When I was a sixth form strapling with a burgeoning interest in teaching and education, they gave me permission to have a week off school to volunteer in a Montessori school. It was interesting and fed my interest in schooling. One of the things I remember most about it ten years later is one particular kid. The staff were all raving about him as an incredibly gifted seven year old who was fully fluent (as far as 7 year olds are fluent) in English and French. I loved it, because his level of competence in French was about the same as mine, so I could ask him all the kinds of grammatically garbled burning questions I was likely to encounter in my speaking exam.
‘Ou est la biblioteque?’ and ‘Decrivez votres opinions dans l’absurdité de Meursault’ and ‘Quelle est ton passe temps préfèré’.
I called him a ‘petit singe dans les arbres’ and he laughed and I felt like God’s gift to global comedy.
Oh how we cooed over him and his bilingualism, that came from having a French dad and an English mum. It genuinely is an achievement and not one I want to downplay or take away from the kid.
But it got me thinking about how much esteem he had pinned to him because of his particular bilingualism. Even now, I remember the kid fondly because of it.
In the five years I’ve been teaching so far, I have taught fewer than ten children who are not bilingual. All spoke English but only a few speak it as their first/main language at home, with many speaking a mix with family and having the ability to shift codes freely between the their first, second and in some cases third and fourth languages.
I had one pupil whose family migrated to Britain from Bangladesh with a two year stop in Italy along the way. This kid spoke Bengali, Italian and English and was making good ground on Arabic through his classes at the madrasah. But he’s not very good at language because he can’t underline the split digraphs in a sentence like ‘Kenneth and Judith ate Quince Tartlets at the Regatta’ (probably didn’t happen but you get my drift).
My kids generally speak both English and their other language better than the kid from ten years ago, so where is their parade? They don’t have one because their additional languages/mother languages are Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Sylheti, Gujurati, Pashto and Arabic.
Every nine year old in my current class has a level of bilingualism that £36,000 worth of tuition fees, an immersive year in an Asian country and four years of study at SOAS would still not provide me with.
The man who drove me to the hotel I am in had the kind of bilingual fluency you would expect of a languages graduate and I haven’t enough knowledge of Portuguese to ask where the toilet is.
So the question is not about whether or not a kid is bilingual but how they are bilingual, and whether their languages are culturally esteemed enough in society to merit the plaudits given to kids who can speak multiple European languages.
Do our schools do enough to celebrate the achievement that bilingual pupils have made? All bilingual pupils, not just those whose ability enables them to order a hearty meal in a boulangerie?
And also, to what extent could/should schools be supporting pupils to maintain their other languages? What benefits could schools bring to their pupils and the school community if they could do more to celebrate and foster bilingualism in all its forms?