The role of schools in building community links through languages

Connecting-Classrooms-560London has a proud tradition of embracing its many different cultures and languages. Within neighbourhoods, schools often fulfil the role of “community hubs”, engaging families across cultures, supporting newly-arrived families and those with English as an additional language to overcome barriers, and encourage their children to achieve and contribute their skills and talents.

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At risk of digital extinction: Europe’s smaller languages fight to survive

wordcloudNew language technologies present an important way in which we can enable smaller languages in the linguistically diverse digital age, helping them be heard around the world.

This threat of digital extinction for smaller languages will become even more acute as the internet – and the larger languages that it rode in on – extends into every aspect of our lives, dictating how we speak and think. Smartphones, tablets, mobile apps and social media all increase the reach of the digital universe, accompanying us from the second we wake up (and check the news and our email) to the last moment before we sleep (one final scroll through our Twitter feeds).

How can we reverse this trend for the European languages at risk? Read more 

Key findings: Languages in pre-primary education

Pre-primary pupilLanguage Rich Europe research provides a rich source of cross-national insights into multilingualism across the education sectors. Today we focus on pre-primary education.

  • Many European Union and Council of Europe documents underline the importance of early language learning. At pre-primary level, 14 of the 24 countries/regions surveyed provide additional support in the national language for all children funded by the state. The Netherlands and Ukraine devote the most time to this.
  • Foreign language provision at this level is offered by seven countries/regions: Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Basque Country, Bulgaria, Catalonia, Estonia, Spain and Ukraine, although it may be partly or fully funded by parents/guardians. English, French and German are the most common languages offered.
  • Regional/minority languages are offered by 17 countries/regions, and are mainly funded by the state/region. In some countries there are minimum group size requirements to form a group. The widest variety of languages is offered in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Ukraine.
  • Provision in immigrant languages in pre-primary education is not yet very common. However, in spite of the difficulties involved in identifying appropriate teachers and learning materials, three countries (Denmark, Spain and Switzerland) do offer support to very young children for the maintenance and development of their languages and cultures of origin. In Denmark national, regional and local funds cover all costs for these programmes, while in Spain and Switzerland source-country related funds partly cover the costs through bilateral agreements.
  • The only country offering early language learning across all language types is Spain.

If you haven’t already, have a read of Baby Erasmus, a great initiative in Spain and share any other good practice examples from your country by responding to this post!

You can read the LRE profile for your country on the country profile page of our website and find out more about our key findings in the first part of this series – Key findings: Official documents and databases.

Are bilinguals smarter than the rest?

Lately there has been an increasing amount of articles written on the subject of bilingualism. Some argue that people brought up bilingual are smarter than the rest of us. Others tell tales of hardship caused by loss of identity, loss of belonging, loss of friends. According to a recent article written by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee for The New York Times, there is enough evidence to show that

Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.

It’s all down to interference:

– – in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other.

This was previously considered a hindrance but in fact, it makes the mind work harder and thus strengthens its cognitive muscles. The bilingual brain actually improves the brain’s “executive function” which directs things like problem solving and planning. One of the processes this influences is remembering things.

According to the article, the main difference between bilinguals and monolinguals is that they have a “heightened ability to monitor their environment”:

Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.

This monitoring is certainly visible in our 2-year-old daughter’s everyday life. She constantly switches between her two languages, Finnish and Dutch, while talking to people. This is an extract of a conversation which took place recently:

Me: “Sanopa papalle, että kahvi on valmista. Nyt voi tulla syömään aamupalaa.”

She: “Papa, koffie klaar! Eten.”

Also, she switches between languages even within a sentence if, for example, she happens to hear her father come in:

She: “Kohta pyörällä… buiten fietsen.”

I often wonder how much she understands of the situation she’s in, that is, that she speaks two languages whereas many other people around her don’t. It does seem that she recognises the fact and says things like “papa zegt ‘baby’, äiti sanoo ‘vauva’”. She has also learned to know which relatives and friends speak which language.

When it comes to bilinguals having a good memory, I must say that our daughter seems to have an incredibly good one. When she sees a book she hasn’t seen in months, she instantly remembers what it’s about. Or, when she sees a car that resembles her Finnish grandparents’ car she’s seen only a few times in her lifetime, she always shouts “mummi pappa auto!” Also, she seems to remember everyone’s names – even if she’s only seen them in a photo – and she can connect things like berries with her Finnish grandparents.

I could be inclined to say that our daughter is a good example in proving the claims in Bhattacharjee’s article right. On the other hand, I haven’t done many comparisons, so it might as well be that this is completely normal behaviour of a two-year-old, or that this is just how she is and has nothing to do with her being bilingual. Somehow I do think though, that this constant increased brain activity makes bilinguals more active, more alert. Whether this is always a good thing, I don’t know. Our daughter seems to have her head full of things constantly and cannot sleep easily or talks in her sleep – in multiple languages. So maybe this constant language switching and monitoring your environment has such a profound effect that it can even cause restlessness. Then again, maybe it’s just how she is. Whatever the case, I think I wouldn’t go out of my way to make my child bi- or plurilingual, but if it’s possible and comes naturally (like in the case of parents with a different mother tongue), I think it’s certainly worth it.

Meertaligheid is hot!

In this blog post, we have a guest contribution from Drs. M. Blumenthal, senior researcher at Royal Dutch Kentalis. Kentalis is a national organization in the Netherlands providing diagnostic, care and educational services to people for whom the ability to hear or communicate is not a matter of course. Please read on (in Dutch) to find out what Drs. M. Blumenthal has to say about children and multilingualism. This article was previously (7 November 2011) published on the Kentalis website.

Op de één of andere manier lijkt het alsof er dit jaar een enorme toename is in de aandacht voor de positieve aspecten van meertaligheid voor de ontwikkeling van kinderen. Nu de wetenschap steeds dichter in het kinder- en babybrein doordringt, vindt men steeds meer dat het brein het goed doet met meerdere talen. Bialystock vond, in verschillende onderzoeken door de jaren heen, bijvoorbeeld onder meer dat meertalige kinderen beter zij in het negeren van niet-relevante informatie, dat zij beter zijn in multitasking, en dat de symptomen van Alzheimer zich bij meertaligen 5 tot 6 jaar later manifesteren dan bij ééntaligen. Het Frans of Engels dat we op school hebben geleerd beschermt ons volgens haar helaas niet tegen vroege Alzheimer….

Maar er is meer.

Recent bleek in een onderzoek door onderzoekers van de Universiteit van Washington, dat ééntalige kinderen met 6 maanden onderscheid konden maken tussen de verschillende klanken in de eigen taal, maar ook in de klanken in andere talen. Tussen de 10 en 12 maanden zijn zij die vaardigheid echter al weer kwijt voor andere talen dan de ene die er in hun omgeving is. Hun brein heeft zich dus al vroeg gespecialiseerd.

Meertalige kinderen daarentegen, kunnen in de periode tussen 6 en 9 maanden nog geen onderscheid maken tussen klanken, in welke taal dan ook, maar als ze 10 tot 12 maanden zijn, kunnen ze in dit, in de beide talen die ze leren, wél. Ervaring vormt dus het babybrein, waarbij het tweetalige babybrein er weliswaar wat langer over doet, maar uiteindelijk meer heeft gewonnen: discriminatie van klanken in twee talen in plaats van één.

De hoofdonderzoeker Patricia Kuhl licht dit onderzoek toe in een verbijsterend filmpje (ondertiteld in 40 talen, waaronder Nederlands! Hoezo meertalig?) .Er is een mens nodig dat tegen de baby praat, zo blijkt, om baby’s de statistiek te laten uitvoeren die nodig is om uit te vinden welke klanken relevant zijn, en welke niet. Van alleen video of audio leren ze dat niet. Hoe zou dat zijn bij oudere kinderen? Zelf verbeeld ik me dat ik wel degelijk Engels leer door veel naar Engalstalige TV-programma’s te kijken…Maar met statistiek hou ik me dan waarschijnlijk niet bezig…

Meer informatie op de website van Kentalis.