• Sabine Little

A message for International Mother Language Day

A statement by the International Association of Applied Linguistics Research Network on Social and Affective Factors in Home Language Maintenance and Development.

Authored by Nathan Albury (Hong Kong Polytechnic University), Andrea Schalley (Karlstad University, Sweden), Susana Eisenchlas (Griffin University, Australia), Sabine Little (University of Sheffield, UK) and Clare Cunningham (York St John University, UK)

As much as these divisive times concern advocates of multiculturalism and human rights, so too do they concern linguists and educators. With the rise of populist nationalism, the threat of walls between sovereign neighbours, religious profiling, and suspicion of regional integration, we worry what this political milieu means for migrant and Indigenous languages.

Language is, after all, a salient index of culture. An assault on cultural diversity and celebrations of difference are synonymous with an assault on linguistic diversity. The question is whether minority communities, whose language and culture differ from the mainstream but who are rightfully accepted as new migrants and citizens, should be encouraged to retain their languages.

For linguists, that answer is very clear. Of course they should. Let these languages flourish.

But this reasoning should not simply be branded as a political nod towards the left. Supporting the diversity of mother tongues in our communities is much more than politics. It has legal, economic, and cognitive implications for our children.

Today, on International Mother Language Day, let’s remember that children of migrants and Indigenous people have an international right to speak, grow up with, and celebrate their own heritage languages, wherever they reside. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that governments ensure “the development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own”.

This does not mean creating communities that cannot speak to each other and eroding national cohesion, as is often the concern of anti-multiculturalists. In fact, it means the opposite: building linguistically mobile, bilingual, contemporary citizens in touch with their heritage and their citizenship in equal measure. 196 states are party to the convention. Upholding international law includes upholding this promise to speakers of mother languages different to the mainstream.

What is more, languages enrich not just society but also our socioeconomic mobility. Bilingualism creates a highly skilled workforce ready to engage the world’s economic and political challenges in the very languages of those challenges. What better way to gather intelligence about North Korean threats than through Korean, or to land a Chinese contract than through Mandarin? That’s why bilinguals often earn more.

And this all adds to the growing evidence that bilingualism is good for the brain. Bilinguals are agile, abstract, and creative thinkers, and evidence suggests that bilingualism even delays cognitive impairment later in life.

Helping communities retain their mother tongues and become mobile bilinguals therefore seems moral, lucrative, and wise. Unfortunately, not all our leaders agree as they see multilingualism in society as threatening nationhood. Denmark is calling for mandatory language tests for toddlers with punitive measures against families who don’t speak sufficient Danish. The United States has an ongoing tumultuous relationship with bilingual education and the linguistic rights of its children. To access any education in their own language, Polish children in the UK often have to forgo their Saturdays, and Indian children in Oman are denied access to local education, and instead attend Indian schools that teach through English, rather than Indian mother languages.

Thankfully, not all is doom and gloom for mother tongues. Many African nations have long recognised and harnessed the power of their linguistic diversity. Singapore sees bilingualism as social policy central to its multiculturalism, and Sweden supports the development of migrant children through education in their own mother tongue.

In Australia, legislation has finally been passed to protect and revive Aboriginal languages, similar to the mounting pressure in Canada, and Bolivia operates a policy of plurilingualism with literacy programmes in 36 Indigenous languages.

Where does the UK stand on the many mother languages within its borders? In a country where nearly 1 in 5 primary school children are classed as speakers of English as an additional language, and with Brexit looming, it is certainly a topic worthy of urgent consideration. Tobias Jones, in his recent Guardian Opinion piece mentions anecdotal evidence that parents are asked to stop speaking their mother tongue with children at home. But it is not the teachers who are at fault. Schools continue to be under immense pressure to meet targets, and, through reports such as Bold Beginnings, which pushes for formalised tests in the first few weeks of primary school, it is unsurprising that teachers ask parents to focus on English. Yes, children for whom school is the first formal encounter with English may initially struggle, but they will catch up. The problem is not the home language. The problem is not the teachers, who have had to weather change after change towards a system which is more and more based on homogeneity and performance measures from an early age. The problem is an education system which is aimed at monolinguals, without acknowledging that, in multilingual children, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Being able to draw on more than one linguistic and cultural repertoire is a considerable advantage, but trusting that it will “just kind of happen” is dangerous. The British Council’s annual Review of Language Trends included home languages for the first time in 2016, and shows a fragmented education system where awareness and support for home languages in schools relies typically on enthusiastic individuals.

On International Mother Language Day, we call on all our communities not to just celebrate diversity of languages, but recognise the vital contributions they can make. Our call is beyond politics. We have a responsibility to our children, their rights, their socioeconomic opportunities, their cognitive development, and their well-being to champion their bilingualism. More than ever these divisive times call on us to do this.

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(Image used under Creative Commons License from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/)