Irish schools should focus more on linguistic diversity

A greater focus on “heritage languages”, in addition to English and Irish learning, is needed in Irish schools. That is according to an expert from Trinity, who spoke today at a roundtable discussion on Linguistic Diversity in Irish Classrooms, hosted by migrant network organisation New Communities Partnership (NCP), in conjunction with the SIRIUS network and the ESRI.

The discussion brought together school principals, representatives from Tusla and the Department of Education, and other education experts. It examined the experiences of bilingual children in Ireland, the challenges facing teachers in Ireland, and the best practices developed and implemented in other European countries.

Speaking at the discussion in the Teacher’s Club, Dublin, Assistant Professor in Clinical Speech and Language Studies at Trinity, Francesca La Morgia said that a focus on only English and Irish in schools may cause migrant students to “lose their heritage languages” (meaning the languages that their parents speak).

This is despite the social and educational benefits a multilingual classroom setting offers to both migrant students and their Irish-born peers. It is also happening despite the fact that the benefits of multilingual classroom settings have been identified as important anIrish Government’s Languages Connect strategy, which places huge importance of foreign languages and on heritage language learning.

When pupils feel that their languages and cultures are affirmed they are more likely to develop a strong sense of identity. Additionally, using heritage languages in the classroom also benefits children who only speak the majority language, as it helps them to gain a better understanding of how other people express themselves, resulting in more openness among pupils, respect and intercultural competence. For these and other reasons, promoting a variety of languages in primary school education is of benefit to all.

Dr Francesca La Morgia said: “The mainstream primary education system currently tends to focus only on the curricular languages English and Irish while heritage language transmission is the responsibility of families, communities and local initiatives. However, the role heritage languages play for a child’s development of academic skills as well as their psychosocial wellbeing is recognised in the Irish Primary Language Curriculum, which encourages teachers to enhance children’s skills through their entire linguistic repertoire.”

“The curriculum mentions that teachers should foster linguistic diversity and encourage children to develop skills in allof their languages. This includes home languages/heritage languages. However, teachers are not yet trained with a focus on linguistic diversity.”

“Heritage language speakers benefit from using their mother tongue because it eases the transition from home to school and because it values their identity and their experiences outside the school. For children who are new to the majority language, being able to use the heritage language allows them to rely on knowledge they have developed in their early childhood to transfer literacy skills and learning strategies.”

Sevak Khachatryan,NCP Youth coordinator, added: “As Dr La Morgia noted, there is a huge positive effect to children from learning in a diverse environment, which presents a strong opportunity for schools to encourage curiosity and independent learning by taking advantage of all the languages children speak in the school. This is something that is incredibly achievable in a country the size of Ireland; in Finland, which has a similar population size, it’s normal for schools even in rural areas to be multilingual. This is definitely something Ireland could adopt to great effect for the benefit of all pupils.”

Misconceptions at home and in school

The issue of the loss of heritage languages wasn’t just restricted to the education system however, Dr La Morgia said. Parents from migrant backgrounds also sometimes discourage their children from using their heritage language, believing it will help the child to better assimilate into mainstream English speaking society.

Additionally, a lack of training and confidence may be preventing some teachers from encouraging multilingualism in the primary school context.

Dr La Morgia added: “Research shows that bilingualism does not hinder language development nor academic achievement, and it carries great cognitive benefits. This is especially problematic when the heritage language is not perceived to be a “useful” one.”

“There is the idea that some languages are more useful than others, so both parents and teachers have a bias towards languages that seem to be useful for travel, work, or languages that have a high status like French and Spanish, and often do not give enough value of home languages that are spoken by only a few and are not generally learned as foreign languages – such as Greek or Swahili or Tamil.”

“A lack of diversity in the teaching force may mean that teachers often don’t know much about the languages of their pupils. Teachers are also sometimes scared of using these languages as a resource because they feel that if they can’t speak them they can’t use them.”

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Thomas Deane, Press Officer for the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science | deaneth@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4685