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Should children of immigrants be taught their mother language in school?

These days, among the hottest topics in the media are immigration, refugees and the questions and challenges related to the arrival of new citizens to a given country. As long as people have migrated, they have had to learn the language of their new home country. This is a matter that never ceases to spark debate in the media and between politicians. How fast can we expect newcomers to learn the language? Are they allowed to speak their original tongue? What is the responsibility of the government in regards to the newcomers’ linguistic skills and mother tongue education?

In this article, I’d like to discuss some of these questions, or more specifically; the mother tongues of immigrants, and their status in arrival countries. I’m based in Denmark, and will use the Danish state as an example, but the questions are the same for any western country.

Mother tongues in the curriculum of Danish schools.

From 1974 to 2002, immigrants from any foreign country in Denmark had the opportunity to sign their children up for supplementary language classes in school, namely courses in their native language. The idea was that a better command of the native language could help the child succeed in Danish society. In 2002 when the project was discontinued, the argument was in the lines of “spending the money on teaching the immigrant children Danish rather than wasting it on their native language”.

I believe that this is a crying shame. There are numerous reasons why children of foreign parents ought receive lessons in their native language. It’s beneficial for them, their families and society as a whole.

Wasted potential

One of the stronger arguments is that of competences. People who speak several languages are rare. It’s no simple feat to learn to speak another language fluently, which I can confirm, having spent thousands of hours studying languages in my spare time. When it comes to immigrants, however, polyglottery doesn’t seem to be appreciated in the same way. Natives are quick to criticize a less than perfect command of the country’s language, and if the use of a foreign language like Arabic isn’t directly discouraged or criticized (which is rather often is) it is at least ignored or treated as an irrelevant left-over skill from the migrant’s former life.
The fact of the matter is, however, that budding competences in languages like Arabic, Hindi or Kurdish have enormous potential. If they’re stimulated and developed, a given society will find itself with bilingual citizens who master not only the language of the host country, but also that of a very different one. There’s no limit to what can be gained from cultivating such competences, but the Danish government doesn’t seem to recognize this. Imagine if a large portion of the country’s children were born with five semesters of a bachelors degree. Wouldn’t it be worth it to invest in these future academics? This is almost the case with immigrant children. They’re born into a family who provides them with the cultural and linguistic basics for mastering another language, but it isn’t enough.  In order to establish a literal, professional and academic foundation in the language, the kids need schooling.

Communication with relatives and homework.

Another obvious point is that of the family. A young child who goes to school in a western country, surrounded by teachers and children who all speak the language of the host country, will also become a fluent speaker of said language. There’s no doubt that the educational system needs to focus on reading and writing in order for these skills to be acquired, but this isn’t any different from children who originate from the country. An important difference in the academic capabilities between native western children and the children of immigrants, however, is that parents who speak the language in which school is taught, fluently, will be able to help their children succeed, whereas parents with a limited command of the language will have a hard time. If the children only speak their family-language at an everyday level, and not in a way in which it can deal with and describe the topics taught in school, the parents will be significantly limited in helping their children.
This could be a reason why we see that immigrant children’s overall grades improve when they’re taught their mother tongue in school. It isn’t just a question of language competences, but of general academic improvement.

Identity and a sense of value

It doesn’t matter if you’re an immigrant, a refugee or an expat. Coming to another country to live can be an uprooting experience, and you’ll find yourself having to face a new language, a different culture including all the unspoken do’s and don’t’s, traditions, as well as the people and the authorities who may or may not support and encourage you in your new situation. You often come across the view, that foreigners should learn the language as fast as possible (and then a bit faster) and all-together stop using their native tongues. In Danish schools, it isn’t uncommon to have a ban against certain languages. Sometimes these bans are put in place for more or less rational reasons, but it doesn’t make them less discriminatory. How can a school, for example, ban the use of the Arabic language (because some kids use this as a secret language in which they can say what they want) and in the same time encourage French, German or other foreign languages that happen to be a part of the curriculum?
Your native language is an inseparable part of you – it’s possible to deny it, suppress it, and almost forget it, but making such choices will also be changing who you are. If we discourage the children of Columbian origin from speaking Spanish, they’ll naturally feel oppressed. And what’s more logical than standing up against an oppressor? Both from a pedagogical and a societal viewpoint, it’s much more beneficial to valorize the foreign identity. A Columbian child in a Danish school is special (and it’s an important job for a teacher to find out what makes any pupil special) – he or she has reasons to be proud of his origins and his language, and this should be recognized. Then, and only then, can we begin to discuss what else the particular child’s identity consists of. I think that teachers will find that Columbian children and parents have no problem considering themselves as Columbian-Danish, but no one has the right to take their origins away from them.

I remember once when I went to pay a visit to some friends who live in a popular part of town. These are the kind of places where children play outside, rather than spending their time on video games in their rooms. There are also a significant population of families from other countries. While walking between the buildings, I passed a group of small girls playing. I thought to myself that they must be of Somali origin. Then I heard them singing – some kind of rhyme, in perfect little-girl-Danish while taking turns clapping each others hands in some funny choreographed way. This was the same game that I remember girls playing in the school yard when I was a kid. While this sight made me smile, it also got me thinking. These girls who play a perfectly Danish game while singing in perfect Danish aren’t considered Danish in this society. Perhaps because they’re black, or because they wear the head-scarf. But what then, if suddenly, they were to find themselves in the home country of their parents? What would they have in common with the children of their own age that they might meet there? Do they know the games? The language? I personally hope that my speculations upon seeing these children are only that – speculations, and that these kids are perfect Somali-Danish girls (or whatever country they originally might be from) but the society, school system and governments don’t really seem to encourage this. They appear to be in some kind of limbo where they’re neither the one nor the other. We should appreciate and encourage whatever specialized knowledge or competences the kids might have, especially those that take part in defining their image-of-self.

Knowing another language, culture and customs widens your horizon and gives you the possibility to see things from another viewpoint. You may not agree with a foreign culture, but if you at least understand it and respect it, you have the opportunity to build bridges. Citizens who know and understand two languages and two cultures can help us in reaching agreements. They’re the perfect diplomats and ambassadors and if we help them balance with a foot planted in each camp, they can likely transmit something from one side to the other. Don’t be so arrogant to think that you cannot learn anything from Syria (the country that invented soap) any other country or language group.

To sum up

If you’re unfamiliar with the subject, you might think to yourself, that teaching foreign children their own language seems like a waste of time and money. This is the position of many people and governments. Experiences prove, however, that once immigrant children are helped in mastering their native language in a more academic way, they succeed overall. A wider set of skills and knowledge helps perspectivize in other subjects as well, as well as it makes it easier for the parents to do their part. Moreover, recognizing the origins of new citizens and appreciating the specifics of said origins is the least we can do. It’s a question of respect, to look your fellow human being in the eye and see him for who he is. Being respected and appreciated will naturally make our new citizens feel at home, and what kind of host wouldn’t want his guests to fell at home?

What do you think?

I think that this is an important question in our time. For anyone who reads this, I’d like to hear your opinion on the matter. What is the status of mother tongue education in your country? I encourage you to share your opinion and experiences in the comments below – or better yet – in a response on your own blog.

2 thoughts on “Should children of immigrants be taught their mother language in school?

  1. I totally agree that immigrant children should be a given an opportunity to learn their native languages at school. I used to work as a classroom assistant for a Chinese language school, and many children in my class found it difficult to carry out a basic conversation with their parents. On the other hand, I know new immigrant parents are often reluctant to enrol their children into native language courses (even if they were made available) because they want their children to focus on learning English and adjusting to the new society. Either way, it’s a tough call.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Megan. I’ve heard the argument before, that some parents want their children to focus solely on the new language. I get the idea, but I don’t think that it’s really beneficial. In my mind, a good command of the native language will strongly facilitate the development of the second language. It just makes more sense. I think school personal and teachers should take part in encouraging the parents to enroll their kids in courses, but there’s probably too many factors working against that. It’s sad to hear of children who can’t even communicate with their parents in a meaningful way. The children will end up facing most of the new society’s obstacles on their own

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