• Sabine Little

Language, Identity and Education in Multilingual Contexts - Dublin

Last week, I spent three days in Dublin, attending the "Language, Identity and Education in Multilingual Contexts" Conference, and presenting about my research on "resurrecting" the heritage language...and yes, that term, as in "bringing it back from the dead" is deliberate - more below.


The conference was held at the Marino Institute of Education, a lovely backdrop for the 150-or-so delegates, a conference small enough to bump into people repeatedly, and engage in deep and meaningful conversations, but large enough to ensure that there was always a talk linked to people's interests. What I found encouraging was that many sessions reported a change in perception...sometimes, it was hinted at, sometimes, it was explicit. In many educational contexts, it is still a seed, rather than a tree bearing fruit, but I came away feeling positive that, slowly, slowly, we are helping to shift the world view from a monolingual one - a view which even sees bilinguals as speakers of two separate, distinct languages, two souls in one body - to a multilingual worldview, which understands that multiple languages are part of the same identity, and that what we need is a system which views children and adults holistically, appraising, helping and teaching them in a context that acknowledges *all* of them, and not just the bit that is visible in English. The iceberg metaphor has been used by many, for many purposes, but if the education system fails to acknowledge what it can't *see*, then it can, at best, get a distorted view of the person. Jasone Cenoz helpfully juxtaposed some aspects of monolingual vs multilingual views in her keynote:


The conference was so useful because it looked at multilingualism from a number of perspectives, including the formal education system, the informal education system (such as heritage language schools), and the home...that's where I came in :)


The number of people turning up to my session showed that many researchers grapple with not only maintaining the heritage language, but with trying to turn the tide. Many parents I speak to are concerned that if they "slip up", if they don't maintain constant heritage language use, if they give ground and let English (insert other majority language here) into their homes, then it's too late. These findings relate to the emotional links parents have with regards to the heritage language, which I continuously explore in my research. At the conference, I thought I would present the findings from a 2.5 year auto-ethnographic study and spread some good cheer: "It's never too late, and yes, the heritage language *can* be resurrected".


I reported on my own family, straddling, like many in the room did, the divide between "researcher" and "family member", in my case, parent. I told the story of how my son politely asked for "a year out" of speaking German at age 4, when school start did to us what it does for many families - introduce children to questioning the "status quo" at home, and bringing school targets (in our case, "learning to read") into the home. To cut a long story short, I said "yes", one year became two, and at the age of six, my child had turned monolingual (maybe "latent bilingual" is the better word, but as we were soon to discover, any residual German was buried pretty deep).


At the session, I explained how my son, age six, had decided he was now "ready" to start speaking German again, and how, at his insistence, we were now working *together* to bring his German back...and what a difference this made to the many families I spoke to who felt they were working *against* their children. It was my son who asked whether we could "do research together", so we went for full ethical approval for a 2.5 year auto-ethnographic study, the results of which just got sent off for academic review...I won't make you wait for the article, so let me pre-empt it by saying: it worked, and both my son and I learnt an awful lot about ourselves and each other in the process :) I'll be sharing more outcomes from the study giving a keynote in Brussels later this year.


More to read:


Little, S. (2017)  'Whose heritage? What inheritance?: Conceptualising Family Language Identities'. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, DOI: 10.1080/13670050.2017.1348463 (free to access, just click the link)


Work by Jasone Cenoz: https://ehu.academia.edu/JasoneCenoz


  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon