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Multilingual Cities Project: Crossnational Perspectives on Immigrant Minority Languages in Europe, by Guus Extra & Kutlay Yağmur


4. Immigrant minority languages at school

We present the major outcomes of our comparative study on the teaching of IM languages in the six EU cities and countries of the MCP under discussion. Being aware of crossnational differences in denotation, we will use the concept community language teaching (henceforward CLT) when referring to this type of education. Our rationale for the CLT concept rather than the concepts mother tongue teaching or home language instruction is the inclusion of a broad spectrum of potential target groups. First of all, the status of an IM language as ‘native’ or home language is subject to change through intergenerational processes of language shift. Moreover, in secondary education, both minority and majority pupils are often de jure (although seldom de facto) admitted to CLT.

From a historical point of view, most of the countries in the MCP show a similar chronological development in their argumentation in favour of CLT. CLT was generally introduced into primary education with a view to family remigration. This objective was also clearly expressed in Directive 77/486 of the European Community, on 25 July 1977. The Directive focused on the edu­cation of the children of ‘migrant workers’ with the aim ‘principally to facilitate their possible reintegration into the Member-State of origin’. As is clear from this formulation, the Directive excluded all IM children originating from non-EU countries, although these children formed the large part of IM children in European primary schools. At that time, Sweden was not a EU member-state, and CLT policies for IM children in Sweden were not directed towards remigration but modeled according to bilingual education policies for the large minority of Finnish-speaking children in Sweden.

In the 1970s, the above argumentation for CLT was increasingly aban­doned. Demographic developments showed no substantial signs of families re­migrating to their source countries; instead, a process of family reunion and minorization came about in the target countries. This development resulted in a conceptual shift, and CLT became primarily aimed at combating disadvantages. CLT had to bridge the gap between the home and the school environment, and to encourage school achievement in ‘regular’ subjects. Because such an approach tended to underappreciate ethnocultural dimensions, a number of countries began to emphasize the intrinsic importance of CLT from cultural, legal, and economic perspectives:

  • in cultural respects, CLT can contribute to maintaining and advancing a pluralist society;
  • in legal respects, CLT can meet the internationally recognized right to language development and language maintenance, in correspondence with the fact that many IM groups consider their own language of key value to their cultural identity;
  • in economic respects, CLT can lead to an important pool of profitable knowledge in societies which are increasingly internationally oriented.

Table 3. Status of CLT in European primary and secondary education, according
to nine parameters in six countries (Sw/G/N/B/F/Sp = Sweden/Germany/Netherlands until 2004/Belgium/France/Spain) (source: Extra & Yağmur 2004: 385)

CLT parameters
Primary education
Secondary education

1. Target groups

IM children in a broad vs. narrow definition in terms of

  • the spectrum of languages taught
    (Sp < N B F < G Sw)
  • language use and language proficiency
    (G N B Sp < Sw F)
  • de iure: mostly IM pupils; sometimes all pupils (in particular N)
  • de facto: IM pupils in a broad vs. narrow sense (see left) (limited participation, in particular B Sp)

2. Arguments

mostly in terms of a struggle against deficits, rarely in terms of multicultural policy (N B vs. other countries)

mostly in terms of multicultural policy, rarely in terms of deficits (all countries)

3. Objectives

rarely specified in terms of (meta)linguistic and (inter)cultural skills
(Sw G Sp vs. N B F)

specified in terms of oral and written skills to be reached at interim and final stages (all countries)

4. Evaluation

mostly informal/subjective through teacher, rarely formal/objective through measurement and school report figures (Sw G F vs. B N Sp)

formal/objective assessment plus school report figures (Sw G N vs. B F Sp)

5. Minimal enrolment

specified at the level of classes, schools, or municipalities
(Sw vs. G B F vs. N Sp)

specified at the level of classes, schools, or municipalities
(Sw N vs. other countries)

6. Curricular status

  • voluntary and optional
  • within vs. outside regular school hours (G N Sp vs. S B F)
  • 1-5 hours per week
  • voluntary and optional
  • within regular school hours
  • one/more lessons per week

    (all countries)

7. Funding

  • by national, regional or local educational authorities
  • by consulates/embassies of countries of origin (Sw N vs. B Sp, mixed G F)
  • by national, regional or local educational authorities
  • by consulates/embassies of countries of origin (Sw N F vs. B Sp, mixed G)

8. Teaching materials

  • from countries of residence
  • from countries of origin

    (Sw G N vs. B F Sp)
  • from countries of residence
  • from countries of origin

    (Sw N F vs. B Sp)

9. Teacher qualifications

  • from countries of residence
  • from countries of origin

    (Sw G N vs. B F Sp)
  • from countries of residence
  • from countries of origin

    (Sw N F vs. B Sp)

In Table 3 we give a crossnational summary of the outcomes of our comparative study of nine parameters of CLT in primary and secondary education. A com­parison of all nine parameters makes clear that CLT has gained a higher status in secondary schools than in primary schools. In primary education, CLT is generally not part of the ‘regular’ or ‘national’ curriculum, and, consequently, it tends to become a nego­tiable entity in a complex and often opaque interplay of forces by a variety of actors, in contrast with other curricular subjects. Another remarkable fact is that, in some countries (particularly France, Belgium, Spain, and some German federal states), CLT is funded by the consulates or embassies of the countries of origin. In these cases, the national government does not interfere in the organization of CLT, or in the requirements for, and the selec­tion and employment of teachers. A paradoxical consequence of this phenomenon is that the earmarking of CLT budgets is often safeguarded by the above-mentioned consulates or embassies. National, regional, or local governments often fail to earmark budgets, so that funds meant for CLT may be appropriated for other educational purposes. It should be mentioned that CLT for primary school children in the Netherlands has been completely abolished in the school year 2004/2005, resulting in Dutch-only education in multicultural and multilingual primary schools.

The higher status of CLT in secondary education is largely due to the fact that instruction in one or more languages other than the national standard language is a traditional and regular component of the (optional) school curriculum, whereas primary education is highly determined by a monolingual habitus (Gogolin 1994). Within secondary education, however, CLT must compete with ‘foreign’ languages that have a higher status or a longer tradition.

CLT may be part of a largely centralized or decentralized educational policy. In the Netherlands, national responsibilities and educational funds are gradually being transferred to the municipal level, and even to individual schools. In France, government policy is strongly centrally controlled. Germany has devolved governmental responsibilities chiefly to its federal states, with all their mutual differences. Sweden grants far-reaching autonomy to municipal councils in dealing with educational tasks and funding. In general, comparative crossnational references to experiences with CLT in the various EU member-states are rare (Reich 1991, 1994, Reid & Reich 1992, Fase 1994, Tilmatine 1997, Broeder & Extra 1998), or they focus on particular language groups (Tilmatine 1997, Obdeijn & De Ruiter 1998).

5. Dealing with multilingualism at school

There is a great need for educational policies in Europe that take new realities of multilingualism into account. Processes of internationalization and globalization have brought European nation-states to the world, but they have also brought the world to European nation-states. This bipolar pattern of change has led to both convergence and divergence of multilingualism across Europe. On the one hand, English is on the rise as the lingua franca for international communication across the borders of European nation-states at the cost of all other national languages of Europe, including French. In spite of many objections against the hegemony of English (Phillipson 2003), this process of convergence will be enhanced by the extension of the EU in an eastward direction. Within the borders of European nation-states, however, there is an increasing divergence of home languages due to large-scale processes of migration and intergenerational minorization.

The call for differentiation of the monolingual habitus of primary schools across Europe originates not only bottom-up from IM parents or organizations, but also top-down from supra-national institutions which emphasize the increasing need for European citizens with a transnational and multicultural affinity and identity. Multi­lingual competencies are considered prerequisites for such an affinity and identity. Both the European Commission and the Council of Europe have published many policy documents in which language diversity is cherished as a key element of the multicultural identity of Europe –now and in the future. This language diversity is considered to be a prerequisite rather than an obstacle for a united European space in which all citizens are equal (not the same) and enjoy equal rights (Council of Europe 2000). The maintenance of language diversity and the promotion of language learning and multilingualism are seen as essential elements for the improvement of communication and for the reduction of inter­cultural misunderstanding.

The European Commission (1995) opted in a so-called Whitebook for tri­lingualism as a policy goal for all European citizens. Apart from the “mother tongue”, each citizen should learn at least two “community languages”. In fact, the concept of “mother tongue” referred to the national languages of particular nation-states and ignored the fact that mother tongue and national language do not coincide for many inhabitants of Europe. At the same time, the concept of “community languages” referred to the national languages of two other EU member-states. In later European Commission documents, reference was made to one foreign language with high international prestige (English was deliberately not referred to) and one so-called “neighbouring language”. The latter concept related always to neighbouring countries, never to next-door neighbours.

The heads of state and govern­ment of all EU member-states called upon the European Commission to take further action to promote multilingualism across Europe, in particular by the learning and teaching of at least two foreign languages from a very young age (Nikolov & Curtain 2000). The Action Plan 2004-2006, published by the European Commission (2003) may ultimately lead to an inclusive approach in which IM languages are no longer denied access to Europe’s celebration of language diversity. In particular, the plea for the learning of three languages by all EU citizens, the plea for an early start to such learning experiences, and the plea for offering a wide range of languages to choose from, open the door to such an inclusive approach. Although this may sound paradoxical, such an approach can also be advanced by accepting the role of English as lingua franca for intercultural communication across Europe. Against this background, the following principles are suggested for the enhancement of multilingualism at the primary school level:

1. In the primary school curriculum, three languages are introduced for all children:

  • the standard language of the particular nation-state as a major school subject and the major language of communication for the teaching of other school subjects;
  • English as lingua franca for international communication;
  • an additional third language opted from a variable and varied set of priority languages at the national, regional, and local level of the multicultural society.

2. The teaching of all these languages is part of the regular school curriculum and subject to educational inspection.

3. Regular primary school reports contain information on the children’s proficiency in each of these languages.

4. National working programmes are established for the priority languages referred to under (1) in order to develop curricula, teaching methods, and teacher training programmes.

5. Part of these priority languages may be taught at specialized language schools.

This set of principles is aimed at reconciling bottom-up and top-down pleas in Europe for multilingualism, and is inspired by large-scale and enduring experiences with the learning and teaching of English (as L1 or L2) and one Language Other Than English (LOTE) for all children in Victoria State, Australia (see Extra & Yağmur 2004: 99-105). When each of the above-mentioned languages should be introduced in the curriculum and whether or when they should be subject or medium of instruction, has to be spelled out according to particular national, regional, or local demands. Derived from an overarching conceptual and longitudinal framework, priority languages could be specified in terms of both regional and immigrant minority languages for the development of curricula, teaching methods, and teacher training programmes. Moreover, the increasing internationalization of pupil popula­tions in European schools requires that a language policy be introduced for all school children in which the traditional dichotomy between foreign language instruction for indigenous majority pupils and home language instruction for IM pupils is put aside. Given the experiences abroad (e.g., the Victorian School of Languages in Australia), language schools can become expertise centers where a variety of languages are taught, if the children’s demand is low and/or spread over many schools. In line with the proposed principles for primary schooling, similar ideas could be worked out for secondary schools where learning more than one language is already an established curricular practice. The above-mentioned principles would recognize multi­lingualism in an in­creasingly multicultural environment as an asset for all children and for society at large. The European Union, the Council of Europe, and UNESCO could function as leading trans­national agencies in promoting such concepts. The UNESCO Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity (last update 2002) is highly in line with the views expressed here, in particular in its plea to encourage linguistic diversity, to respect the mother tongue at all levels of education, and to foster the learning of several languages from the youngest age.

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