Sarajevo for academic purposes

Nineteen years of travelling to Sarajevo and the city never ceases to enchant me. My first solo trip was no exception. Not the typical expedition en famille – this time it was just me and a sample of my research. I was off to the fifth Foreign Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics Conference (FLTAL’15) held at International Burch University. I’d heard about this event, by chance, last May. Tweets from Bosnia posted by the renowned Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, had aroused my curiosity. I discovered he’d been one of the FLTAL guest speakers in 2014. Well that was sufficient impetus to submit an abstract for this year.

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What a joy to receive an invitation to FLTAL’15! Plus it meant another visit to Sarajevo. The conference ran from Thursday to Saturday, 7 to 9 May, but fortuitous scheduling of flights via Istanbul and accommodation with my in-laws allowed me to stay a little longer. On the Wednesday I had the freedom of Sarajevo – welcome headspace before my presentation. Though it took me a while to remember how to relax… to wander around and reminisce, appreciate.

It was warm for spring but the heat was lilac-scented. Neither tourist nor native, I enjoyed retracing the centuries of history embedded in the cobbles of Baščaršija. Coffee and rahat lokum refreshed my way to Vijećnica. I’d watched this city hall and former national library as it slowly rose from ruins to magnificence. It drew me in again and, empty for a few minutes on a quiet afternoon, I was treated to a private exhibition of its splendour. Perfect calm before a busy conference!

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FLTAL’15 indeed proved lively. Global experts from a spectrum of fields in linguistics and language education delivered excellent keynote speeches. Names I knew as citations from reading their work and recommending it to my students. I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to meet them and listen to their insights in Sarajevo. It was also wonderful to make new contacts among the conference participants. They were a diverse bunch – from Brazil to the USA, to China and Japan, to all over Europe, many nations were represented. I found it very interesting to hear presenters from across the Balkan region speaking about their studies on issues of relevance to this area. In particular, the involvement of institutions from various parts of Bosnia was important. From the outset, the focus was on language as a means of communication which can foster greater understanding between people(s).

It was a pleasure to present my research into second language acquisition by immigrant children in Ireland and to talk about the need for plurilingual and intercultural approaches to education. Strangely, I felt more nervous than usual, even though I’ve co-authored a book on this topic and spoken about it at a Council of Europe intergovernmental seminar and other events in Cambridge and Dublin. I think it was due to a certain emotional investment in bringing my work to Sarajevo. Having taught English in one of its language schools, being a regular visitor and eternal learner of Bosnian (which happens to be ‘father tongue’ of my kids), I’ve got a deep connection to this city. But, above all, I was excited. The thrill of being in Bosnia, exchanging ideas with colleagues from such a range of places and situations, made this prodigal’s return seem worthwhile.

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I also managed to become an unofficial tour guide. Many of the foreign participants had never been to Sarajevo before, so I offered tips on what to see during their short stay. An Irish vegetarian’s suggestion of Željo as the best ćevapi restaurant went down well! Back on campus, the staff and students of International Burch University did an impressive job not only organising in a stimulating conference but in promoting the potential of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The closing ceremony was followed by a concert in which young musicians provided a taste of the country’s cultural heritage, showing how this remains a source of mixing and innovation.

The next day, for those who didn’t have to leave immediately, a trip to Mostar was arranged. It included a brief stop at Počitelj – a town rich in both mediaeval and Ottoman influence – and lunch at the picturesque site of a dervish monastery on the River Buna. Visiting these places in new company was uplifting. Standing on Mostar’s famous bridge, I gazed below me into the emerald Neretva. Swollen with seasonal rain and snow-melt, it was flowing with fresh energy.

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Then the bus back to Sarajevo. By this stage, I was tired. Worried too. I’d heard, when I phoned home the previous night, that my eight-year-old daughter had lost a piece of her permanent front tooth in a minor accident. Throughout the journey to and from Mostar, I was trying to keep up with her search for emergency dental treatment – difficult to come by in Ireland on a Sunday. Verdant slopes turned to stone as they stretched towards reproachful peaks. I felt guilty that I wasn’t there to hug my unfortunate youngest. Illogically but inevitably, I blamed myself for being away. Asking ‘why?’ Realising the damage could’ve been more serious, yet it was lasting. I was caught between two worlds, amid the jagged mountains of Herzegovina aware of the fragility of my child.

A few days concentrating solely on work-related matters, rather than multitasking, had been delightful. But now I wished my that Bosnian-Irish darlings were with me. Hopefully, we’ll all be back in the summer. For the kids, it’s vital to maintain their sense of belonging. Also, from my own perspective, I’m eager to develop further professional liaisons with Bosnia.

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In the meantime, it’s lovely to feel familiar in Sarajevo. When the assistant in the Svjetlost bookstore recalls you as a loyal customer, when you know exactly where to find a special present for a brave little girl… This is a city whose streets forever hold significance – troves of idiosyncrasy which can frustrate but make you smile, often at yourself. It’s somewhere of stories galore. And of unfinished chapters.

Congratulations to the organisers of FLTAL’15 – for information about the conference see: http://fltal.ibu.edu.ba/

Link to my research, published as Volume 3 of the Cambridge English Profile Studies series: http://www.cambridge.org/gb/cambridgeenglish/professional-development/immigrant-pupils-learn-english/immigrant-pupils-learn-english-a-cefr-related-empirical-study-l2-development-paperback

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Of Ireland and beyond

Twenty years a-changing – Ireland has gone from boom to bust in less than a generation. Our leaders have the gall to tell us it’s because we all ‘partied’ through the Celtic Tiger era. I suppose the patriarchal powers deem juggling work and children a right old rave… Reality, however, is more sobering. Most people never revelled with the bons vivants. Yet we’re still paying dearly for their extravagance. Though, apparently, this small country is in recovery mode. We’re courting multinationals again – the cranes are back on the skyline. Progress, some would say.

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It depends on what you value, how you rate a nation’s assets. Often we don’t notice the true wealth we’ve accrued over the last two decades. It’s visible on our streets, in schools, workplaces, shops, on transport systems. A worldwide range of faces, the many languages and cultures that now enrich our land. But do we appreciate this priceless treasure? Sadly, not enough. Racism, both overt and institutional, blemishes a place that prides itself as the home of ‘céad míle fáilte’. We boast of the warm welcome we offer tourists. However, at the same time, Ireland exploits migrant workers and treats victims of persecution to the inhumanity of ‘direct provision’.

According to the prevailing narrative, we’re living in a ‘pluralistic’ society. Though, sometimes, it seems our notion of diversity is limited. Is it merely the substitution of one, sanctimonious, indigenous elite for a similar, if less ‘God-deluded’, clique? For when it comes to responding to cultural difference, interest appears to wane. Especially within official circles. Beyond occasional tokenism, there’s little commitment to fostering integration as a dynamic, immigrant/native joint production. Yet this kind of process – based on co-operation and equality – could help to create a vibrant Ireland.

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Instead, we have expert consultations. Reports are commissioned but few positive shifts in policy emerge. Speaking for the marginalised has become the stuff prestigious careers are made on. Ministers stand over injustice as, on a daily basis, their procrastination allows the state to violate the rights of those in search of refuge. Intermittent platitudes are issued. But when asylum seekers dare to protest against the conditions they endure, who bothers to listen?

In the media, in the Oireachtas, where are our culturally diverse voices? As a people, are we as tolerant as we claim to be? Or is it safer for immigrants to assimilate and keep their mouths shut? Recently, for example, when Muslims expressed concerns about portrayals they found offensive, public reaction was largely hostile. But in today’s world, more than ever, we need dialogue. Views must be shared, challenges overcome. Interculturalism can’t be just a bland appropriation of ‘ethnic’ commodities, while expecting those classifiable as other than ‘white Irish’ to blend silently into the population.

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We brighten our national festival with a bit of global pizzazz. Colourful floats and displays represent our ‘new communities’. But what comes after the parade? For me, St. Patrick’s Day is a time to remember. The anniversary of my first date with a lad who hailed from bombed-out Sarajevo. Starting from a refugee centre in Dublin, the journey we’ve taken since 1995 has brought both pain and joy. Above all, though, it’s blessed us with three Bosnian-Irish daughters. And, like thousands of kids growing up in Ireland, their heritage is deeply infused with elsewhere. Minarets and church spires mingle as, in their memories, Balkan sunshine breaks through Atlantic rain and the steep mountains of Bosnia sweep down to the Irish Sea.

The diverse identities of children from immigrant backgrounds could hugely benefit Ireland. Enabling these girls and boys to maintain and develop their home languages could enhance this country’s pool of linguistic resources. Recognising and respecting their experiences and beliefs could also nurture mutual understanding. In this regard, intercultural education is essential. It’s vital in the fight against racism. And, as a catalyst for social harmony, it deserves prioritisation and investment. That is, if we’re serious about cherishing all who belong to this nation. So that we can proudly say – each in our own unique way – we are ‘of Ireland’.

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Have yourself a merry little listen!

Handing over to the gang of three… Here are my daughters singing their own multilingual production of ‘Silent Night’. Please take a few minutes to enjoy a Bosnian-Irish musical treat!

We wish you Nollaig Shona agus Sretna Nova Godina!

For other posts in this series, please see: 

An Advent miscellany: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-ma

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Luck (?) o’ the Irish!

Green… It was everywhere. On coats and caps, on grannies’ headscarves, on kids dressed top to toe in it. Irish flags were aflutter in a stiff east wind. There were dancers jigging along to pipe bands and accordions playing the length of O’Connell Street. A troupe of Yankee majorettes in skimpy skirts raised goose pimples (and eyebrows, no doubt) among even the hardiest of anorak wearers. Sleet fell on these baton-twirlers of the diaspora, the parade’s barest nod to multiculturalism. But new faces were already visible in the Ireland of ‘95 and soon they’d be swept up in this homage to St. Patrick.

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Within a few years, 17 March would feel more like Mardi Gras. Papier-mâché giants would saunter into Dublin to a samba beat. Though back when the Celtic kitty was just a tiger-striped cub, things were still traditional. I can’t remember if there was a formal salute as the nation’s military hardware trundled past the GPO, reminiscent of Red Army surplus. Or if the reservists of the FCA primed their shovels, ready to save Ireland from Klingon attack. But then, I wasn’t paying too much notice. My unpatriotic aim was to circumnavigate the entire show. Instead of simply nipping over the bridge to Aston Quay, I had to go straight ahead until I’d bypassed the spectacle. Pushing through the throngs, I cursed the fifth-century bishop who’d forced this detour. Finally, I was able to cross at the junction of South Great George’s Street, jostle my way down College Green and make it to the Liffey… to the bus stop.

By this time, the crowd was beginning to disperse – drifting off to ‘drown the shamrock’ or heading home with herds of noisy children. The 78A to Ballyfermot was full of face-painted kids licking their tricolour lollipops and sticks of what the Americans call ‘candy cane’ – prosaically known as ‘rock’ on this side of the Atlantic. The stuff of dental ruin, but the boys and girls didn’t seem to care. Buzzing with sugar and the day’s excitement, they laughed and yelled and fought with smaller siblings. Tired mothers roared at them to sit down as the bus juddered to a halt. I swayed to the front, as giddy as the hyperactive lads who were swinging from the handrails. The doors inched open. I leapt out.

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Reason tried to tell me to ‘cop on’. Officially I was going for a lesson… in one of Europe’s newly defined languages. (Spoiler alert/warning: women thinking of embarking on obscure linguistic pursuits, please choose a female teacher if you can!) My mentor was disarming but I was determined to learn Bosnian. And I’d been a diligent student, doing all my homework. Although, unbeknownst to me, it transpired that the assignment I’d been set was designed to test much more than my command of the present tense.

Unaware of this breach of pedagogical ethics, I almost ran to the entrance of the reception centre. Then, innocently (OK… maybe enthusiastically), I let my native-speaking tutor lead me to his room. We started the session with me reading aloud a composition I’d written on the title he’d prescribed: ‘My ordinary day’. It wasn’t world-class literature and my vocabulary was rudimentary, but I felt I’d made a fair stab at the task. Whatever its grammatical mistakes, it impressed the listener. From trivial details about getting up in the morning and going to college to the lines referring to my group of friends, my self-appointed expert in semiotics was riveted by every word. Apparently, his approval stemmed less from my actual effort than from one telling omission. The outstanding feature of my account was the absence of any mention of a ‘meaningful’ other. And that signified…

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OK, let’s just call it a green light. There’s an awful lot of subtext između redova which guys from Sarajevo can easily detect. As I discovered… to my delight! The hypothesis which had freaked me, following our previous classes, was proving correct. It explained the mirth with which I’d skipped through the inner city at midnight, on the way back to my flat. Such risky behaviour couldn’t have been inspired by my out-dated textbook, ‘Colloquial Serbo-Croat’. Now, it seemed due to something other than insanity. My affliction was indeed a different sort of disorder. Though not one to which I thought I’d ever succumb.  Men were a waste of time… weren’t they? Yet why had I kept that photo of us – taken a few days after our first encounter at a protest for Bosnia – tucked inside the cover of my student diary?

Of course, he didn’t know that until… The narrow room illuminated. Sunshine struck through squalls, invaded what had been a sanatorium. It masked the urban decay across Cherry Orchard and, for an instant, the name of the area sounded less incongruous. Rainbows stretched between the showers of hail. And, while there was no sign of leprechaun-hidden crocks of gold at the ends of them, our fates decreed we’d find much dearer treasure.

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Nineteen years have passed and the spectrum of life since has been psychedelic. Our trajectory more roller coaster than arc-en-ciel, we’ve hurtled from exhilarating heights to darkest nadirs. Three ‘little people’ have joined the ride and grown, scarily fast, along the way. Though not yet fourteen, our eldest is already taller than me. Bless her Bosnian genes but, standing beside her, I’m craving stilettos. Just one of the twists on this journey from when Doc Martens were footwear du jour. Et de la nuit…

The evening we made our debut as couple, my style was steel-tipped boots and a woollen patchwork creation crocheted in a palette of shades… including emerald. A perfect garb for Ireland’s feast day. And where better to flaunt it than at a ‘cultural event’ organised to give uninitiated Bosnians an insight into Irish festive rituals – a night of line dancing in the Garda Boat Club. The turbo-country music would’ve driven the druids of yore to sheer despair! To salvage my reputation as a person of any taste, I’ll have to stress that neither I nor my escort partook in this ‘entertainment’. Both of us being left-footed and well… otherwise occupied. Luckily, the frogmen of the elite sub-aqua unit were off-duty so ‘crimes’ of passion went unpoliced. An unlikely setting for a first date but, corny shenanigans aside, Patrick triumphed as our patron of romance.

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Our only surviving picture from 17/3/95… clearly pre-Photoshop!

However, no saintly powers could help me with my bosanski. Once my instructor and I became ‘an item’, our lessons quickly slipped from his schedule… like they’d been nothing more than a ruse for seduction. The double entendre in jezik (language/tongue) was a joke translated with relish by his witty friends. Unfortunately, I’d soon realise that, despite his numerous skills, Don Juan has always lacked an essential quality for good teaching – namely, patience. As a result, my subsequent learning has been largely ad hoc. Still, there’s one phrase I know I acquired on 17 March 1995. Two simple words that have seen the pair of us through our many crises… They mean as much to me now as they did when I first heard them. Even if it sometimes hurts to admit their truth, even if we’re hopeless versions of those younger selves who told each other on a cold St. Patrick’s Day… ‘Volim te’.

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Sretan Dan Svetog Patrika!

Children of many languages

I envy my kids. Having grown up in a monolingual family, I’m green-eyed when I hear my daughters speaking Bosnian. Jealous of their double-barrelled identity – how they slip between worlds and curl their tongues around words that, for me, still have a foreign feel.

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‘Ja sam tvoja učiteljica,’ says my six-year-old, with a strong hint of Sarajevo in her voice. When it’s a question of pronunciation, I couldn’t have a better teacher. Her grammar also flows more smoothly than mine. She mightn’t always get it right, but her inflections seem the product of osmosis. No brainpower wasted deliberating over whether the case-ending is dative or instrumental. Her Bosnian sounds instinctive… sometimes she even uses it in her sleep.

Her ease with her two languages isn’t surprising. Children tend to learn more implicitly than adults. Thus, they appear to acquire second language words and phrases quicker than many older learners. However, the context of learning is also important. The extent to which children are exposed to two (or more) languages and the situations in which they use them can influence the nature of their linguistic development. Growing up in a bilingual environment, communication (with parents, teachers, friends, siblings and other relatives) is likely to draw on both languages in ways that are directly relevant to the child’s experience. As children develop, their knowledge of two languages should gradually become more complex… if their use of each is supported and allowed to diversify in an age-appropriate manner. Second language acquisition in such ‘natural’ contexts is generally more successful than ‘instructed’ learning, typically confined to lessons of limited duration held outside the region in which the language is spoken.

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Children from immigrant backgrounds should, therefore, be in a good position to develop bilingual skills. They’re often immersed in an environment in which the dominant language and/or cultural traditions are different to those of their families. Linguistically and socially, they may feel more ‘at home’ in this milieu than parents who grew up abroad. But at what cost…? ‘Minority’ languages and cultures can be rendered inaudible under the volume of the ‘majority’ voice. Certainly, to reach their full potential, children require a thorough knowledge of the language and cultural codes of the society in which they live. However, this should complement – not conflict with – their learning from extra-curricular sources, such as home, extended family and community. Integration must be a two-way process, one that fosters intercultural understanding. Shameful cases of racial profiling, involving Roma children in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, have recently highlighted the need to respect families’ home cultures and languages. These can contribute to and challenge prevailing discourse. Negotiation may be necessary, but this can be enriching… for everyone.

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Let’s take a look, then, at practical ways to support children’s home languages. This is an issue central to my research field so I ought to have a few answers! There are many experts in this area whose work I’d recommend to anyone who might be interested in reading further (please see the websites mentioned at the end of this post). But, for now, I want to keep things jargon-free. As throughout my blog, I’ll also illustrate some points from my own experience. The ideas I’m offering here are written more from the perspective of a parent than a postdoc.

Much advice exists as to ‘best practice’ in the raising of bilingual children. Sometimes, though, I find it can sound a bit too prescriptive. Or it gives the impression that bilingualism is state of perfect fluency which can be seamlessly achieved. This can risk demotivating parents, especially when progress doesn’t seem as steady as they may hope. Plus the literature often focusses on internationally ‘prestigious’ languages – ones that have an economic value. Unlike, for example, Bosnian, which – despite its alluring musicality – couldn’t be described as ‘lucrative’. On-line suggestions can consequently appear ‘ivory towerish’ or read with the saccharine ring of the ‘model parent’ who believes that Mandarin lessons are just what his/her toddler needs as a head-start en route to Harvard. Nevertheless, studies across the world, conducted in diverse social contexts, have proven the merit of approaches to learning which activate children’s plurilingual repertoires.

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Efforts that bring together family, school and community, have been found effective in sustaining the home languages of children from immigrant backgrounds. Indeed, in such cases, they can be particularly necessary, since mother tongue attrition is high when kids are being educated primarily through the society’s ‘majority’ language. Home language maintenance initiatives can thus combat the risk of linguistic loss and allow the children of immigrant parents to avail of the many advantages of bilingualism. These include:

  • Enhanced capacity to learn other languages.
  • Better problem-solving skills, due to more flexible thinking. This can be very useful when learning school subjects such as maths.
  • Greater ease in overall literacy development – reading and writing skills can transfer between the child’s two languages. Children who are literate in their home language have shown to be more adept at developing ‘biliteracy’.

I’ll end with a few tips for parents whose kids are growing up with two languages, especially when this dynamic results from immigration. These thoughts are followed by a short and ‘scary’ movie! Here, I’ll use the terms ‘home’, ‘heritage’ and ‘minority’ languages interchangeably and the ideas I’ll outline are as applicable to multilingual as to bilingual families. For additional research on this theme, check out the web-links below.

1. Use home languages!

If you’re a native-speaker of the ‘minority’ language, always use your mother ​tongue with your child. Our native language comes most naturally to us. It enables us to express affection in ways that might be language-specific. For example, Slavic diminutives to indicate fondness, such as the Bosnian -ica and -ić suffixes, lose some of their feeling when translated into English. Our native language also conveys cultural concepts. From the names of festivals and practices associated with them, to proverbs, abstract values and words for family members. In Bosnian, for instance, an intricate network of terms is used for the identification of aunts, uncles and cousins.

If you grew up bilingual – for example as a ‘second generation’ immigrant – try to use your ‘heritage’ language (that of your parents) as much you can with your child. As a formative language for you, it can be part of your child’s linguistic and cultural inheritance.

Also, if you’re a native-speaker of the ‘majority’ language, support your partner’s attempts to raise your child bilingually. Learn his/her language yourself and use it, to the best of your abilities, with your child. It doesn’t matter if your proficiency isn’t at ‘native-speaker’ level – don’t let grammatical worries get in the way of talking. You can play a vital role in preserving the ‘minority’ language by making it a channel of communication. From my family’s experience, this is particularly important if the father is the native-speaker of the ‘minority’ language and there isn’t much chance to use it in the immediate community.

2. Don’t expect perfection!

Globally, bilingualism is prevalent over monolingualism, but most people aren’t ‘balanced bilinguals’ who are equally proficient in two languages. The degree to which languages develop depends on contextual factors. In bilingual societies, both languages are prominent in everyday life, education and media. However, when one language is dominant – as English is in a lot of anglophone countries – parents may have to enhance the child’s environment by creating opportunities for bilingualism. But how?

  • Buy or borrow children’s books in the ‘minority’/home language and read these to your child. Help him/her learn to read and write in the language of the home.
  • Songs and DVDs in the home language are fun ways of increasing your child’s exposure to it.
  • Internet games and resources are also very engaging and children can use technology to research school topics through their home languages. Skype provides a handy link to relatives in other countries and, as an audio-visual means of communication, it may be easier for children than telephone calls.
  • Visits to family in places where the home language is spoken. Even if relatives abroad are themselves bilingual, ask them to use their native language with your child.
  • Contact with the home language community within the child’s country of residence can be significant too, although access to this may depend on where families live.
  • If possible, enrol your child in a complementary school. These schools, which offer weekend or evening classes, have been established to support children’s home languages in many states. In Ireland, the Polish community is particularly active in this regard, with over twenty weekend schools teaching Polish language and culture to children across the country. For smaller, more scattered communities, it can be difficult to set up such schools – parental involvement and commitment are the key to their existence. Complementary schools can provide kids with opportunities to use/learn the home language alongside other children, as well as to develop biliteracy and understand more about aspects of their culture.

3. Make home-school links with languages!

Talk to your child in the home language about what they did at school. Help them with school-related words that mightn’t normally enter into ordinary conversation (e.g. subject-specific terms). When children are doing homework, use the home language as a medium for discussion. My kids, with some support, explain maths exercises in both Bosnian and English. They also translate Irish reading passages and spellings into Bosnian.

Encourage teachers and schools to become more aware of children’s home languages and cultures. Schools, in Ireland at least, may differ in the emphasis they place on intercultural education, despite the fact that it’s essential for all children (see my previous post ‘Back to intercultural school’). However, many welcome the involvement of immigrant parents and value their role as representatives of children’s diverse languages. This can enable parents to participate in activities with a home language focus, such as storytelling, which some schools already facilitate. Making connections between complementary and mainstream schools further recognises this fundamental dimension of children’s learning which can otherwise go under the official radar.

4. Don’t give up!

Kids are kids… They learn at different rates. They vary in their learning styles and their personalities. Their motivation fluctuates. From my own family, I’m all too conscious of the problems… Answering their dad in English, when they know the reply in Bosnian, not wanting to ‘stand out’ by speaking a ‘foreign’ language in public, sibling rivalry, accommodating different age and interest levels, living far from other Bosnian children, trying to make the most of our short trips to Sarajevo. The obstacles are many. Yet the benefits are huge – not just the linguistic or general educational advantages of being bilingual, but the cultural and emotional attachments that kids develop through two languages. It requires perseverance… though even the smallest steps forward are positive. So parents – bon courage, good luck, sretno!

SCARY MOVIE in Bosnian (za djecu / for kids)

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Coming up to Halloween, my three daughters wrote and performed a short horror film in Bosnian… Please enjoy!

https://vimeo.com/78005461

If you have any problems opening this link (unfortunately I’m on freebie WordPress without video uploads) I’ve also sent it via Twitter… follow the tweets! Please turn off the HD function if watching on a PC – it should work fine on a smartphone or a tablet.

© Noć Vještica Filmovi

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Also, some useful websites:

Multilingual Learning – Goldsmiths University of London: http://www.gold.ac.uk/clcl/multilingual-learning/

Bilingual Forum Ireland: http://www.bilingualforumireland.com/index.html

Website of Jim Cummins – international expert in bilingual education: http://iteachilearn.org/cummins/

Back to intercultural school

My eldest has survived a full week of early mornings, after the three-month holiday enjoyed by students in Irish secondary schools. My younger pair returned to primary on Thursday. So far, it’s a novelty – the thrill of seeing their friends and moving up a year. Though, at roll-call, their new teachers probably gulp when it comes to their tongue-twister Bosnian surname.

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Each year, I explain its diacritic consonants. The ć that sounds like ‘ch’ and the š that’s said as ‘sh’. The teachers’ initial attempts are often somewhere between a choke and a sneeze but, eventually, they manage it. To their relief, my daughters’ first names are simpler and without confusing letters. A trivial issue, perhaps. As a parent, I’m afraid that I make too big a deal of it. That I’m interrupting the teachers’ busy schedules. Anyone who’s travelled with an Irish name like mine will know how hard it can be for others to get the pronunciation right.

But for children whose identity can be categorised as ‘minority’, it’s important. Living in Ireland as the native half of an Irish-Bosnian couple, I can transcribe my kids’ surname in a way that English-speakers understand. However, for parents from migrant backgrounds that’s less easy. Language barriers, differing norms in relation to education, unfamiliarity with the system – these can intimidate immigrant parents. That’s why a welcoming environment is vital. Small gestures mean a lot… some multilingual signs, teachers checking with parents as to how to say their children’s names. Because parents may be reluctant to make the first move and kids can’t be expected as – I know well from my own – to volunteer information. Even at secondary level, they prefer to let things go rather than ‘sticking out’ among their peer group. Schools must be pro-active.

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In Ireland, many are. But this country is still new to widespread cultural diversity. Its history has been one of emigration, a blight which has returned with the recession. Yet the phenomenon of immigration, which emerged in the mid-nineties and continued throughout the economic boom, hasn’t disappeared. The 2011 census showed a record 12% of Ireland’s population is of ‘non-Irish’ origin. Latest figures for 2013 reveal a renewed rise in the number of immigrants arriving here. Due to family reunification and couples deciding to settle, the proportion of school-age children of ‘non-indigenous’ heritage has increased. Never was there more need for intercultural education.

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While the last few years have seen commendable strategies and guidelines, little has been done to ensure their implementation. On the contrary, this area has been one of the worst affected by a swathe of cutbacks. The provision of language support for children learning English as an additional language has been severely hit, with reductions in designated teaching posts and negligible investment in resources or training. Compounded by other pressures, from rising class sizes to decreasing support for children who have special educational needs, this means intercultural concerns could slide down schools’ priority lists. The voices of children from migrant backgrounds risk going unheard.

How to respond to diversity in these cash-strapped times? Perhaps just by realising the cultural richness which immigrant children bring with them. A trove of knowledge for all – direct exchanges of experiences and opinions can be more memorable than any text-book. Exploring different beliefs… For my kids, it’s part of life in an inter-faith home but it’s also something they know about from visits to Sarajevo, where churches, mosques and synagogues coexist.

              Orthodox Church Mosque in Baščaršija Catholic cathedral

But this kind of information only slips out occasionally at school. Inadvertently, in Irish class, when the teacher asks which foods they like and my daughter says she doesn’t eat ham because her dad’s a Muslim. And another child adds he doesn’t eat burgers because his parents are Hindu. Priceless learning opportunities – coming at no cost, but easily lost.

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Consider language…. The linguistic wealth of Ireland’s immigrant population is a vast and untapped seam of huge potential. Encouraging immigrant children to maintain their home languages, while enabling them to acquire the language(s) of education, has been internationally proven to yield positive results. Even on a small scale, plurilingual approaches, which recognise the range of languages present in the classroom and promote their use to whatever extent possible, can benefit all children in today’s globalised world. Teachers don’t need to be fluent in Lithuanian or Urdu. A willingness to engage with immigrant children and their parents is enough. And maybe, in the process, to learn a few new words!

Geography, history likewise, can be brought to life by children sharing what they know of other places, from being there or hearing stories from relatives. My kids discovered this for themselves, standing in the ever-controversial footsteps of Gavrilo Princip…

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Speaking of polemics, enrolment policies can be a thornier subject. In Ireland, education remains largely denominational – the legacy of colonialism and the post-independence twinning of nationalism and religion. Embracing diversity isn’t enshrined within its structure, although moves are afoot to introduce long overdue reform. To illustrate – a mysterious ‘pork allergy’ is how I’ve explained our Islamo-veggie halal diet when enrolment forms fell short of accounting for cultural difference. However, at a more serious level, institutional discrimination has raised problems for parents in securing school places for their children. Apart from the question of religious affiliation, which can lead to the faith-based favouring of certain applicants, immigrant families have faced other hurdles. In highly populated areas, the practice of enrolling children at primary school from birth (if not before) has best served parents already established in the locality. Outlining draft legislation to regulate school admissions, published on 2 September, the Minister for Education has acknowledged that the current system is ‘very arbitrary and quite unfair’.

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There’s also the need to consider wider causes of exclusion. The worrying trend that, in some urban centres, children from migrant backgrounds are becoming concentrated in particular schools. Increasing incidents of racism, including racial bullying of children, have been documented by research such as that conducted by the Immigrant Council of Ireland. Above all, socio-economic disadvantage is something the state must tackle, as this is the greatest threat to truly equitable and inclusive education.

Much to be done… And Ireland’s report card reads ‘could do better’. But its diversity shines a beacon of hope through the bleakness of austerity. For this country is blessed with a powerful resource – its children of many cultures.

A version of this post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 20 September 2013, available online at: 

http://novovrijeme.ba/back-to-intercultural-school/

Some useful links:

Immigrant Council of Ireland – http://www.immigrantcouncil.ie/ (See Publications section for reports on racism & tool-kit for schools: ‘Pathways to Parental Leadership’)

The Integration Centre – http://www.integrationcentre.ie/ (See Publications section for reports on racism & guide for young people and their families: ‘At Home in Ireland’)