By Pauline Slot (Utrecht University)

When a child with a heritage language that is different than the school language enters a daycare or nursery school, the idea is often “how can we teach this child to speak the school language as quickly as possible”. The idea is rarely “how can we make the best use of the heritage language and nurture the development of the heritage language”. Jim Cummins, a prominent professor at the University of Toronto, explains why the latter approach is more beneficial for child’s development and learning.

Language = identity

Jim Cummins explains that heritage language is an important part of your identity. It is a part of who you are and where you come from. And it will probably remain an important part in your life, because it reflects your bond and connections with your family. Your heritage language is also the language in which you have come to know and discover the world around you. It is the language in which you express your thoughts and feelings. Therefore, it is also a reflection of your (world) knowledge.

Imagine you enter the group/ class and you are told that this heritage language is not important, or that it is even an obstacle to learning the school language. What does this do with your self-esteem, with your sense of identity? Jim Cummins argues that ignoring or denying the heritage language is a major risk for the development of children. It can have consequences for children’s motivation and their commitment to school. It can also have consequences for what they want to achieve and what they think they can achieve in life.

Multilingualism in the group

Research amongst professionals working in childcare and primary education shows that there is more positivity towards cultural diversity than multilingualism [1]. For example, in the Dutch practice, there seems to be a strong emphasis on promoting Dutch language development. In this situation, the role of the heritage language is not (yet) fully utilized. This is partly due to the way we look at children who speak a different home language. In this context, Jim Cummins speaks of a deficit approach, in which there is a focus on what a child is not (yet) able to do (speak fluently in the school language) instead of emphasizing what the child is already capable of (e.g. speaking in Turkish or Arabic, or being gifted in arts and crafts). Based on how we look at children, we also have expectations on what a child can do, now and in the future.

Research shows that teachers’ expectations play an important role in how children perform at school [2]. If teachers have lower expectations, the child may feel less motivated and less encouraged to perform at its best. This may result in lower performance. That is why it is important that professionals radiate and articulate high expectations of all children, including those who may not yet be as fluent in the school language.

The importance of organizational policy

The aforementioned study showed that professionals with more positive views on multilingualism also more often dealt positively with diversity and multilingualism in practice [1]. Additionally, the organizations where these professionals worked also had a more detailed organizational policy with regard to multilingualism. For example, whenever possible, parents and/or children were addressed in their heritage language or important information about the organization was available in different languages. Jim Cummins calls this a whole-school approach, which means translating a shared vision into an organization-wide pedagogical plan for dealing with multilingualism in the group and in the home environment. The implicit message that heritage language and culture should be limited to the home environment, is an obstacle to the optimal development of children. Welcoming different languages and cultures in the group is an enrichment, not only for the children but also for the professionals, according to Jim Cummins. A positive attitude towards the heritage language ensures that children and their parents feel they are seen and are heard and it thus contributes to inclusion!

Prof. Jim Cummins will be a keynote speaker at the Equality and Inclusion Conference on the 29th of November:



Prof. Jim Cummins about language and identity:

[1] Slot, P. L., Romijn, B. R. Cadima, J., Nata, G., &, Wysłowska (2018). Internet survey among staff working in formal and informal (education) sectors in ten European countries. Horizon 2020 EU ISOTIS: Inclusive Education and Social Support to tackle Inequalities in Society, Utrecht University.

[2] Tenenbaum, H.R. & Ruck, M. D. (2007). Are teachers’ expectations different for racial minority than for European American students? A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 253-273. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.99.2.253

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