The benefits of home language
by Judianne Jayme
We are a bilingual country, with both English and French holding status as official languages. A quick walk in the park or a ride on the bus will quickly teach us, however, that they are definitely not the only languages spoken here. The same goes for schools – we are a multicultural community with many languages spoken on a daily basis. A census in 2006 reported that Tagalog was the top spoken non-official language by those in the Winnipeg metropolitan area, making up for 4.9 per cent of the population. The top five non-official languages spoken in our city are Tagalog, German (2.9%), one of the many Chinese dialects (1.7%), Ukrainian (1.5%), and Punjabi (1.4%).
Students coming into schools are increasingly “English as an Additional Language” (EAL) learners. We recognize that children of immigrant families have a huge task to undertake, to not only catch up with whatever subjects the class is learning (imagine coming into a Grade 6 social studies class about the structure of government and democracy without and prior knowledge of this), but to do so in a language that, for some, they rarely heard in their home country.
I, myself, was an EAL learner in my own teaching career. In the summer of 2011, I lived in Bangkok, Thailand, teaching in an English Immersion program to Thai students. My students were first graders, so they had only had two years prior to my class to learn in an English immersion setting. They were not all completely fluent in English, so in order to make them feel comfortable with me (confusingly Thai in my appearance, but without any knowledge of the Thai language), I told them that I was a language learner as well. Throughout my time in Bangkok, my students learned English from me, and were always willing to teach me basic Thai phrases. I can now ask how much something costs, give directions, announce when it’s time to eat, and even give my compliments to the chef.
The key is to emphasize that language must not be lost. We honour that student’s culture, heritage, and personal history. We focus on celebrating culture and language, to foster a sense of belonging in the school family. Students will learn English naturally, through immersion, by needing to communicate with classmates and staff. They quickly learn who can help them translate ideas, and how to use non-verbal communication to get their ideas across.
Parent tip: Language learning at home
For parents in families that have recently immigrated, a huge welcome to you and your children! The move can be overwhelming, but rest assured that schools are ready to help your child get to where they need to be, regardless of their experience with the English or French language. When parents ask how they can help their child, I suggest checking in with their child each day. As mentioned above, children will naturally learn how to speak the language through their daily interactions with staff and peers. What matters at home is that they have someone to talk to about social and emotional changes that they’re going through as they make the transition into their new home country.
For parents with children born or mostly raised here, I recommend that you keep your traditional heritage and roots alive. Educate your children about traditions in your family, faith, or culture. Teach them your home language! These are gems that make up a huge part of identity and should be celebrated.
We are a multicultural society, and a society of so many pieces work best when we are working together. Celebrate diversity, learn about other cultures, and encourage your child to do the same. As they like to say during the largest and longest-running multicultural festival of its kind, better known as Folklorama, take the time to get cultured!
Judianne Jayme is a third year educator teaching sixth grade in the Winnipeg School Division.