrant pupils need more attention from us because they are multilingual.
Isn’t it because they don’t know the school language? It is clear that you can’t learn chemistry in Khmer if you don’t speak Khmer, or the version of it that your school chose as standard. But it is also true that you can’t learn school things in Khmer if you haven’t been exposed to school ways of using Khmer, even if Khmer is your only language. We all need to learn that languages can be used to talk about school subjects, before learning to talk about those subjects in those languages.

  • The language ability of minority children is limited.
Isn’t it their ability in one particular language? This comment reflects the ambiguity of the word “language”, in English and other languages, and blends its two meanings: language ability, which we all share alike because we’re all human beings; and ability in different languages, which we all share differently, depending on where and to whom we happen to be born. I will return to the bottomless lay and specialist confusion spawned by this ambiguity in a future post.

  • In order to boost their children’s academic performance, parents should be encouraged to switch to the school language at home.
Does parenting involve academic nurturing? Saying that using one specific language in one specific environment makes that language usable in other environments too matches the twin and paradoxical beliefs that there must be one all-purpose language for every individual, and that all languages must serve all purposes. Parents are as much academic specialists as teachers are lay parents. If they were all the same, we wouldn’t need schools.

  • Bilingual children learn better when school subjects are taught in their mother tongue.
Don’t monolingual children too? Any language can serve schooling purposes, if it is used for schooling purposes. Conversely, you can’t make a language fit for use in school contexts if you don’t use it in school contexts. Comments such as this one usually come up in discussions of children’s deficient resources in a mainstream language, like specialised vocabulary or written composition skills. These resources don’t develop spontaneously: written composition skills, for example, develop by practising written composition skills in the places where developing written composition skills is deemed of relevance.

Aside from contradictions that emerge from comments like these, taken together, they reflect the perception that the children’s “many languages” are the complicating factor in their schooling, and the source of academic (or other) underachievement. Schooling involves school-bound initiation rituals, including specific uses of language, regardless of the linguistic resources of the initiated. The complication may lie instead in spending time and effort addressing multilingualism as a complicating factor.

I will come back to schooling issues in future, including how a child’s natural multilingualism may be disregarded in favour of curricular, so-called “second language” learning. The next posts deal with a different school-bound issue, the prestige of the printed word as reflected in budding literacy. 

Meanwhile, like many schools at this time of year, I will take a break while I attend to a number of multilingual and multicultural traditions. 

Happy English New Year to all of you, as I’ve heard it wished outside of the Western side of the world.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Speech passes, print endures. Wednesday 5th January 2011.


  1. What we may also find, in language revival situations, is schooling through the medium of a heritage language that may no longer be spoken by the parents, but still the first language of some speakers in the community. If introduced at pre-school level and followed through in primary and secondary education, successes in establishing fluency in the heritage language have been noted. Examples such as Welsh and Basque come to mind.

  2. Martin: Thank you for bringing this up! It’s fine evidence that school support plays a central role both in children’s healthy language development, and in the change of attitude towards the languages so nurtured.


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