The role of schools in bilingualism that involves a heritage language

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By Felicia Jennings-Winterle, Bilingual Education
Post Updated on October/2016, Fernanda Krüger and Carla Pontes(contributors).
Translated by Michelle Gontijo

What about schools? That place, public or private, of a majority language? What is the role of the school in promoting the bilingualism that involves a Heritage Language, a minority language?

For many of us, the school is an embassy to knowledge, to the development of critical thinking, curiosity, and citizenship. Educators, coordinators, and administrators are, thus, ambassadors in this process of sociocultural growth.

Some people say families educate, teachers teach. But what about thinking that family and school, together, give children wings? Wings make flying possible and allow them to visit the past, present and future in known and unknown spheres. However, children can only acquire and grow their own wings if their emotional, physical, cognitive, cultural and social development is fully accomplished. For the children who belong to a bilingual and/or multicultural family, their development is even more multifaceted, including at least one additional language, culture and identity.

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It is up to the school to nourish this specificity and not make it abnormal. Its role is to recognize all of the students as beings inserted in a social and cultural context. Understanding that multicultural children bring knowledge of languages different than the school’s and experiences from cultures different than the one in which the school is situated, is only the starting point.

This knowledge and these experiences come from home and/or from another context (and even from another country, in the case of immigrant children) and should not be seen as obstacles to learning or considered as something “interesting”, “exotic”. Schools must commit to making a pedagogical-political plan that considers and includes the multiculturalism and multilingualism.

The famous researcher Colin Baker says that, in general, schools force monolingualism on those who have great potential to be bilingual and celebrate the bilingualism for those who were, most likely, destined to be monolingual.

To change that, the school should offer families, multicultural or not, information and possibilities of discussion about bilingualism through lectures, workshops, and readings, providing means to increase bilingual education with varied resources (eg., library with books in different languages), encouragement, and appreciation for the multiplicity of its audience.

Schools can also contribute to the making of heritage language programs within its physical space and/or routine. If approval comes from an authority like the school, parents will certainly be more assured that the bilingualism of their children will be an advantage and not an obstacle in their social and academic development.

How can a school end the vitality of a heritage language?
Karen Mohrstedt Badin, a journalist and visual programmer, lives in the Netherlands and has four children, ages 18, 15, 13, and 10. In an interview given to Brasileirinhos (in 2012), she tells us what it was like to speak and not to speak Portuguese within her family.

Plataforma Brasileirinhos> Can your children speak Portuguese?
Karen> My 10 and 13-year-old can, at a basic level. They do not read or write in Portuguese. They understand it very well, especially the youngest, and respond in Portuguese. But they carry an accent and speak with average fluency.

PB> Did you speak Portuguese only during a certain time in their childhood?
Karen>
I spoke Portuguese to all of them until they entered school. However, my first child was very restless and difficult. At school, he used to get in trouble every day. I was always going to pick him up thinking “what will the teacher complain about this time?” In his second school year the board asked me to stop talking to him in a second language because it was disrupting his performance at school. The school thought he had less vocabulary than other children and they thought he was confused with two languages. As an unexperienced parent, I accepted it with a lot of pain in my heart. But since the request came from the school…

PB> But do you regret that?
Karen>
Unfortunately, at that time, there was not a lot of information available about bilingualism as there is today. I regretted a lot because, afterwards, continuing to speak Portuguese with the other children made the logistics of the house difficult — I had to keep changing the language I was speaking in all the time. At the dining table, when everyone was together, it was chaos. The youngest started to protest and the friends got in the way. When children are a certain age they get embarrassed to be different and to have to speak another language when their friends are around… at the end, with all four, we had a complicated day-to-day life. When it came to the youngest daughter, I thought to myself: it’s now or never, I need to have at least one interpreter at home! I never stopped talking to her in Portuguese. She complained, she protested, she ignored me, she answered me in Dutch, but nowadays she speaks very well, not perfectly, but much better than it was in the beginning.

PB> What resources do you think would have made the process of bilingualism easier in your home if you had them at hand?
Karen>
I think it would have been a lot easier if my husband were Brazilian. It would have also helped if I had a Brazilian nanny or maid, or friends… But at that time there were not many Brazilians here in northern Netherlands. Let alone Brazilians with small children. I would have thought about it earlier if, at that time, I had had access to the kind of information available now on the internet and magazines about the advantages of bilingual education and non-linear learning processes in children. For example, at first, the second language may seem like a disturbance, but later on, as its development stabilizes, critical thinking is benefited.

PB> What kind of resources were available to you but not used?
Karen>
I think there were not many resources. At the time, after having had a hard time quitting talking to my children in Portuguese, I accepted it. I did not think much of it. I had 4 small children and a job, I was building a house… It was too much of a rush to think straight about some things. Only later in life, after seeing other bilingual children and reading more about it, I began to realize that I had made a mistake. Perhaps I could have gone to Brazil more often, but at the time (and still today) an intercontinental trip with a large family is very expensive and requires a lot of preparation and energy. I went there once a year, with 2 of the children in a rotating system. Today, I do things differently and I can give you a tip: last year I went to Rio for 3 months and enrolled my daughters in a school and a summer camp. The interaction with other Brazilian children (and adults) was great to ‘loosen the tongue’ and they had a lot of fun. It was a great vacation, very educational. Ah, another interesting thing: my 13-year-old daughter has dyslexia – which has also discouraged me in the past from insisting on using a second language, in her case – but since our holiday in Rio we have gotten back to learning Portuguese and she is the one who speaks with the least noticeable accent. That is, even with dyslexia, I should have insisted.

So, tell us: What has been your children’s school role in the vitality of your heritage language? Have you been receiving encouragement, means and resources? Have the parents been educated about the benefits of this lifestyle, or has a reductionist and retrograde notion of bilingualism been maintained? Write to us!

Also read:
The role of the mother, the father, the grandparents, and the community.

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 8.49.02 PMFelicia researchers Portuguese as a Heritage Language and is the Founder and Educational Director of Brasil em Mente, the organization that maintains this platform.
© Our content is protected by autoral rights. Share only with the link, citing: Plataforma Brasileirinhos, Brasil em Mente.

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