Where language divides - and unites

8th December 2006 at 00:00
The nursery teacher holds up a pair of scissors.

"What do you call these?" she asks.

"Khenji!" a three-year-old pipes up.

"Scissors," says the teacher sharply.

Dalvir Gill pauses the video - the teacher freezes on screen - and turns to the four women in front of her.

Ms Gill, research fellow for the Centre for Research in Early Childhood at Worcester university, is interviewing immigrant parents as part of an international project to find the best methods for teaching immigrant children in nurseries.

The mothers - one Swedish, one Turkish-German and two Tamil - have watched two videos. The first shows a nursery in Arizona, where bilingual teachers encourage all pupils to speak Spanish. The second depicts a British nursery, where Afghan pupils go to a corner with a Pushtu-speaking teacher.

But group lessons, such as that involving the scissors, are led by a teacher who speaks only English.

The mothers overwhelmingly favour the US approach, insisting that it validates the pupils' mother tongues. One Tamil mother says: "The Pushtu teacher was translating for the children. That's not good. The same person needs to speak both English and the mother tongue."

Ms Gill moves round to the question of identity. Do the mothers consider their children to be English?

The Turkish mother is adamant. "I gave my son the name Kevin," she says.

"Whenever I see the name in the newspaper, I think, 'Great, my son is accepted in this society.'"

The Tamil mother is less certain: "If he wants to be an English guy, he can. But at home, I want him to be an Indian guy."

Ms Gill believes the session has highlighted important points about language support. "These children aren't just crossing geographical borders. There are cultural borders," she says.

Once they have completed interviews with parents around the country, the researchers will compile a series of teacher-training materials to be distributed by the Department for Education and Skills.

"Parents are not always treated as experts," says Ms Gill. "But they are."

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