Saturday 12 February 2011

Multilingual everyday uses vs. monolingual school views
=Guest post=

by Jasone Cenoz

I would like to discuss an issue I have been thinking about lately because it is related to my work and my personal life.

I am a specialist in multilingual education, a multilingual speaker and a mother of a multilingual teenager. I live in the Basque Country, in the city of Donostia-San Sebastián where Basque and Spanish are spoken. Basque is a minority language that has become the main language of instruction at school. As schoolchildren are exposed to Spanish, the majority language, they become fluent in Spanish as well (Cenoz, 2009). English is a third language at school and it is an additional language of instruction in some schools.  

Nowadays the need to learn English is strongly felt in society. At the same time, a lot of effort is made to maintain and develop the use of Basque. Basque is an ancient non-Indoeuropean language that has survived for many centuries surrounded by Indoeuropean languages. Schools in Donostia-San Sebastián also offer French and in some cases German and Latin as optional subjects.

The issue I would like to comment on is multilingual teenagers’ use of languages among themselves, and how far their language use is from the way languages are taught at school. This is even emphasized if we look at the way adolescents chat on the internet, as it can be seen in the following example. The actual words are in italics.

         Miren:  zmz?? 
                     (Zer moduz/‘How are you?’)
         Jon:     osond ta z 
                     (Ondo eta zu/‘Well and you?’)
         Miren:  osond te e vistoo
                     (Oso ondo te he visto/‘Very well I saw you’)
         Jon:      yaa yo tambienn pero stabas lejos 
                     (ya yo también pero estabas lejos/
                      ‘I saw you too but you were far’)
         Miren:  jajajja lasai te e visto tambien kon el skate  
                     (jajajja lasai te he visto también con el patín/
                      ‘jajajja don’t worry I have seen you also with the skate’)
         Jon:     jajjaja es de un amigo 
                    (jajjaja es de un amigo/‘jajjaja it belongs to a friend’)
         Miren:  ok

A Facebook conversation between two Basque teenagers
(red=Basque; green= Spanish; blue=English; purple=non words)

This short exchange shows that the three languages are mixed and also that teenagers adapt these languages to their needs, and use them in non-conventional ways. These uses have increased with access to the internet, but code-switching and code-mixing have always been characteristic of bilingual and multilingual speakers. The text shows that these teenagers are creative and not only mix languages but also add “non-words”, change the spelling conventions or emphasize words and syllables by increasing the number of vowels.

But let’s focus on the mixing of languages. The greetings are in Basque, which is the school and family language, but then Spanish, the majority language, becomes the main language. The use of English is more limited but the words used (skate, ok) can be common in this age group even if not for other speakers.

This way to use the languages is in clear contrast with the way languages are taught at school. Most language classes follow the “one language only” policy, whether Basque, Spanish or English, depending on which language is used as the medium of instruction or subject matter at a specific time. The use of any other language is avoided, even when other languages, which are also taught and used at the same school, could be an important reference and even facilitate the learning process. The language practices are separated in an artificial way that is different from the way multilinguals use their languages in everyday life. Separation creates tension.

What can we do about this? The first step would be to consider students as multilingual speakers/learners rather than as learners of each language. In this way they could be encouraged to use their resources when learning and using languages. It could also help to have more coordination among teachers of the different languages so that they plan their syllabuses thinking about the way they can benefit from the children’s multilingualism.

The idea could be to encourage interaction between language teachers and also between languages. In this way, teenagers would not only benefit more from their knowledge and use of other languages but their language practices at school would also be more related to their out-of-school practices. Interaction is more natural.
Jasone Cenoz is Professor of Research Methods in Education at the University of the Basque Country. She is editor of the International Journal of Multilingualism.
© Jasone Cenoz 2011

Next post: One person, one ___. Wednesday 16th February 2011.

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