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  • Writer's pictureGisi Cannizzaro

Inspiration and advice from an Icelandic coalition

November 19, 2019

Interview with Maria Sastre and Renata Emilsson Peskova from Iceland's "Móðurmál" coalition of heritage language schools

Founded informally in 1994 and established as an NGO in 2001, Móðurmál -- the Association on Bilingualism -- is a public interest group that has a wealth of experience supporting language groups and mother tongue teachers in Iceland. Móðurmál has received several accolades for its work, and its volunteers have in only a few years built up an impressive international library in Reykjavik. We had the chance to hear from Maria Sastre (president) and Renata Emilsson Peskova (board member) about their many notable achievements. How did Móðurmál get started? It was started by parents who wanted to support the mother tongue of their children. Initially we came together with only five languages (and over the course of our history we have had more than thirty), but now there are about twenty language groups [see list at end of this article] working under the umbrella of Móðurmál. We work mainly in the capital area and in several municipalities close to Reykjavík. What do you aim to achieve? Among our goals is to provide services to groups offering mother tongue education and to support active bilingualism in Icelandic society. Check out our full goals and vision. How is Móðurmál organized? Móðurmál is a non-profit non-governmental organization that functions as an umbrella organization for the various mother tongue schools. We hold monthly meetings as well as an annual general assembly where the board is renewed. Mother tongue schools of different languages pay a symbolic fee of 7 Euros a year to confirm their membership. What does Móðurmál offer to its members? We offer members publicity, representation, free of charge housing for their teaching, an annual congress, economic support when we have money, and participation in common projects. For mother tongue teachers, we provide opportunities for professional development through our annual conference and sharing online courses, articles, and websites. Móðurmál runs a common webpage (under renovation) and offers groups hosting under the common domain. Móðurmál is also able to register the children and youth books of member groups into the Icelandic national library system, where the treasure of books are visible and accessible throughout Iceland. Móðurmál speaks on behalf of the mother tongue groups and negotiates better conditions. Móðurmál has had good collaboration with the City of Reykjavík, the City Library, Gerðuberg Cultural Center, the Art Gallery of Reykjavík, Multicultural Council of Reykjavík and other institutions. Through Móðurmál, member groups have access to various spaces for cultural and social events. Do you receive subsidy? Some of our member schools receive financial support from their countries, but most of them do not. The city of Reykjavík opens two primary schools on Saturday morning, free of charge for Móðurmál groups. We do not yet have any contract with the government to finance project management, offices, library space, or teacher salaries. At the moment, we work as volunteers. When do mother tongue lessons take place and for which age groups? Lessons take place mostly on Saturdays – though some schools teach on Sundays. The age range varies; some groups start early, with a baby department. Most of them offer a program for children until they reach the age of 13 or 14 years old. We are working on creating a youth group for children older than 14 years old. Which activities do you organize? This year we are working together on the common project "17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals," and the children will present their work at a conference that they organize themselves. Previous common projects include an environmental project, bilingual book project, and youth project. Our other activities include:

  • Our annual Móðurmál conference for mother tongue teachers, interested public and specialists, and sometimes parents

  • Workshops and an annual social event for mother tongue teachers

  • A Christmas event in which children sing and perform

  • European Language Day

  • International Mother Language Day

  • Children's Festival

  • Multicultural Festival

  • Reading and cultural programs at the City Library

  • Guided tours in various languages in the City Gallery

How do you educate the community about the importance of mother tongue education? We spread publicity by writing articles, inviting media to events, sharing brochures in various languages, and posting resources on Facebook. We also have a large collaboration project with the School Children´s Parent Association (SAMFOK), to organize information evenings for parents in ten different languages. Be sure to check out the recordings and slides from these presentations. Can you tell us about your international library project? The library of Móðurmál has given the plurilingual community access to children and youth's books and other materials in their various languages. The project started in 2016 and has now over 5000 books in 52 languages. All materials are now registered in the national cataloging system "Gegnir." The project manager Rósa Björg Jónsdóttir has registered these all as a volunteer. The books, many of which were donated, belong either to individual mother tongue groups or to Móðurmál, and they can be lent to parents or to schools. The library does not currently have a common space, so the books are housed and lent in spaces provided by member groups. This project is one of the most amazing achievements of Móðurmál! It has received some recognition; however, it must receive much more attention and support. No other institution in Iceland would be able to do this work on its own. How do you ensure that children will borrow and read books in their mother tongue? Some regular schools are beginning to motivate children to read both in Icelandic and their mother tongue. Mostly it is the mother tongue groups that encourage their students to read, through reading competitions and other opportunities to discuss and enjoy literature. Fortunately, parents whose children attend mother tongue classes are diligent in borrowing books for their children. Can you tell us about the Human Rights Award you won? In 2019 we were the proud recipients of the "Mannréttindaverðlaun Reykjavíkurborgar" (Human Rights Award of the City of Reykjavík). This honor was awarded to us as a recognition of our crucial work over the past 25 years supporting children, parents, and teachers with mother tongue education in Iceland. What have you gained from having contact with other coalitions such as yours? Tons! We are able to share our experiences, encourage each other, and empathize with which each other. It helps to see that others have similar expectations and similar problems. It also helps to have a new point of view to help you find solutions. We are also able to share knowledge and expertise, and to build up the networks of the individual mother tongue schools. Having contact with other coalitions allows us to have publicity and recognition outside of Iceland. We turn to others for ideas, inspiration, and strength. What is your advice for other coalitions (such as HLSE) just getting started? Never wait for the support of institutions: if you get it, that‘s great, but if not, it will come sooner or later. Have contact at the administrative level. Find people who you can trust to work with. Network with other organizations. Support your mother tongue teachers: if they burn out, it is a great loss. Educate them and praise them, and give them opportunities to network and socialize. Support parents. If parents do not believe in the importance of mother tongue education, they will not bring their children to the lessons. Create a lot of fun and joy around mother tongue classes. Children have to enjoy them because they are working on their mother tongue in their free time, while their peers are playing computer games. Have a shared vision. Boast about your achievements. Enjoy what you do, and don´t give up! Picture above: Includes five key members of Móðurmál:

  • Maria Sastre, the current president of Móðurmál

  • Rósa Björg Jónsdóttir, the project manager of the international library

  • Kriselle Lou Suson Jónsdóttir, the founder of the Filipino group and board member

  • Jurgita Milleriene, the founder of the Lithuanian school and a board member

  • Renata Emilsson Peskova, the co-founder of the Czech school and a board member

Awards: Móðurmál received the Human Rights Award of the City of Rekjavik in 2019. They have also received a certificate of recognition in 2008 for their active work on immigration issues in Iceland, the Society Award of Frettabladid in 2014, the Parents Award of the National Parents´s Association in 2016, and the Encouragement Award of the National Parents’ Association in 2018. List of languages currently represented:

  • Arabic I

  • Arabic II

  • Bulgarian

  • Czech

  • English

  • Filipino

  • French

  • German

  • Hungarian

  • Icelandic

  • Japanese

  • Latvian

  • Lithuanian

  • Polish

  • Romanian

  • Russian

  • Serbian

  • Slovak

  • Spanish

  • Thai

  • Ukranian-Russian


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