By Christel Elias (Fontys)

While I was waiting on the schoolyard I heard a girl say to her mother: “Hamza sang a song in a very difficult language”. Then my son comes running to me and says: “Mom, Hamza is going to participate in ‘Child Centre’s Got Talent!’“.

While we walk back home, I hear the whole story from my son. Hamza sang a Syrian song in class and has been chosen to represent his class on the school’s talent morning. The class was impressed by his singing, because he did it all by himself and it was in a very difficult language.

A few weeks later I see Hamza with his mother. I ask him how his performance went and what the song was about. With a smile he said that the performance went well, and that the song was about mothers and about what they do for you. I looked at Hamza’s mother, and for a moment, we didn’t need words to understand each other…

Recognition of foreign languages in the classroom

It is important for children and adults to feel recognized. This recognition can relate to all kinds of areas, including someone’s language. When a child enters a group where his/her native language is not recognized, this could have negative consequences for the child’s (language) development.

The child can feel insecure and withdraw. As a result, the child will be less likely to participate in the activities. Because the child participates less in these activities, he/she has less opportunity to practice and develop the majority language. This can cause growing insecurity, making it a spiral that goes on and on and on…

Pedagogical staff and teachers play an important role in the recognition of children and their native language(s). We can do this by giving all children a chance to share their native language and culture with the group.

This can be done in a number of ways, for example:

  • By letting a child teach the class how something is said in his or her native language.
  • By learning how to (properly) pronounce the child’s name.
  • By occasionally asking children with a different mother tongue how something is said in their native language and then practice this with the whole group.
  • By encouraging children, just like Hamza’s teacher, to perform a song in their native language.
  • By learning a song in another language with the whole group.

In short: try to be curious and eager to learn about the language and culture of every child.

Working together with parents

The recognition of another language is not limited to the group or classroom. It is important to know that children who are more proficient in their native language are more likely to master the school language more quickly as well. As pedagogical staff and teachers, it is important to talk to the parents about the importance of developing the mother tongue, in addition to developing the majority language.

Some extra tips…

  • Encourage parents to read to their children in their mother tongue.
  • Ask parents if they have books in their mother tongue. If this is not the case, ensure that books become available to them, for example through the library or via other parents.

Want to know more about how foreign-language children learn a language? Take a look at the following websites and articles:

Kohnert, K., Yim, D., Nett, K., Kan, P. F., & Duran, L. (2005). Intervention with linguistically diverse preschool children: A focus on developing home language(s).
Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 36(3), 251-263.

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‘A difficult language!’

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