The voices that don’t get heard: Why a child’s mother tongue matters in the classroom

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The voices that don’t get heard: Why a child’s mother tongue matters in the classroom

If Katerina spoke in Russian again in the classroom, the teacher warned her, her name would be put on the board and she would miss out on certain privileges.

‘Katerina’ – a seven-year-old Russian speaker newly arrived in the UK – was finding it difficult to let go of her mother tongue (also referred to as ‘home language’, ‘first language’ or ‘L1’) in class, to the frustration of her teacher. Her story is the central point of a recent research paper by Olena Gundarina and James Simpson (see References below).

It’s not a happy tale. With her primary form of communication silenced, Katerina (not her real name) becomes bored – she can understand very little of what is going on – and deeply unhappy. Unable to access the curriculum covered in class, she is eventually recommended for SEND support – something her mother successfully argues against. Katerina does not have a SEND need; she simply has an EAL need. More to the point, she has a mother tongue need that is being entirely ignored.

The authors of the research paper make clear the importance of continuing to use and support the mother tongue of children like Katerina in class. They examine research showing how the use of two languages for new arrivals in a country reduces emotional stress and increases linguistic adaptation (Portes and Hao, 2002; Müller et al., 2020; Liu et al., 2017). Noting that “a positive attitude towards the L1s and cultures of pupils, one which protects an untroubled learning, is fundamental for their success and high self-esteem”, the authors acknowledge the importance of the L1 in learning as “an essential stepping stone to accessing the curriculum”.

Their findings chime with other research in this area showing that support for the mother tongue, rather than preventing proficiency in the main language, actually assists with this.

“Bilingualism has positive effects on children’s linguistic and educational development. The level of development of children’s home language is a strong predictor of their second language development. Home language promotion in the school helps develop not only the home language but also children’s abilities in the majority school language.” (Cummins, 2001)

“Translanguaging is the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximise communicative potential.” (Garcia, 2009)

Gundarina and Simpson conclude their report with some clear points and recommendations. Crucially, they describe access to home language as an “unconditional linguistic human right” and believe that EAL students should be given an “unconditional right” to this in the classroom. They urge classroom practitioners to treat home language as something that is essential for a child’s well-being, learning and development of identity and set out several suggestions of how to do so, such as:

  • “Introducing an ‘L1 space’ whereby pupils [can] learn their L1s.
  • Being ready to ‘disrupt one language space’ policy (e.g. by using ‘translanguaging lifesaver rings’) to ensure that children understand the content of the lesson (Garcia et al., 2018).
  • Enabling children to brainstorm ideas in any language and then share them in L2 (and vice versa).
  • Encouraging flexible use of a bilingual dictionary (or Google Translate), which should be made available for children to use.

In addition, they encourage the use of external resources to support EAL children in using their mother tongue. The Learning Village, as discussed below, would be highly suitable for this purpose.

Good practice in the UK

Not every school in the UK operates like the one in which Katerina found herself. There are wonderful examples of good, supportive mother-tongue practice throughout the country. Many of the Learning Village members, for instance, are enthusiastic users of the various tools and resources for supporting home language that you can find on our platform. For example, we provide access to a translation facility not only for individual words in lessons, but for our flashcards and other word-based activities, so that learners can tackle texts in more than one language. Our EAL Scaffolding resources have a full section on Home language support and international understanding, in which we give many suggestions for incorporating mother tongue into teaching, and for celebrating a learner’s home culture.

One teacher making a real difference in this area is Sally Roberts. A specialist EAL consultant and peripatetic EAL teacher, Sally is dedicated to transforming the teaching of EAL children in the UK. Working in Nottingham, in schools with up to 90% EAL learners, Sally has put in place a number of initiatives that have had a real impact on EAL learning.

In Sally’s classrooms, cultural integration is key. The celebrations and events that matter to the EAL children are celebrated in the classroom just as, for example, Christmas is. At Eid, the children wear special clothes, bring in food from home and play party games. Everyone is included in the activities building up to the celebration and on the day itself.

The language environment in these classrooms is richly multilingual. Every half-term, children are given words to take home and translate into any language they wish. The translations are compared, discussed and displayed in class.

Sally’s favourite part of this integration work is the ‘school language club’. She explains how this is operated in one particular school: “With many Romanian children joining the school, Romanian was the first language chosen for the club. The older Romanian pupils became the teachers and ran a series of six lessons, introducing two representatives of every class to basic Romanian. The representatives cascaded the teaching back to their classmates. There was a final Bingo competition, with a trophy awarded in assembly – and the winners chose the next language for the club to focus on.”

It was, Sally explains, a great success for everyone. The Romanian learners felt highly valued, while the other children in the class benefited from the exploration of a new language.

Sally works hard to include the families of EAL learners in her classroom celebrations and explorations of home language, believing that it is hugely beneficial for families as a whole when their children maintain their first language. She talks about a distressing – and widespread – effect she has witnessed when this is not the case:

“As siblings go to school and begin to speak English, they come home and continue to use English there. Their mothers continue to speak their first language, which the children understand, but increasingly choose not to use. Commonly, the mothers become excluded from their children’s world, particularly their education. This mean that the children also lose the parental engagement that is crucial to educational success. In addition, children can no longer communicate with their wider family. I have witnessed Pakistani mothers break down when I’ve asked them about this.”

Sally recognizes the difficulties teachers face when dealing with classes where children have multiple home languages, but she argues that while this is a challenge for a teacher, it is a benefit for these children and their families – and also, for the other, native-English-speaking children in the school.

A fascinating BBC article covering recent research in this area backs her up. Pointing out that monolingual speakers (including many native English speakers) are in the minority worldwide, the article states that a huge number of benefits are conferred by bilingualism, including “a superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus, better mental flexibility and multitasking skills”.

A rich, multilingual learning environment is therefore as critical for native English speakers as it is for EAL learners. In such an environment, native speakers can explore new languages and cultures and develop their own linguistic skills, whilst coming to understand more about the interconnectedness of the modern world.

But, say some teachers – isn’t it all just too onerous to put in place? Or too piecemeal when efforts are made?

To counter these concerns, Sally related a story from her own teenage years, when she found herself for some time in a small city in Italy, unable to speak any Italian. “Word got out”, she says, “And every so often, someone would pass me in the street and say ‘hello’ in English. It absolutely made my day.” No-one said more than ‘hello!’ – a piecemeal word, if you like – but in this case, piecemeal made all the difference. It showed Sally that people acknowledged her for who she was and valued that, and that they understood the difficulties of being a young person in a new country, where she did not speak the language. ‘Hello’ – in English, in Italian, in Romanian, in Punjabi or in any other language – is more powerful than we might realise in our classrooms. And it certainly can’t be considered onerous.

In school, we want our EAL learners to be valued. But to do so, we must value the languages already spoken by them, as well as their efforts to learn a new one.

“To reject a child’s language in the school is to reject the child”, says Cummins (2011). To accept the language, however, is to welcome the child – and to encourage that language in class is to support that child in fulfilling their true linguistic potential.

 

A short version of this article appeared in the December edition of Education Today – click here to view.

 

Contributor:

Sally Roberts (www.globalcommunityschools.co.uk) is an EAL consultant and specialist EAL peripatetic teacher. She is the co-author of the new series of CGP EAL Practice Workbooks.

References:

BBC Future (2016). The amazing benefits of being bilingual
Cummins, J. (2001). Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education? Sprogforum, 7(19), 15-20.
García, O. (2009). Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. Malden, MA and Oxford: Basil/Blackwell
García, O., Seltzer, K. and Witt, D. (2018). “Disrupting Linguistic Inequalities in US Urban Classrooms: The Role of Translanguaging.” The Multilingual Edge of Education. Eds Van Avermaet, P.,
Slembrouck, S., Van Gorp, K., Sierens, S. & Maryns, K. 41–66. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK
Gundarina, O. and Simpson, J. (2021). A monolingual approach in an English primary school: practices and implications. [Taylor and Francis online. Available at 10.1080/09500782.2021.1945084
Liu, Y., Fisher, L., Forbes, K. and Evans, M. (2017). “The Knowledge Base of Teaching in Linguistically Diverse Contexts: 10 Grounded Principles of Multilingual Classroom Pedagogy for EAL.” Language and Intercultural Communication 17 (4): 378–395. doi:10.1080/14708477.2017.1368136
Müller, L.-M., Howard, K., Wilson, E., Gibson, J. and Katsos, N. (2020). “Bilingualism in the Family and Child Well-Being: A Scoping Review.” International Journal of Bilingualism 24 (5/6): 1049–1070. doi:10.1177/1367006920920939
Portes, A., and Hao, L. (2002.) “The Price of Uniformity: language, Family and Personality Adjustment in the Immigrant Second Generation.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 25 (6): 889–912. doi:10.1080/0141987022000009368.

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