Mother tongue education or flexible multilingual education?

Jean-Jacques Weber, author of Flexible Multilingual Education (published this month), discusses why a flexible multilingual education system is the best option for multilingual children in Luxembourg.

Mother tongue education is often advocated as the ideal system of education for all children in our late-modern, globalized world. However, this blog post provides a critique of mother tongue education, arguing that it is not always the panacea it is frequently made out to be. This is also the theme of my new book, Flexible Multilingual Education, where I criticize mother tongue education programmes for being too rigidly fixed upon a particular language (the ‘mother tongue’), and explore more flexible and more child-focused forms of multilingual education.

Flexible Multilingual EducationFor example, a flexible alternative which would have a better chance of moving policy towards social justice and educational equity would be the establishment of literacy bridges. I have used this concept in relation to the education system of trilingual Luxembourg, where large numbers of Romance languages speaking children are forced to go through a German-language literacy programme.

Indeed, in the Luxembourgish school system, it has been a long tradition that Luxembourgish – a Germanic language – is used in pre-school education, while basic literacy skills are taught via standard German. Yet the school population has changed dramatically over the last few decades, with children who speak Romance languages at home often forming the majority in today’s primary classrooms, especially in Luxembourg city.

My ethnographic work with these youngsters has shown that it would be counter-productive to call for education in the standard variety of the assumed ‘mother tongue’ of each child, irrespective of the question whether the children actually master this particular variety or not. On the contrary, it would be much more productive to look for the ‘common linguistic denominator’ of children whose home linguistic resources may well include varieties of French, Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, etc. and, in this particular case, set up a French medium of instruction option as an alternative to the existing German one.

The French medium of instruction option would make sense within the Luxembourgish context, as French is one of the officially recognized languages and a widely used lingua franca in the country. For the Romance languages speaking children, it would act as a literacy bridge providing a link with, and building upon, their actual linguistic repertoires.

In my book, I explore numerous other case studies from around the world and show that such flexible and child-centred multilingual education programmes would be preferable to mother tongue education, in that they would allow a full acknowledgement of the hybrid and transnational linguistic repertoires that people actually deploy in our late-modern, superdiverse societies.

Jean-Jacques Weber is based at the University of Luxembourg and his latest book is available here.

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