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Should schools teach all mother tongues?

The teaching of mother tongues reinforces self-confidence, say specialists Reuters

Although Swiss public schools are required to teach in national languages, about 60 per cent of children born in Switzerland to foreign parents speak a non-Swiss language at home. Should foreign native languages get more class time?

“A good grasp of one’s mother tongue is an essential base for a child who then has to get to grips with the language of their host country,” reckons Amelia Lambelet of the Fribourg Institute of Multilingualism.

Therese Salzmann, an expert in multilingualism at the Swiss Institute of Youth and Media, agrees. “The teaching of mother tongues reinforces self-confidence and gives the child a feeling of security.”

She adds that “taking account of a child’s double cultures is a determining factor in their social integration and professional success.” 

Nursery rhymes

Each language is a reflection of society. “Knowing a language and mastering its expression reinforces the idea that the child is part of a group and helps build a rounded personality that is able to open up to other cultures,” says Hélène Char, in charge of Swiss Intercultural Libraries, an association that promotes reading in other languages.

The Geneva example

Together with primary education directors, embassies, consulates and cultural associations organise teaching sessions in first languages.

More than 4,000 pupils are signed up for these lessons.

Around 60 teachers give these special classes.

More than 125 languages are taught in the primary cycle.

Some of the most widespread languages are: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Balkan languages, Arabic.

She also believes singing is important. “The songs that parents sing to their children as well as the texts that they read them in their maternal language help the children learn other foreign languages.”

Given the significance of a child’s first language, integrating it into the school day would be a step towards the goal of offering equal opportunity to all pupils, reckons Salzmann.

“It is a shame that most school programmes are taught in one language, because exposure to other languages is reduced.”   

Austria’s example

With this in mind, Hélène Char points to Austria, where some teaching of migrants’ first languages is included in the school programme, mainly at the primary school level.

But even though that initiative has garnered favour among parents and children, many teachers and experts think it is a waste of time and a useless increase in workload for children, according to a study entitled The Teaching of Foreign Languages in European Union Countries led by José Carlos Herreras.

Lambelet admits that “encouraging the teaching of mother tongues and the culture that goes with them in the public school system doesn’t do much to change the reality of equal pupil opportunity”. 

Founded in 1993, intercultural libraries are present in 22 cantons today. They play an important role in the lives of many immigrants.

“We complement the lack of books in foreign languages in other, public and private libraries. And the libraries provide a meeting point for people from the same culture or who have had the same experiences,” explains Hélène Char, director of the Intercultural Libraries of Switzerland.

The libraries are currently showing an exhibition on 15 different methods of writing and also organise educational projects, such as one teaching romanesque writing.

Together with the Group for First Languages (IGE), they are also organising an upcoming study day examining the future of first language teaching in Switzerland.

The gap between theory and reality

A quick look at any Swiss government website, be it at the cantonal or national level, is all it takes to see how big a part multilingualism plays in Switzerland. The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education also signed an agreement in 2004 which included a clause on supporting native languages.

Then there’s HarmoS, the intercantonal agreement to harmonise education practices. Its fourth article calls for aid in the teaching of first languages and corresponding cultures. However, this call has not really been enthusiastically followed by action everywhere.

At the cantonal level, school officials have not followed HamoS’ directive to the letter. There is support for the idea of lessons organised outside of schools, but not for teaching first languages as part of the school programme.

Canton Geneva’s primary education system has decided to implement several parts of the framework to help with the teaching of first languages, including registration, parent relations and training courses for teachers.

But that changes when the pupil reaches secondary school.

“Lessons are organised whenever 10 or more pupils express a desire to learn a language,” explains Marianne Lanzer of Geneva’s public education department. “These lessons are put together with the help of embassies and consulates of the relevant countries.”

Some of Geneva’s primary schools also take part in the “école ouverte aux langues,” or “schools open to languages” project. It enables teachers to promote the most common first languages and cultures in the school.  

Lack of studies feeds doubt

Zurich has also adopted requirements for teachers who come into its public schools to teach pupils’ first languages. They must have pedagogical training in a Swiss establishment, remain in permanent contact with their colleagues and keep up to date with the educational programme. But these requirements are hampered by a lack of surveillance on the part of the canton and a lack of commitment on the part of the teachers.

Organisations that campaign on behalf of teaching first languages need to flesh out their case with scientific studies, which have yet to be carried out. They hope a working day in Bern next January will provide steps towards narrowing the gap. 

(Translated by Victoria Morgan)

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