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.

Frankfurt Book Fair 2013

Sarah, Laura and Tommi on the ferry to the Netherlands
Sarah, Laura and Tommi on the ferry to the Netherlands

For many people in the book trade, October is almost synonymous with the Frankfurt Book Fair and it is no different for Channel View/Multilingual Matters.  For us, the only change this year was that Tommi, Sarah and I decided that we would drive to the fair as we wanted to see some of Europe, rather than fly straight to Germany as usual.  On our way to Germany we visited the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium and had lunch in Luxembourg City before finally arriving in Boppard, a small town approximately 75 miles west of Frankfurt where we stayed a couple of nights.

The view towards the Moselle from our hike
The view towards the Moselle from our hike

We spent a day hiking in the hills between the Moselle and Rhine Valleys which was beautiful, especially as the trees were just beginning to change colour.  We walked about 12 miles and although Tommi had sensibly chosen paths that were mainly downhill (!) Sarah and I were still extremely tired afterwards – perhaps not the best preparation for a busy week of work!  It took a traditional German dinner, good night’s sleep and excellent breakfast before we’d recovered enough to drive across to Frankfurt where we met Elinor ready for the start of the book fair.

Laura, Elinor and Sarah having lunch at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Laura, Elinor and Sarah having lunch at the Frankfurt Book Fair

The fair provides us with an annual opportunity to meet and discuss business with others working in the industry.  Tommi and Elinor meet with our sales reps who sell our books in less directly accessible markets, such as India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia and distributors and wholesalers who make sure that our books get to our customers, and that our customers know of our books.  Sarah meets with those involved in the production side of the industry, such as printers and typesetters, as well as an increasing number of people working on digital projects who she may collaborate with on ebooks and related matter.  Finally, I meet with representatives from foreign publishing houses who are interested in buying the translation rights to our titles for publication in languages other than English.

In between meetings we nibbled our usual selection of German snacks (we’re big fans of Rittersport and Gummi bears) and made the most of the sausages and schnitzel available for lunch!  We spent the evenings sampling yet more traditional German food and we enjoyed the annual drinks reception held by the Independent Publishers Guild, which we are members of.  As ever, we made the most of the opportunities that the fair offers us to meet colleagues from around the world; talk about what’s happening in the industry and discuss future projects and partnerships.  We have all made it safely back to the office and it won’t be long before it’s time to think about next year’s trip!

Laura