NLE? That’s an after school club, right?
What do making an origami Samurai hat, dancing the Colombian Cumbia and taking a Russian or Hindi mini lesson have in common?
They are all experiences that were on offer to our Native Language Enrichment (NLE) students on one of the afternoons of Mother Language week at ACS Egham recently. Other activities included student and tutor presentations that answered questions students had asked the previous week about each other’s languages and cultures. Each of the four 2 hour events included the interaction between at least four different language groups and began with sharing and discussing the different traditional food brought by the students, courtesy of their wonderfully supportive parents. One of the afternoons saw as many as seven different language groups interact with each other.
NLE is our after school Native Language Enrichment programme for native speakers of languages other than English (the school’s language of instruction). The aim is to support the maintenance and development of students’ home languages. We currently run weekly classes in Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Japanese, Italian Indonesian, Mandarin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Turkish.
Why would an international school with English as the language of instruction see this as their responsibility? To answer this we should follow the students from NLE to the mainstream classroom…
Students take their home languages into the classroom, whether perceivably or not. Those whose strongest language is not the language of instruction can appear confident and competent in the use of English, but they are likely, at least at some inner level, to be processing knowledge in their home language.
Cognitive scientists and academic researchers in the field of language acquisition tell us that bilingual students have the potential to outperform monolinguals academically due to enhanced cognitive function. They also say a child with a well developed mother tongue has a better chance of successfully learning additional languages, including the language of instruction. To encourage additive bilingualism and prevent the replacement of the home language by the language of instruction, it makes sense to strengthen a student’s mother tongue while developing the language of instruction.
Making learning accessible in the language best understood by a student makes perfect pedagogic sense too. The language of instruction in our school is English, the mother tongue of around half of our students. It is also a desirable target language for the other half of our students.
By going even further and allowing and encouraging all students to use their home languages to access learning, we expose students to the cross pollination of perspectives from different cultures and diverse ways of thinking and knowing.
Mother Language week at our school is an extension of UNESCO’s International Mother Language day, which takes place in February every year. The occasion celebrates the importance of maintaining the languages by which we express our cultures, and reminds us of the right of every child to access learning through their home language.
Although the UNESCO initiative speaks to the cause of disenfranchised minorities whose languages have no status in their own education systems, international schools can take a leaf out of their book. Languages can be lost at the global level and at family level alike. Access to all that was built over generations before can be lost to a child in a single generation of a globally mobile family that loses the ability to communicate and learn in its mother language.
Making Japanese hats out of paper, dancing Latin dances and trying out other languages is a lot of fun, but there is method in the madness. Learning languages in parallel is good for the development of the languages themselves, but sharing them and learning about each other is every bit as important. As educators we are charged with continuing to create the context for sharing our diverse cultures and languages with each other as a pathway to cultural empathy.
An additional, enriching, symbiotic potential exists in cultural and linguistic interaction in the learning environment. And that is the additive experience that international schools that support mother tongue development afford all their students.
NLE isn’t just an afternoon club; it represents an investment in diversity.