BILINGUISM AND MULTILINGUISM
Nina MK, Ph.D.
One of my relatives, a teacher of foreign languages, spoke only German to her son since his birth while her husband spoke only Russian. The boy was equally fluent in both languages; he never got mixed up in which language to use when, though he used a mix of both with his parents when he became older. A child myself, I was entranced; this first-hand experience stayed with me. When I had my own children much later, I used the same technique: I spoke English and my husband spoke Russian to them. I also read a lot on the subject of bi-lingual children. For instance, I learned that toddlers would use both languages while learning how to speak; they would build sentences in one language and introduce some words from another one if they did not yet know how to express themselves mono-lingually. Most researchers maintain that bi-lingual children thus develop faster and communicate easier throughout their life.
When our children went to primary school in New York at the age of five-six, we discovered that in our class of twenty kids there were ten different languages spoken at home. Many parents could not speak English. PTA meetings were a bit of a problem, but we were all united by our love to the children and our desire to do the best we could for them. This experience helped me enormously when I came back home to Siberia and went to work at the local English-speaking school. There are about a hundred nationalities peacefully co-existing in our region. The new millennium has seen a great influx of people from China, the former Asiatic republics (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan), Azerbaijani, Armenia, Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine. The Northern nations like Buryats and Yakuts have always been a part of our culture, same as the Altai region nations. There are also many ethnic Germans, Koreans, Poles… Since there have always been mixed marriages, it is a bit hard to determine which nationality a child is; nobody even asks about it unless the family specifies it. Grandparents may be, say, Georgian, Russian, Jewish, Yakut, Byelorussian; the next generation may add Armenian, Korean and German into the mix; and so on. Naturally some people would marry into their own nationality and religion. Any class may be quite a melting pot. Is this a challenge? Well, our whole job is a huge challenge.
I believe a multilingual classroom is both a benefit and a drawback, but it is also a reality, so we have to cope. There are various techniques which largely depend on the age of the children and on the attitude of the parents.
• Primary school. Young children still possess the great and mysterious ability for non-verbal communication. I have observed it many times and it never ceases to amaze me. For instance when a Japanese child came to our primary school, my own children would report every day on how they “translated” for the teacher! They also told us parents about his family. When asked how they knew all that, they just stared: “He told us!” At this age the technique is very simple: do not worry. In no time at all young newcomers will pick up whatever language is needed, provided their parents want them to learn how to communicate in the new environment.
• What we can do with any age and level students. I would check the class roster; learn about the families, their languages, culture and religion. Then I would make a printout of some simple greetings in as many languages as needed and spend the first two minutes of my lessons saying, “I am happy to see you!” Naturally I may mispronounce some sounds, but this simple trick acts like a charm. In return I would be greeted by the same phrase in perhaps a dozen languages.
• Older children, especially teenagers, are a greater challenge. We cannot know for sure in advance what sort of beliefs, customs and traditions they bring into our classroom. We cannot start with our national curriculum if the students never attended school before, for instance. We may encounter huge behavioral problems; discipline may be an unknown concept. It is not a secret that even young boys from Muslim countries may treat girls and adult women without any respect. I believe all these topics warrant discussions; those of us who do have experience should be able to share freely and without prejudice.
• Rather than conducting a lesson about a holiday which may be unfamiliar or even completely alien to some students, I would begin carefully by discussing something well-known, like a birthday. A simple list of questions about their national traditions, an amiable conversation and benevolent comparison would enrich everybody’s knowledge. Another relatively safe topic may be Leisure Time or My Favorite Extra-School Activity. I have achieved very good results while discussing the local tradition concerning flowers. In my country, flowers are practically always given to women only, as gifts for her birthday and other memorable dates, and also as a gift to the hostess who invited you for dinner. Only the odd numbers of flowers are to be presented: one, three, five and so on. Two, four, six are for funerals and memorial occasions only. This simple fact which is known to any local person excited a lively discussion and helped eliminate all the barriers.
• We cannot actually exploit the differences, but we should be aware of them and use them to everybody’s advantage. Multi-linguism, multi-culturalism in the classroom may be an educational asset provided the adults involved wish their children to get educated, grow up and become members of the integrated society. If families are against our traditional education, unfortunately there is not much we can do. This is a constantly developing topic which merits future discussion.