Mother-tongue education

How to improve the Luxembourgish educational system

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 18.09.2008

In academic literature and international policy documents, one frequently finds an undifferentiated call for the right to mother-tongue education, which – in the case of migrant children – is said to facilitate their acquisition of the “majority” language. Since we know that German-language literacy does not work for many romanophone pupils in our primary classrooms, might it therefore be preferable to offer them a literacy programme in their mother tongue, e.g. Portuguese? It is important to realise that such a call, however valid in theoretical terms, may be counter-productive in actual practice: indeed, in our globalised societies, there is often such a wide range of mother tongues that the state can easily opt out of its responsibilities, by means of the commonsensical argument that in any case it would be impossible to organise mother-tongue education for each individual child.

Another problem with mother-tongue education is that there is no clear de­finition of what is meant by the term “mother tongue”. Thus, Ana Deumert (2000, p. 395) wonders what this concept could possibly refer to: “Is your mother tongue the language(s) you learned first, the language(s) you know best or the language(s) you use most? Or does the concept of mother tongue transcend all these definitions based on origin, function and competence? Is it rather to be understood in terms of identity, that is, is your mother tongue the language you identify with?” As a matter of fact, state language policy is often based on an essentialising link with language origin or inheritance: luso-descendants, for instance, are simply assumed to have Standard Portuguese as their mother tongue. And if they do not master this particular variety of Por­tuguese (that is, if they master a non-standard variety of Portuguese instead), then they are frequently looked upon as linguistically deficient.

Finally, the difficulties of implementing mother-tongue education for everybody frequently result in token arrangements which do not really help anybody. This is the case for instance of the cours intégrés in Luxem­bourg, a policy which consists in teaching a small number of subjects in Portu­guese in primary school. This has compounded rather than solved the problems for Clara, one of the many pupils who we interviewed as part of a research project on language use and identity negotiation of luso-descendant youngsters in the Luxembourgish school system. In the following extract, she briefly refers to the effect of cours intégrés on her school career:

Researcher: Tu as quelque chose que tu trouves plus difficile [à l’école]?

Clara: La biologie.

Researcher: La biologie? Dans quelle langue tu apprends la biologie?

Clara: L’allemand.

Researcher: Peut-être c’est pour ça?

Clara: Oui.

Researcher: Tu penses si la biologie était en français...

Clara: Oui, ce serait plus facile. Parce que, en primaire, j’avais les sciences en portugais, et alors, là j’avais tou­jours dans les 50-60, et maintenant, c’est biologie en allemand, donc c’est...

Clara feels that mother-tongue education in the form of cours intégrés – i.e. the science class taught in Portuguese in primary school – did not really help her but made the problem worse. This is due to the transitional nature of the programme, in particular the fact that in her first year at the lycée technique the science/ biology class was no longer taught in Portuguese but in German.

Hence, an alternative to mother-tongue education which would have a much better chance of moving policy towards social justice and educational equity would be the establishment of what I call “literacy bridges”. In the case of Luxembourg, for instance, it would be counterproductive 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 pupils with French, Portuguese, Cape Verdean, Italian, Spanish, etc. migration backgrounds and, in this case, set up a French-language literacy option for them alongside the existing German-language literacy programme. The French-language literacy option would act as a literacy bridge providing a link with, and building upon, these children’s actual linguistic repertoires. Impor­tantly, such an option needs to be open to avoid any danger of ghettoisation: in other words, it should be sufficiently attractive to draw large numbers of the more French-oriented Luxembourgers, in particular the children in mixed families with one francophone parent. 

It is sadly ironic that in the present system, because of the emphasis on German, many romanophone pupils do not get around to learning very much English, which is only taught at secondary school level. For those who attend a technical lycee, their acquisition of English is frequently limited to a fairly rudimentary level, thus depriving them of an important job qualification on both the national and the European employment market. A French-language literacy option, on the other hand, would potentially allow them to progress more rapidly and give them a better chance of acquiring a higher level of fluency in the English language.

In this way, language-in-education policy would be based on the romanophone and luso-descendant pupils’ full linguistic repertoires: indeed, during our research, we became aware that when they start school, many luso-descendant children, rather than just having Portuguese as their “mother tongue”, have a linguistic repertoire that comprises Portuguese, French and frequently also Luxembourgish. The educational system needs to take into account this multilingual reality if its aim is to advance on the difficult path leading towards the elusive goal of educational equity. 

Three fundamental steps are required in this respect: a) take into account all the children’s language varieties and not just a narrow range of standard languages; b) find the common linguistic denominators; c) establish the adequate literacy bridges by offering a reasonable range of language options (in the case of Luxembourg, this would be a choice between a German-language and a French-language literacy option).

Two conditions need to be fulfilled for a successful implementation of this proposal: first, pupils from the different streams have to be brought together as much as possible in mixed language groups to allow for peer teaching and learning; and secondly, as already mentioned above, both streams have to be of sufficiently high quality to attract majority group children (e.g. the many Luxembourgish children with one francophone parent might well consider enrolling in the French-language literacy option).

The only difference between my proposal and the existing system would be that one group of children would start with German as the language of literacy and learn French as a foreign language, and the other group would start with French as the language of literacy and learn German as a foreign language. In this way, all the pupils in both streams would attain high levels of proficiency in both French and German by the end of primary school. At the same time, the trilingualism of the Luxem­bourgish school system would be maintained, and the social inequal­ities and educational inequities of the present system would be great­ly reduced.

Jean-Jacques Weber is Professor of English and Education at the University of Luxembourg. His main research area is the study of language and education in multilingual and multicultural contexts. This article is based on his forthcoming book Multilingualism, Education and Change, to be published by Peter Lang Verlag in late 2008.

Deumert, Ana (2000) “Language planning and policy”. In R. Mesthrie, J. Swann, A. Deumert and W.L. Leap (eds) Introducing Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 384-418

Jean-Jacques Weber
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