Language can be a double edged-sword in multi-lingual societies. It is a keystone of cultural identity but can be a barrier to integration and educational success. Two countries dealing with these challenges are South Africa and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Post apartheid South Africa has 11 official languages, but English is increasingly dominant. At some schools this is problematic for children who speak other languages at home. So how do they cope?
The small town of Elliot is home to a nine-year-old boy called Mbasa Sodladla. He has grown up speaking Xhosa, but South African schools do their exams in English and Afrikaans, so he has to learn a whole new language before he can understand his schoolwork. The result is an advantage for the English and Afrikaans children, and the marginalisation of African languages.
But luckily for Mbasa, his school is piloting a new approach to language. Elliot High School has adopted a ground-breaking new language policy, teaching children in two languages at the same time, their home language and English, for the first six years of school. They are taught in their mother tongue language from day one with teachers using Xhosa for instruction, and English as a support language.
Families feel more involved. Parents who have a low level of English can now help their children with their homework because it is in Xhosa.
This appears to be a step in the right direction towards fostering a truly multilingual society. It is a chance for children to have a far better education.
Being bilingual from birth can be an advantage, and increasingly teachers believe that foreign language teaching should start at nursery school. But what are the ramifications of this in a country like Macedonia?
Here tension exists between Albanian and Macedonian speaking communities. Nationalistic politicians create schools for their own ethnic group, thereby separating children. Experts agree that this lack of bilingual education will extend today’s problems far in to the future.
But there are some exceptions, such as the ‘MOZAIK’ project in the Orce Nikolov Kinder-garden in Skopje. It offers bilingual education in fully integrated groups, bringing together children from Macedonian and Albanian speaking families.
The parents’ participation in the childrens’ lives at the kindergarten is important. Parents and teachers speak in their own language. From early morning to late afternoon, the group is in permanent contact with two teachers: one Albanian and one Macedonian speaking.
It is all about connecting to the other language group as early as possible. The inspiration for the project, which began operating in 1998, came from a bilingual kindergarten in Jerusalem that teaches both Hebrew and Arabic.
While there is a waiting list to join the MOZAIK project, in most Macedonian towns and villages, ethnic pressures still exist to opt for a single language approach. It is possible that the MOZAIK project could change the education system in the country and show that bilingualism is better for the future.
All over the world many people are brought up speaking two or more languages. So are two languages better than one?
More than 40 percent of children born in Paris in 2008 had at least one foreign parent, if not both. Despite that, French always dominates to the detriment of the child’s second language.
One example is Sophie who has just turned five. She already speaks three languages. At home, she plays using both French and German with her father. And also Spanish with her mother. It sounds simple.
But her parents Cecilia and Simon asked for the advice of experts on what the ideal learning environment would be for their child.
One day a week, Sophie goes to a German school. Bilingualism has been a real success for this family, but for others it is a real headache.
That is when Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer, an expert on bilingualism and an advocate for the mixing of cultures, steps in. She is a psycho-sociologist specialising in bilingualism and has given dozens of couples advice on how to achieve a positive outcome for a child in a mixed language environment.
There are more than five million people in France with a mother tongue other than French, however they are hesitant to use it with their children.
At the Musée du Branly in Paris, extinct languages are well documented. Experts are aiming for a future where every language and culture has a place in the world.
Barbara is determined to change French society’s attitude to bilingualism because she believes it is a great opportunity for a child: “A child can learn as many languages as necessary in order to communicate. If the youngster’s father speaks one language, his mother another, his grandmother something else and the nanny speaks another language then the child will be able to speak four languages. There are countries where people communicate in six different languages everyday.”
Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer is convinced that in the future there will be more bilingual people and the world will become a less foreign place. Only time will tell if her predictions are correct but there is no doubt that speaking more than one language is a great advantage for any citizen of the world.