Perspective from Austria: "It's a beautiful law, but there are problems with the system"
An interview with Julliane Rüdisser, heritage language teacher and researcher in Innsbruck, Austria
January 29, 2021
In Austria, there is a decades-old federal law that guarantees the right to formal education in a child's heritage language, or "Muttersprache." Wonderful, right? Unfortunately, just because this right is dictated in a law does not mean that it is put into practice for every multilingual child. According to Julliane Rüdisser, there is a lot of work to be done.
Julliane de Oliveira Rüdisser teaches Portuguese as a heritage language through the public school system in Tirol, she has started an association that advocates on behalf of immigrants for integration, and – on top of this – she is working on her PhD about the effect that intensive literacy in the heritage language has on school performance. Julliane is also a collaborator in a special council formed by NCoC Bildung im Kontext von Migration und Mehrsprachigkeit (BIMM) that is designing the new school curriculum for HL teaching in Austria.
We reached out to Julliane so her experiences could inspire our heritage language initiative in Eindhoven. Her story is rich with insight into what it takes from all members of society for heritage language education to succeed.
How did you end up in Austria?
I am originally from Brazil, from a region called the Pampa near the border of Argentina and Uruguay – so my connection with multilingualism started early. I studied language teaching in Portuguese and English in Brazil and followed a few courses in London for teachers of English. I was working in London for a project supporting migrants when I met my husband from Austria.
We then moved to Brazil where I was running a large school that offered after school foreign language courses. When we decided to move to Austria the plan was to stay just for a while -- we have been here for almost 16 years!
How did you get involved with heritage language education?
My starting point was academic. In Austria it is hard to work as a teacher without Austrian credentials, so I went back to university. For my MA thesis, I looked into heritage language in relation to language acquisition, language shift, and language revitalization.
I was constantly confronted by this topic. Back then the government was made of a coalition with a far-right party. I would look at the newspaper and the national discourse, and see that children were forbidden to speak their own language during school breaks. I was worried! I had friends and family in Austria who were raising children in a multicultural and multilingual environment. What was ahead of them? How would their education be handled in schools? So I started digging into it. I knew someone who was teaching Spanish as a heritage language in the public schools, so I visited her class a few times.
Heritage language education is offered via the public education system in Austria?
Austria has a federal law since the 1970s that "guarantees" the right to formal education in a student's heritage language. After WWII there were many so-called “guest workers” who came to help rebuild Austria, and the government wanted the children from these families to be able to be formally educated in their heritage language to be prepared for a return to their countries of origin. Ultimately, the families did not return, but that is how the law came into being.
Today, there are about 30 heritage languages represented in the public school system in Austria. (See an example a list of lessons for Innsbruck from 2018-2019)
So any child who wants to follow lessons in their mother tongue can do so for free?
It is not that easy. It is great that we have this beautiful law! In practice, it takes a whole community to make sure that the law is implemented.
After I visited the Spanish heritage language classes, I quickly discovered that there are problems with the system. I wanted to find out what is going on with the Portuguese lessons in Tirol. The answer was: nothing. It should be the school director's job to inform families that children can be formally educated in the language that they speak at home. No one was claiming responsibility. In order for the law to work, you need to have a language community that is raising awareness, doing a lot of persuading.
So you raised awareness for the Portuguese-speaking community?
Yes, I started a project called the "Heritage Suitcase," which is a very simple idea. There are monthly meetings of the language community where a suitcase full of books is opened, and we, the community, tell stories to children. We make Portuguese books available to these families because access to them is otherwise difficult and expensive. These children would grow up without books in their language!
When I started talking to families at these meetings, I saw that the problem was a lot more profound than I had initially thought. A lot of the families have an Austrian father and a Brazilian mother. Many of the mothers never started speaking Portuguese to their children or they decided to stop due to social pressure. The children had almost no level in Portuguese, so reading to these children was not enough.
Why did the parents not speak Portuguese with their children?
I started offering workshops to the parents on multilingual education to find out. Why had they stopped speaking Portuguese, or why had they never started in the first place? In most cases these families faced or had a lot of prejudices. Groundwork was needed to provide basic information and to empower the parents to start speaking Portuguese to the children so that the reading sessions would make sense.
It became clear that in order to prevent language loss, we cannot rely on families alone. At every level of society, we need to work together. Language communities need to be informed about the criteria necessary to get their language into the public school system.
What are the criteria to start lessons in a heritage language at a public school?
The law is vague. The children have the right to be formally educated, but there needs to be funding for it and there must be enough students.
In order to start a class, you need at least 12 students. For most languages you would never have 12 students all enrolled at one school. Some states say that the 12 students have to be within a borough. Other states say that the 12 students have to be within the state. In the beginning, it was challenging for our Portuguese community, with some parents travelling long distances once per week after school time so all of the students could be together for the lessons.
Depending on the number of students, you are given a certain number of hours that they may receive lessons. The minimum is two hours per week. Larger groups are entitled to more hours per week. Lessons can take place after school time during the week or in the weekend.
Do the lessons ever take place during school time?
For language communities with large numbers of students, like the Turkish, there are sometimes lessons in the morning once or twice per week. They have been in the system for 40 years.
What is the process to get a child enrolled in the public heritage language education program?
I can tell you what is supposed to happen in theory and what actually happens in practice.
In theory, whenever a parent goes to a school to enroll a child, the school director has to ask, "Do you speak another language other than German at home with your child?" It should be one of the very first questions. If the child speaks a language at home other than German, then the parents should be informed that they have the possibility of enrolling the child in a heritage language program. The parents then need to fill in a form given to them by the school.
Perhaps the school director already knows whether there is a program available in the language in the area – but even if they do not know, they should send the form on to the board of education at the state level. The board of education at the state level is split into two different groups, depending on the stage of education. So each state has at least two individuals responsible for receiving the forms.
What happens in practice is, a lot of people do not care if these lessons happen at all. Although school directors are aware of the federal law, they have autonomy and might say that they will not host a heritage language class at their school. Some school directors advise against the heritage language programs and convince parents that the lessons do more damage than good since the students should concentrate on German only. A lot of parents are not given information so they are not aware that they could possibly access heritage language education if they want to. It is a "free subject" so parents can choose to enroll their children or not. It is not obligatory. Even if the parents complete the form, directors do not always submit the forms to the board of education.
How can this problem be addressed?
In order for the law to be put into action, you need to have a language community who fights for it – and they have to continue to fight to maintain it once they get into the public system. Perhaps a language community sticks together to get their lessons into the public system, but then their kids grow up and a new generation takes it for granted that the lessons are there. Those parents do not continue the work checking and pushing the system. Then the lessons are discontinued. You need to continuously inform the people about their rights: "You are entitled to it. You will have benefits if you enroll your child."
I feel lucky to be in the state of Tirol because it is a forerunner; the individual from the education department who coordinates the program in this region is incredibly engaged and really works hard to make sure that heritage language education happens. She stays on top of school directors to make sure that they fulfil their obligations.
Are there heritage language schools operating outside of the public school system?
Yes, there are some schools, like the Russian and Persian schools in our region that operate independently of the public school system. Parents want to have the children following lessons via the public school system if possible since they are free, but the criteria are strict to be able to operate within the school system. Not all teachers have the required credentials, nor a high level of German.
It seems that whether or not a country has a law guaranteeing a right to heritage education, in both cases, it is necessary to have an active and organized language community.
Yes, even if the government provides lessons, there is still work to be done by the language community. Even if your community's lessons are offered in primary school, you still need community initiatives to start working with the young children before they enter school. Language communities need to talk to their families who are even planning on getting pregnant. Parents are so loaded with fears and misconceived ideas about multilingualism. As a community we work on preventing and removing these fears by educating. After all, it takes a whole village to raise a multilingual child.
What do you find challenging about being a heritage language teacher?
I have to chase the school directors to make sure that they submit the forms from the families, otherwise I do not get a contract. Having German skills comes in handy when I have to change the attitudes and practices of school directors.
Also, heritage language teaching – whether it is within the public education system or not – is logistically challenging. The groups are heterogeneous, so the levels of the children are really different.
And as a heritage language teacher, I do not only have to teach. I have to be an expert in marketing, advocacy, and outreach work. I need to convince families and take their fears away. Heritage language teachers do not get compensated for this extra work.
How many students now receive Portuguese lessons in Tirol thanks to your work?
We started with one group in 2017, and now we have 5 groups in Tirol. In total we have 65 students following the Portuguese heritage language program.
How has the pandemic affected your work?
The Portuguese-speaking community is still very much active during the pandemic. We recently had an online gathering of 40 families, with two illustrators from Brazil who did a workshop for the children. It gives them a sense of cohesion.
Because of online teaching, it has been possible for me to group my Portuguese-speaking students more according to level rather than location. I also do not have to travel to get to the five different groups. Online teaching can and will not replace face-to-face teaching, but it has certainly cut down on stress for me as a teacher, and I can certainly see a hybrid modus being put into practice after the pandemic.
You have identified a problem – do you think things are getting any better?
We have been raising awareness about the importance of the heritage language program in the public school system, and we are managing to help change the mentality at different levels. It is incredibly hard work, but there are a lot of changes happening at the moment. We are seeing a wind of change here.
In Julliane's MA thesis, Challenges and Realities in the Bilingual Education of Spanish and Portuguese Language Minorities in Western Austria, she demonstrates that: "at least twenty percent of all students attending the Austrian school system are speakers of a heritage language [and] Austria has very progressive language policies which, under certain conditions, guarantee children of ethnolinguistic minorities the right to formal education in their heritage language. Nevertheless, only a small minority of children make use of their right to formal heritage language education." You can download her MA thesis here.
Bundesministerium Bildung, Wissenschaft, and Forschung (Austria's Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research) has information about multilingualism available for the public.
On the government website of Tirol, this is stated:
Linguistic diversity reflects the opportunities and wealth of a society. Learning the German language is one of the basic requirements for success at school. However, it is just as important to maintain your own mother tongue.
In Austria, all pupils with a first language other than German, as well as those who grow up bilingual in the family group, are entitled to take part in mother-tongue lessons, regardless of their citizenship, length of stay in Austria and their German language skills. This represents an important educational offer for multilingual students.