Wednesday 9 February 2011

Multilingual adventures in School-Land

Schooling marks The Great Divide between babyhood, when you learn what matters around you, and studenthood, when you learn what other people decided should matter around you. For multilingual children, one issue that becomes relevant for schooling purposes is how their multilingualism matters.

For many centuries, language subjects have been on offer as compulsory subjects in standard schooling packages, in many places around the world. This must mean that educationists generally agree that knowledge of more than one language is a good thing. But what does “knowledge of more than one language” mean, exactly?

School language subjects do not aim at turning students into users of languages. If they did, it wouldn’t make sense for, say, monolingual Portuguese children to have a compulsory school subject called “Portuguese”. The goal is to provide students with a different skill: the means to talk about language through a specialised language, just like specialised languages are also provided in school to talk about numbers or the human body. Fair enough, and kudos to boot. I would be the last person to question the relevance of this goal: as a linguist, the language of language is my work and my passion.

However, school language subjects are not called talk-about-language subjects, being instead identified by names of particular languages. You then have to take a particular-language subject, in order to learn to talk about language. In contrast, you don’t need to examine a particular-human-body in order to learn to talk about the human body: examining models, drawings and photos of it usually does the trick. Add to this the assumption that language learners, by default, come equipped with a single language, and multilingual schoolchildren may well find themselves in a bind.

My children did. All three of them, users of Swedish and Portuguese at home, and of English in school, faced French as their first second language, which happened to be their fourth, learned in third place. Besides the number jumble, one other thing that never became clear to me was: why French? Learning languages and learning to talk about language are distinct things. Young children use their languages without being able to talk about them, and old linguists talk about languages without being able to use them. You can learn to talk about language using any language as model, so why French?

Let me make myself very clear here: I love French. I was nurtured in French, and Frenchness, for 10 whole years in school, together with Portuguese. I love French culture, literature, people, music, food, drink, façons. I am, in short, a devoted francophile (in lower case, à la française). Maybe I’m odd, who should have rejoiced that my children would have a chance to acquire another one of “my” languages. But I didn’t. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why multilingual-without-French children like mine had to learn to talk about past tenses, subject complements and attributive adjectives in English, their school language, with French as example – in Singapore, to top it all, where French has little everyday relevance and four official languages have a lot of everyday relevance. My children were as baffled. As one of them expressed it pithily (in Portuguese): “If I don’t need to speak French, why do I need to learn French?”

So what I mean is perhaps not why French?, but why is a learner’s natural multilingualism shunned in class, in favour of syllabus multilingualism-of-sorts. My children’s French lessons proceeded in exactly the same fashion as my English lessons, 30-odd years before: in the single language of schooling assigned to the language subject, and treating the learner as a user of that single language.

The next post, a guest post, looks into similar practices from a different part of the world, Europe.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Multilingual everyday uses vs. monolingual school views, by Jasone Cenoz. Saturday 12th February 2011.

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