I recently had the opportunity to engage in a discussion about multilingual education with a diverse group of educators. Two questions seemed to continually bubble to the surface, and I realised that these are questions that many people involved in multilingual education face. 1. What language(s) should represent our national identity? 2. Won’t students from other language backgrounds be missing out if we don’t immediately educate them in the majority languages of society?
Before we get to this discussion – first a caveat –
There are no easy answers. These are very difficult questions, and best practices will change to fit the context. However, acknowledging context is the very place to begin.
In this modern age of recognising the importance of identity, we also acknowledge that identity and language are tied together. So, a major discussion should be how to support all individuals’ rights to maintain and negotiate their identities. Major progress towards this end has been made by accepting that the world is a superdiverse place, and countries are becoming more so all the time. Instead of trying to limit national languages to one or few, we better serve everyone by opening access to many languages. By creating a culture that embraces multilingualism, diverse languages become a solution rather than a problem.
So what about educating minority language students? Study upon study in recent years has pointed to the necessity of strength in the mother tongue in order for skills to be well developed in additional languages. However, it is also crucial to give minority language students access to majority languages in order to have the same life chances.
What order should they be taught in? The problem is in the question. A static approach to language teaching (one after another) will never be successful. Rather, a flexible approach is needed, nurturing and developing multiple languages simultaneously. This serves the students, the teachers, the schools, the families, and the society. It is, after all, a reflection of our linguistic reality.