Another weekend, another language

15th July 2011 at 01:00
A parallel education system of Saturday schools is helping bilingual families to pass their mother tongue down to their children. Could it inspire the rest of Scotland finally to embrace language learning?

Scottish children are notoriously reluctant to learn foreign languages. But while the lack of compulsory modern language-learning in Scottish schools continues to come under fire, a parallel system of language classes is thriving outside mainstream education.

The existence of this alternative system is thanks to hundreds of parents across Scotland who have found a way to bypass local authority provision and ensure regular, structured language teaching for their children outwith school hours.

These families are almost all bilingual - at least one parent does not have English as his or her first language. And many have either set up or support their own Saturday language schools, where their children are given an opportunity to learn to speak their parents' home language.

Mainstream schools cannot provide adequate teaching - certainly not to a native speaker level - say the parents, who are hoping the Saturday schools will increase their children's chances of growing up entirely fluent in both English and the other family language.

Bilingualism Matters, an organisation which promotes bilingualism in Scotland, lists, among others, schools for Chinese, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Urdu, Russian, Polish, Arabic, Danish, Greek and Punjabi in cities across Scotland.

Classes take place on Saturdays in the premises of schools, colleges or other institutions, and teachers, many of whom are professionally trained, work with the children in their home language on everything from grammar and vocabulary to culture and history.

While the schools vary in size, ethos, methodology and target age group, the over-riding goal is one they all share: to maintain the mother tongue in the children and give them an opportunity to speak it, surrounded by their peers.

Jenny Carr, chair of the Scotland-Russia forum and a trained languages teacher, said parents had come to her because they were concerned about the lack of Russian language teaching in Scotland. Her response was that these parents should be teaching their own children how to read and write and a bit about their culture. Inspired by the idea, she founded Russian Edinburgh, a Saturday Russian school for bilingual children, which now has more than 100 pupils.

The benefits of bilingualism for these children, according to Professor Antonella Sorace from Edinburgh University, are many, and go beyond the simple wish of parents to maintain the home language and cultural links.

Children who are raised to be bilingual have a more spontaneous understanding of language in general and are often better at learning other languages, Professor Sorace told TESS. They also tend to acquire literacy more easily and have a better awareness of sounds in language.

"From a mental point of view, there are a lot of really cool advantages," she said. "A bilingual child becomes aware that other people can have a different point of view and a different perspective because they have to learn very quickly that not everyone is bilingual."

Her research has also shown that bilingual children are better able to pay "selective attention" and ignore what is irrelevant. "When they speak one language, they have to control the other; they have to block out the unwanted language."

Attending Saturday schools with other bilingual children from similar backgrounds gives these children an awareness that there are others like them, and gives them the input into their mother tongue needed to maintain it.

"Many Saturday schools are limited in the amount of schooling they offer, but it is better than nothing. They need exposure to the minority language," she said.

Judging from the growth experienced by some of the schools, parents appear to have realised their benefits. The Glasgow Chinese School is one of the largest Saturday language schools in the country. Last term, 688 students, ranging from five years old to pensioner age, were enrolled in the school, based at Stow College, to study Mandarin or Cantonese.

Founded in 1972 by Chinese immigrants who had come to Scotland in the 1960s, it now has 47 tutors and 15 assistant teachers, who teach the children to speak, read and write in Cantonese or Mandarin, from beginner to A-level. Next term, for the first time, pupils will be able to study towards Intermediate and Higher SQA exams.

Classes are relatively formal, and pupils of all levels and ages are given homework and sit tests and exams regularly. Chinese culture is also a focus in the school, where children can take classes in Chinese art or dance in addition to language, if they wish.

Although Chinese is one of the few languages where uptake in Scottish secondaries is increasing, headteacher Sam Chau said his Glasgow Chinese school nevertheless offered a service that went beyond the provision in schools.

What schools could not offer, he said, was "our curriculum, our quality and our dedication to the teaching of Chinese language".

For many of the schools, the community aspect is almost as much of a priority as their academic provision, and not all offer exams or exam preparation for children. Parents, especially those who have come to Scotland recently, see them as an opportunity to mix with others and share experiences.

A t Alleman Fun, the German language school in Edinburgh, parents often meet up in another classroom while their children are in class, and friendships have developed among many of them over the years.

This school is less formal than many: it aims to give its 50 or so pupils, aged three to 13, an opportunity to speak and be taught German in a "fun environment", Klaus Moock, the school's president, said.

Children are split into six classes, according to age. While the curriculum for the younger groups is very much focused on exposing them to the German language and introducing them to a wide vocabulary, often through games and German songs, the older groups also spend time on language structure and grammar.

Lillian Ramsay, aged six, has been a pupil for over a year, having spent a year on the school's long waiting list. She makes the trip from Burntisland in Fife every Saturday because, she says, she enjoys speaking German, playing German games and celebrating German holidays, such as St Martin's Day, when the children went on a lantern walk.

"We sing German songs, do arts and crafts, read books in German and celebrate Karnival," Lillian said. She is fluent in German and English and moves between the two languages effortlessly, though some of the children at the school speak only a few words of German.

The huge disparities in ability are a challenge faced by all language schools. This made finding high-quality teaching staff the main priority of the parent committee which runs the school, said Mr Moock.

His point is echoed by Zosia Wierzbowicz-Fraser, who runs the Polish Scottish Children Saturday School in Inverness. A trained secondary teacher and chair of the Polish Association in the city, she only employs teachers who are qualified to work in Scotland; her two members of staff who teach the children English, a subject she deems essential for new arrivals to Scotland, are English teachers at Scottish secondary schools.

Her school offers its 65 children a wide curriculum, which includes English, Polish history, religion (though that is not compulsory), IT and maths, in addition to Polish language.

"In our community, a lot of children tend to be isolated when they first come over from Poland, because they can't speak the language. The actual teaching and quality time parents can spend is limited. There is a danger they lose their sense of national identity and who they are. Through the school, they learn some of their traditions," said Mrs Wierzbowicz- Fraser.

The children are taught in 40-minute periods over four hours each Saturday, and there is "no messing about", she added. The school follows the Polish curriculum as closely as possible.

Based in a primary school which backs onto a Catholic church, the school has become a hub of the community. For many of the children, attendance has become a source of pride.

Like the majority of Saturday schools, it is funded exclusively by parents, who pay pound;15 per month per child. Keeping the fee low is crucial, says Mrs Wierzbowicz-Fraser, as many of the Polish families in the community have very low incomes.

Only a few schools receive financial support from their national consulates; most are limited to the funds they raise from parental contributions. Antonia Secchi, whose children attend a Spanish school in Edinburgh - a small Saturday school which teaches about 20 children in the premises of James Gillespie's High - said the Scottish Government should support Saturday language schools as part of its commitment to language provision.

"We need it - our children don't have enough opportunity to practise Spanish. As they get older, their peers and school life become more important. It is the only opportunity for my children to speak Spanish. If we had funding, we could do a lot more," she added.

"I should like to approach the Scottish Government about this. It is about keeping children bilingual. Multilingualism is going to support society as a whole."

German consul-general Wolfgang Mossinger said he was unsure about the merits of Government support for the parent initiatives, but stressed that consulates should lend their ideological support in every way they could. His own puts interested families in touch with Alleman Fun, and last year donated books so the school could extend its resources library.

The Scottish Government should support bilingual children in Scotland by putting in place a system which allows them to sit Standard grades, Highers and Advanced Highers in their own language, he said.

At the moment, it is down to parental initiative and goodwill on the part of individual schools and teachers to let bilingual children sit exams where there is no provision within the school, or where children already fluent in a language do not take classes in it.

"If you say that bilingualism is difficult to achieve, you should at least make this possible for children from bilingual families. The Scottish state and the education establishment can do that, and schools should not object," said Mr Mossinger.

The children would not need to attend classes, but could be taught essentials, like how to structure essays and gain the specific knowledge needed for exams, through tutors or via online systems such as Glow, he suggested. This would keep costs to the taxpayer to a minimum.

Failure to let these children make the most of the language abilities they already have would come at a cost to the Scottish economy, he said.

That there would be a benefit to Scotland as a whole from having a more multilingual population can be in little doubt. Figures published earlier this year gave a glimpse of the negative impact the current dominance of monolingualism has had upon the Scottish economy.

While the UK represents 12 per cent of the EU population, UK citizens made up only 6 per cent of employees in EU institutions. The Scottish Government has responded by renewing its election promise to strengthen the teaching of foreign languages and roll out the 1+2 set-up common across Europe, where children learn two foreign languages in addition to their own.

A Scottish Government spokesman said it was aware of the importance of modern languages in Scottish society. "When making his first speech in Parliament after his re-election as First Minister, Alex Salmond spoke about the `voices of Scotland' that go to make up what Scotland is today," the spokesman said.

"He talked about the range of languages spoken by Scotland's MSPs - such as Italian, Urdu and Arabic - how these are the voices of 21st-century Scotland and how proud we all are to have these languages spoken alongside Scotland's traditional languages of English, Gaelic and Scots."

Ministers placed a high level of importance on modern languages, both for the opportunities that language learning offered young people, and for the obvious benefits to the Scottish economy as a whole.

"This is reflected in our ambition to introduce the European aspiration of every pupil learning their mother tongue plus an additional two languages. It will take a generation to come to fruition, but we are confident that real change can come about in the way the learning of other languages is viewed," he said.

Two tongues

Bilingualism Matters is an organisation set up by a team of Edinburgh University researchers, led by Professor Antonella Sorace, which aims to bridge the gap between the university-based research and communities.

The long-term aims of the service are to raise awareness among educators, policy makers and bilingual families of the benefits from bilingualism; to help establish communication channels and resources to encourage bilingualism across Scotland; and to make a contribution to shaping policy and strategy relating to it.

The bilingualism website provides online resources, as well as a platform for those adults who deal with bilingual children and a point of contact for families and others seeking help from experts.

Researchers regularly go into schools, nurseries, community organisations and other venues to talk about bilingualism and its benefits to children. They also offer information sessions and consultancy to international organisations and contribute to reports and consultations to promote bilingualism and multilingualism in Scotland.

Lesson in language

At Davina Muhle's home in Kirkcaldy, Fife, there is no chance of a long lie on a Saturday morning. Every week, she takes her seven-year-old son Kasimir to Edinburgh, where he attends Alleman Fun, the German Saturday school.

Until last year, Miss Muhle's older son Julian, who was born in Chile, and her stepdaughter Mascha, both 14, attended a Spanish Saturday school in Edinburgh, which was held at the same time.

Kasimir spends his Saturday morning speaking German, playing language games and doing crafts and projects in a class of seven other children his age. He is supported by his teacher, a native speaker, while his mother takes the youngest class in the school, made up of eight children aged three to four.

The Spanish school attended by the two older children follows similar principles, but is slightly more focused on grammar and language structure.

"For me, the most important aspect was the opportunity for the kids to speak the language with their peers in addition to speaking at home," says the Chilean-born Miss Muhle, who speaks German, Spanish and English.

She enrolled the children three years ago, when the family moved to Scotland from Germany, "with the aim of keeping the language alive and in use in a social environment that is relevant to them and their interests".

Given the recentness of their move, learning new vocabulary and improving their German was not the purpose of the Saturday school attendance; it was more about "maintaining and strengthening their language".

It is important, she says, that they go somewhere they enjoy, rather than having to prepare for tests and being given homework, as Saturday classes take place in addition to their normal schooling and take up a large proportion of their weekend.

All three children are fluent in German, as Mascha and Kasimir's father, Gordon Wilmsmeier, is German. So that is the language predominantly spoken in the family home.

Miss Muhle and Mr Wilmsmeier met in Chile, where Miss Muhle was living and Julian was born. The 14-year-old is able to understand Spanish and hold basic conversations in it.

Kasimir, who was born in Germany, started learning to read German at home at the same time as he started learning to read English in school, which, according to his mother, caused him some confusion initially.

"Because he was learning to read in German and English at the same time, he was a little later than his peers in school, until he figured out which was which," she said.

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