Baptism of 'absolute freak-out'

The language development of migrant children is one of the most common political challenges, conference is told

FAILURE TO make provision for the broad range of community languages in this country could be straying into institutional racism, a languages expert has warned.

The fact that English is a global language presents challenges, as well as acting to Britain's advantage, said Joanna McPake, Director of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teach-ing and Research. She is also co-ordinator of the Council of Europe Valeur Project into community language learning in Scotland, Eng-land and Wales and across Europe.

She told a conference on multilingualism in Edinburgh last week that there was a need to acknowledge that some language were valued more highly than others: "That becomes clear when talking to people about the provision for community languages. It could stray into the area of racism. There is a feeling that 'We don't want to cater for these people' - but more often it is a case of institutional racism."

Authorities assumed that "these people don't want educational provision in that language" because they had integrated well. Other issues included cost and resources, said Dr McPake.

Dr Daithi O Murchu, principal of the Irish-Gaelic school Gael-scoil O Doghair in Newcastle West in Ireland, warned that parents were choosing Irish-Gaelic schools because they were worried about the impact on their children's education of incoming migrant families. "We are being seen as elitist, but in the past we were seen as fourth-class citizens."

He said his country was facing enormous challenges in terms of language provision. "Ireland used to be a white, Catholic, monolingual country which then became bilingual," he said. Now, 167 languages were spoken in primary schools: "We are having a baptism of absolute freak-out."

In Scotland, according to the pupil census of 2006, 137 languages are spoken by at least 28,000 pupils, 4 per cent of the school population - a sharp in-crease, although previous figures were based on estimates rather than accurate statistics.

There are fears about the creation of a language hierarchy, the conference heard - an issue underlined by Serap Sikcan, co-director of the Kinderwelten Project in Berlin: "Children are being given the message that monolingualism is important and multilingualism is not."

Ms Sikcan told the conference, organised by Children in Scotland, that the language development of migrant children was one of the most common of political challenges. In Germany, multilingual children speaking non-dominant languages such as Arab or Turkish were defined as a problem.

Multilingualism in children was seen as "a special skill of uncertain value". The result was that children who spoke the majority language got the message that their language was valued differently, leading to a feeling of superiority in majority children and inferiority in migrant children, which, she said, was damaging for everyone.

Priscilla Clarke, executive director of the Free Kindergarten Association in Victoria, Australia, a multicultural resource centre, listed a catalogue of consequences for young children's development if they were not allowed to develop their first language.

"If the home language and culture are ignored or devalued, this leads to the loss of feelings of self worth; a loss of motivation for learning; the breakdown of family relationships; the loss of values, beliefs and family wisdom; the loss of intimacy that comes from shared interactions; and the loss of opportunities for continued cognitive development," she said.

"Bilingualism has cognitive ad-vantages - children develop different strategies of thinking from those of monolingual children. They are better at divergent thinking. If they cannot solve a problem one way, they try another."

She added that the early years were the foundation for children's cognitive development. Much of the significant growth in the acquisition of new concepts occur-red through children's knowledge of language.

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