Alex Rawlings is a language teacher, blogger and polyglot living in Valencia, Spain. He currently teaches four different languages: English, German, Russian and Greek, and also offer consulting and coaching services to people wishing to develop the skill of learning multiple languages at the same time. In 2012 he was named Britain's most multilingual student.
In August 1944, my grandmother set foot in the United Kingdom for the first time. Not your typical refugee, she came from a wealthy family of Greek silk merchants in Cairo. She was a professionally trained pianist and fluent in Greek, French and Arabic. Yet post-war Britain did not welcome her with open arms.
Within weeks the police knocked on her front door because a neighbour had reported a foreigner living on the street. And when she tried to speak her mother tongue or cook her native cuisine for her two young children, she was met with hostility. After a nervous breakdown had brought her back to Egypt and then the Suez Crisis sent her straight back again, she started to settle into her new life.
My grandmother eventually did become proudly British, but I suspect the transition would have been easier if she’d felt able to maintain her ties to home. But unfortunately, in the pre-multicultural Britain of the 1950s you were either in, or very much out.
The host language should not take over from their first one, but sit side by side with it.
It’s 2015 and Europe is facing another crisis, and once again language is at the heart of it. As the trains arriving full of people fleeing war in the Middle East stack up, a more pressing question arises: how are we going to integrate these people into our societies?
We know language is the key. We know that to find work, schools, and have any chance of a normal life, refugees need to learn the host country’s language. Yet achieving this with limited resources and little guidance means that for many, this is a larger challenge than it first seems.
Having spent so long out of the labour market, for many refugees finding work is often a higher priority than showing up for language classes. For those that do show up, problems with the education system back home mean that many are without the study skills required to make best use of them.
Women refugees tend to consistently underperform men in language proficiency, and not just because in many cases they are denied education and arrive in the host country illiterate. Within refugee families the mother is often the link to the culture of origin and responsible for preserving cultural values and communications in the mother tongue.
Paradoxically, in the pluralistic, multicultural Europe of today, learning your neighbour’s language is still seen as a threat to your own. And when classrooms ban the use of the mother tongue, this is only made worse
The host language should not take over from their first one, but sit side by side with it. Children should become equally fluent in both, as they develop both identities and embrace both cultures. To have a truly integrated multicultural Europe, there is no choice but for it to be multilingual. That multilingualism must start in the classroom.
The native language should never be made to feel unwelcome or inferior. A simple gesture like allowing students to write words in their own language on the board will show them you see it as equal to yours. Try to pronounce it and even make an effort to learn it, they’ll see that even more so. The classroom will become a space for co-operation, rather than just instruction. Making more use of students’ native languages in the classroom makes them more proficient speakers of the L2, and seeing you struggle with their language as much as they do with yours creates an equality of respect that is so often lacking.
As an immigrant, my grandmother was forced to choose between the home culture and the new. This year, as hundreds of thousands of refugees step into Europe for the first time, let’s make sure that’s a choice that they don’t have to make. Let’s show that they are contributing to a diversity that Europe can embrace.