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  • Writer's pictureHLE Network

Which lawmakers value heritage language education?

June 21, 2023

You guessed it: it is often the lawmakers who followed heritage language (HL) education themselves (or wished they had)!

In a recent, must-listen Kletsheads podcast episode (in Dutch), entitled "The multilingual city: How does a city deal with its multilingual residents?" host Sharon Unsworth interviews two politicians, both of whom have migrant minority language backgrounds. One of them -- the mayor of Arnhem -- followed heritage language lessons himself in his youth.

In Sharon's conversation with each of them, you can hear how their personal experiences have given them understanding of how important developing and appreciating the home language is for multilingual children -- no matter which language it is. It is a key to unlocking their full identities, it allows them to speak with grandma and grandpa, it is a skill set that gives them advantages in their careers.

What is remarkable about this podcast episode is the mention of heritage language education programs. Heritage language programs can be valuable providers of language and culture education, but they are often forgotten about in discussions of how multilingual children can be supported.

Politicians with a heritage language background

What happens when children who grew up speaking -- and even studying -- a minority migrant language go on to become government officials? These individuals know what it is like to grow up with more than one language, and they often also know what it is like to move to a new country as a child where they at first cannot speak the local language.

We know from examples from other countries that when politicians have this background, it can lead to policies and decisions that increase attention, appreciation, and support for heritage language education. For instance in New South Wales, when some students who decades ago attended Australia's so-called "Community Languages Schools" grew up to become lawmakers, they made sure that resources were invested in the development of initiatives such as the Sydney Institute for Community Languages Education. This type of institute helps increase the quality of the educational programs by providing information and training opportunities to heritage language teachers and managers.

A board member of HLE Network recently pointed this out at a meeting with policy-makers in Eindhoven: " If you yourself have a multilingual background or have grown up multilingual, you will have experienced how valuable it is to see your multilingual background recognized, appreciated, and stimulated outside of the home. In places where multilingual children themselves come to government positions, we see more support for multilingualism from the government . . . [if we can be] proud of the wealth of languages that are here [now, then it is] . . . possible that we do not have to wait until our multilingual children themselves have grown up to become policy makers."

Fortunately, it appears that in at least two cities in the Netherlands, the wait is over.

Language Friendly Amsterdam

In January 2023, the the city council of Amsterdam approved a motion to write a language friendly action plan for its schools, stating that the municipality will actively encourage multilingualism. They no longer want to see the use of languages other than Dutch being forbidden in education.

A very large part of your identity is formed at school, which is why I think it's so important not to leave that part of your identity behind when you walk in a school door - Milka Yemane

Sharon Unsworth interviewed Milka Yemane, an Amsterdam GroenLinks council member, who submitted the motion for the proposal to write a policy about multilingualism in education. Ms. Yemane explains how this decision came about. She also discusses the fact that she came to the Netherlands from Eritrea when she was young and thus grew up multilingual herself with Tigrinya as a heritage language in addition to Dutch.

During the interview, Ms. Yemane explains that she herself did not follow lessons in Tigrinya when she was growing up, but she sees examples now of children who are growing up learning the alphabet in both Tigrinya and Dutch. "These children are doing well in the mainstream school." She realizes that she could have spoken and studied Tigrinya more than she did when she was younger, and she would have benefited from that, but that was not the case due to the prominent beliefs about multilingualism at that time.

Thus her own experience from her youth is one of the reasons -- in addition to a body of research -- that Ms. Yemane supported the decision in the Amsterdam city council to value multilingualism. "I would have liked that at school: more recognition and appreciation for your other culture and your other language . . . A very large part of your identity is formed at school, which is why I think it's so important not to leave that part of your identity behind when you walk in a school door."

Arnhem mayor applauds heritage language education

Also interviewed in the episode was Ahmed Marcouch, who since 2017 has served as mayor Arnhem, a city with 100 nationalities. He came to the Netherlands from Morocco at the age of ten, speaking Tamazight as his mother tongue.

He tells the story, " I didn't go to school until I was ten. Only in the Netherlands, when I arrived in 1979, was I allowed to go to school for the first time. When I was allowed to go to school here, in Amsterdam-East to the Montessori school, I was very happy. I had a very loving teacher, Miss Herma who, despite my ten-year backlog in education, embraced me very lovingly and full of passion, and then taught me step by step to read and write in the Dutch language."

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Mayor Marcouch knew immediately that learning Dutch is crucial in order to have a chance for success in the Dutch society. That said, he was also able to follow lessons on Tuesday mornings via the Dutch school system in Arabic, the official language of Morocco. At that time in the Dutch education system, teachers were brought in from Morocco so that children could be taught their heritage language and culture a few hours per week. On top of that, he also followed Arabic lessons on Saturdays and Sundays, at what he calls an "informal school." He explains that thanks to the different channels of education, he has formed an identity as a Dutch person, an Amsterdamer, and a Moroccan, all of which form the basis of his personality.

I was able to function incredibly well as a police officer because I spoke Tamazight and Arabic - Mayor Marcouch

The Arnhem mayor makes a point about the economic worth of HL languages. He explains that in the late 1970s, informal education in Arabic was already being arranged at the grassroots level. "There were 1000 kids going every weekend . . . and those are all children who are adults today . . . they are Dutch people who -- because of that multilingualism -- can contribute substantially to their work. I was able to function incredibly well as a police officer because I spoke Tamazight and Arabic." Although he did not specifically learn those languages in order to help function well as police officer, they happened to be competences that the police force was missing at the time and that were useful -- and are still useful for him as mayor, for example, when welcoming refugees. He points out that thanks to the efforts of his father, despite that they had little money, he was able to follow weekend lessons to develop these languages, which turned out to be very useful to society.

Because education in the home language and culture benefits society as a whole in these many ways, Mayor Marcouch notably calls on the Dutch education minister to encourage public schools to open their buildings more to these types of supplemental programs.

More confident children, more fully developed identities, less discrimination, and a skilled labor market. These are messages that we at HLE Network will continue delivering from the bottom up; it is refreshing when we can hear these messages from prominent government officials, top-down. Many thanks to Sharon Unsworth for giving these politicians her microphone!

Kletsheads is a podcast about multilingual children for parents, teachers, and speech therapists. Dr. Sharon Unsworth, a linguist and mother of two multilingual children herself, engages in conversation with experts, parents, and professionals each episode about the language development of multilingual children. You can listen to the podcast via the website (Dutch version or English version) or via your favorite podcast app.


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