London’s 300 languages are a boon for all the capital’s children

Catherine Wallace

The Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, has hit the headlines again, this time with the suggestion that schools should be able to fine parents if they don’t read to their children. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea: it’s unenforceable, and would tend to penalise families who are already struggling financially, for example. But also, it fails to recognise the many ways that families practice literacy in their homes and communities.

I’ve been studying migrant children in London schools whose first language is not English, and what comes through in these pupils’ narratives is the various ways that literacy is embedded in their home lives. This can involve reading with siblings, teaching English to grandparents or newly-arrived relatives, writing stories that are never revealed to the teacher, and, of course, religious lessons at Mosques or Gurdwaras.

In today’s target-oriented classrooms, there is little space to acknowledge culturally variable ways of learning, and little awareness that socialisation into literacy may not follow the prescribed path of bedtime story reading or parent and child sitting together with a book. And while migrant children may not possess the same sort of cultural capital enjoyed by their middle class peers, they have another, valuable, type of cultural capital that is much less well-recognised.

The ability to think and speak in more than one language and to operate across several cultures allows them to see the world from a perspective that has the potential to enrich learning for them and their classmates. Yet, in schools, as in society, having English as an additional language is sometimes seen as a deficit.

And while English is the goal, since parents and pupils want this, this need not mean an English only classroom.

I studied two groups of children: new arrivals and settled migrants (who make up the majority of second-language learners in London’s classrooms). Two children from the first group were Zara – a refugee from Somalia – and Mohan – who came from Afghanistan and lived for some years in France. Although their English is less proficient than the “advanced bilingual learners” from the second group, they come with a valuable set of resources:

  • Their mother tongues are well established, so that they can more readily serve as a resource. Mohan’s home is multilingual – four languages are spoken and he himself actively uses three in daily life: French to his siblings, English at school, and Pashto to his parents.
  • Some of the pupils have a strong formal educational background and may feel confident in particular subject areas, such as maths.
  • Most are literate in their first language – and first language proficiency in literacy is widely accepted as a strong predictor for successful acquisition of good literacy in English.

Despite these apparent advantages, the pupils’ languages other than English receive scant acknowledgement at school, although Mohan has the advantage that French is his dominant language. There is a clear hierarchy of languages in our schools and society, and Western European languages such as French and German remain at the top.

More than 300 languages are spoken in London’s schools, offering a wealth of knowledge, new perspectives and cultural riches to all of London’s children. Surely this cumulative bounty has contributed to the success of London’s schools. This week’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the IOE suggests that London’s multi-ethnic mix could be one reason why the city’s deprived children get better academic results than those in other parts of the country. The benefits brought by bilingualism must be a contributing factor.

London as a global city is ideally placed to spearhead an era of new opportunities for cultural and linguistic exchange in our schools. And yet, while the statistics tell an encouraging story of the positive impact of migration and diversity, the picture is still mixed. Overall, the group of young people I studied is doing well, but it is in many ways a success story against the odds.

Professor Catherine Wallace’s lecture on EAL pupils in London Schools, being given on 26 June, is available from IOE Press

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
One comment on “London’s 300 languages are a boon for all the capital’s children
  1. chriswq says:

    Since I began Secondary teaching in Leicester 20+ years ago, I have experienced, in many people, including some in education, a hierarchical attitude to languages, although I am pleased to say this seems less prevalent today. I have always found it an asset to have bilingual and/or multilingual pupils in the classes, not just because of their language skills but also the added dimension of cultural experiences that can be brought to bear on their learning. Some parents of such children are not fluent readers of English but narrative can be taught in many ways, orally not the least important of them, and if schools are doing their job properly, formal teaching of reading and writing can be done in class time. Stories, poems, plays, all are essential to a full life. These do not have to be experienced first or only through the written word, or even through a pictorial world. The spoken word can do this job. Experiencing pictures and print is valuable, but can be done at school. Back off, Mr Wilshaw and do your job by ensuring schools instill a love of learning and a love of stories, etc. and the children will be so eager to read for themselves that teaching literacy will be a joy not a Gradgrind experience.

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