Last September, I traveled to Graz, Austria, to attend a 2-day workshop entitled “Early Language Learning”, hosted by the European Center for Modern Languages. Each participant at the workshop represented a different European country, and I had the honor of representing the Netherlands. During the round of introductions, it soon became apparent that each country wrestles with a different set of problems in teaching foreign languages to their primary school children. In Scotland, the government had recently created a policy in which all schools must teach French as part of the curriculum. Teachers suddenly found themselves faced with an impossible situation: how to teach French to children, when the they themselves had little to no training in this area? It was apparent that the country was at the start of a long, upward spiral of training the teachers, so they could teach the children, who hopefully after a generation or so would themselves be able to teach the language more adequately.
On a similar, but slightly further-developed part of that spectrum, were the countries that had once been behind the Iron Curtain. Their governments had decided that English would be the foreign language of choice, and schools and teachers found themselves swamped with the sudden need to get training in this area after generations of learning Russian.
On a completely different note, the teacher from Malta noted that the island population had grown 20% in the last year due to the boat migrants. Teachers found themselves faced with the conundrum of which language to teach: English, in the hope of moving them on to Europe in their journey, or Maltese, so they could get along in their current situation?
It made me realize how incredibly fortunate we are in the Netherlands, with teachers and resources enough to face the challenges offered by foreign language instruction in primary schooling, a simultaneously humbling and joyful experience, to say the least. On that note, I will continue on to a story I found particularly inspiring, and one which we all can learn from: the story of Scoil Bhríde.
Déirdre Kirwan, former school director of Scoil Bhríde, a primary school just outside of Dublin, opened the workshop. She spoke of how her school once faced a sudden change in its pupil demographics about 20-odd years ago. What once had been a school of all-white Irish children suddenly became host to children from fifty different nationalities, and the children of Irish descent suddenly found themselves in the minority, constituting only 20% of the school population. The school found itself in crisis: what to do with this massive shift in population while the test scores for the English and Irish languages plummeted?
The team decided to make a radical move: to welcome the children, with all of their languages, into the school. Instead of banning their home languages from the school environment, the teachers made space for these in a myriad of ways, deciding to view these languages as part of each child’s individual language repertoire and therefore useful to their learning.
For example, when teaching young children to count, first in English, then in Gaelic, they then continued the experience by asking the children how they count in their home languages. Soon, children began to share their languages: Russian, Polish, Angolan, Hindi, French, and the other children joined in, copying their classmates’ counting words. If children didn’t know how to say something in their mother tongue, they were encouraged to ask their parents about it and to develop these concepts in their mother tongues as well. As a result, the learning at school and home reinforced each other.
This approach had an unexpected impact on the Irish children, who then began to wonder about their own long-neglected mother tongue, the Gaelic. They soon started asking more about the Gaelic and developing their own language skills, giving this dying language a boost back into the world of the living. Soon, the test scores for English and Gaelic turned around. These days, children at this school score well above the national average. As for the children, they are attuned to the fact that having a variety of languages at hand to express oneself is a valuable thing, and feel sorry for children in monolinguistic schools.
Making space for the plurilingual child does more than just raise test scores. It also recognizes the child as a whole. No longer must he leave his “other” languages at the door, together with that piece of his identity, but he can use that piece of self as a valuable tool in his learning. In my own classes, for instance, I often give my students an assignment to do during the lesson. Invariably, one or two of them end up asking their neighbors what it was they were supposed to do. They ask this not because they weren’t paying attention, but because their grip of the academic language simply wasn’t sufficient at the time. Once their neighbor explains the task in Dutch, they happily complete the task at hand and share their findings with the class in English. As a result, they can continue their development as primary school teachers of English without having to feel incapable.
This realization – that a plurilingual environment is valuable to our children in more ways than one – is just now beginning to arrive in the Netherlands. One need only look through the new curriculum being developed to see this. Plurilingualism is the way of the future, and it is up to us to be prepared for it.
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For more about the European Centre of Modern Languages: www.ecml.at