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The ABC of Plurilingualism — enclavedocente.es

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The ABC of Plurilingualism


Leonor Mª  Martínez Serrano: Asesora de Formación del Profesorado del Ámbito Lingüístico del CEP Priego-Montilla


First facts. Since 2005, one of the priorities of the Andalusian government has been to promote the teaching and learning of several languages at school. Over the last eight years, teachers have been doing their best to stand up to the big challenge of bilingual education, which means teaching at least 50% of the curriculum of certain content subjects through a foreign language (English, French or German). In the meantime, the Consejería de Educación has produced a mass of helpful documents, resources and materials for bilingual schools: CLIL lessons (AICLE didactic sequences), ELP communicative activities (based on the European Language Portfolio), the so-called Integrated Language Curriculum (CIL or Currículo Integrado de Lenguas) and the School Language Project (PLC or Proyecto Lingüístico de Centro). In the realm of teacher training, the challenge has been twofold: to improve teachers’ linguistic competence in the L2 (functional, everyday language and academic language) and to provide them with the right methodological updating (i.e., skills and strategies to teach their subjects creatively through CLIL). Midway between utter optimism and pessimism, it should be acknowledged that the Andalusian experience has its own weaknesses, but also strong points that are worth considering in depth. A long path lies ahead, but what we have accomplished is no little thing. What follows is a list of fundamental intuitions or insights into the current situation of bilingual education in Andalusia and in Europe. Possibly they are fundamental facts, and they correspond to each of the fingers on our hands.

1. The world is a polyphonic place, by which I mean to say that the world has spoken different languages since antiquity, since the very cradle of humanity, now lost in the mists of time. Human beings have spoken thousands of different languages throughout History. That is part of the inexhaustible richness inherent in humankind. The Babel episode in the Book of Genesis reminds us somehow that monolingualism is unnatural in a way: before the confusion that emerged out of conflicting voices, there was only one human language. But it is obvious that most humans are exposed to languages other than their mother tongue in their lifetime, and that the acknowledgement of the intrinsic value of plurilingualism is a sign of an advanced, sophisticated civilization. Needless to say, communication is not a privilege confined to the human species. Every single thing (human and non-human, living and non-living) in this world seeks to mean something. Hence the tree of meaning is even prior to the tree of language, which is verbal in nature and second nature to human beings. Meaning is, by contrast, truly universal and limitless.

Captura de pantalla 2014-05-08 a la(s) 00.58.492. The tree of language is the gift the Earth gives human beings so as to be able to communicate with each other. Language is a universal, innate capacity common to all human beings, and human languages are the species indigenous to the places where human beings live together. The tree of language has common roots, which is the universal faculty of speech, and thousands of leaves, which are the human languages spoken and written by the peoples who populate this planet. Over several millennia, humans have learnt to speak and write the sounds, syllables, words and sentences that make up languages. They have also learnt to use them to efficiently communicate their ideas and findings to each other, for communication is the beating heart of language and the human heart speaks the words of multiple languages. Thus, the tree of language has never stopped growing and changing and giving humans the shelter they need to achieve self-fulfillment and self-expression.

3. Human languages are the treasure-house of all the important intuitions, findings and insights into reality that humanity has built, enriched and enlarged over time. They are also the most valuable and sophisticated tool of communication we humans have got to convey our ideas, emotions and feelings to others. In a nutshell, language, culture and knowledge belong together, and so they cannot be artificially or unnaturally dissociated from each other. Language is the embodiment of a people’s worldview at a particular time in History, as well as a huge map of human knowledge, which is vast and beautiful as an ocean in itself. Or, to put it differently, language is an immense constellation of gigantic proportions that is shared by a historic community and that enables it to pass their most precious achievements on to subsequent generations in the form of words, both oral and written.

4. It is of the essence to preserve and protect the vulnerable ecology of human languages. This is called Linguistic Ecology or Ecological Linguistics. Nowadays, there are over 6,000 languages in the world, but many (if not most) of them are in danger of becoming extinct. According to linguists David Crystal and Andrew Dalby, a huge percentage might disappear in the near future. It is impossible to give exact estimates of how many languages have existed and have been spoken upon Earth throughout history, in much the same way it is impossible to know how many human beings have lived in this tiny world of ours. At any rate, the tree of languages is a most precious legacy that we have inherited from our ancestors, and it is our duty to preserve it, to enrich it, to enliven it, and to pass it on to our descendants with splendour and honour. Teaching languages as tools of real communication to bring humans closer together is a way of preserving languages and a way of honouring the huge diversity of human voices spoken on Earth. Teaching is, therefore, a most sublime cultural and ecological enterprise.

5. Language is an essential part of cultural identity, it is the air we breathe, and it determines the way we perceive and interpret reality and our place and role in it. Learning languages is crucial in the context of the European Union because we have gone through traumatic wars throughout History, especially in the 20th century, when our grandparents had to survive the horror of two World Wars. The language policies fostered by the European Union were born to prevent another such war from happening. How do we do that? By learning the languages spoken on European soil and by appreciating the culture beneath those languages. It is only by learning to see and speak the world through the words of the others that we might be able to understand, respect and value their uniqueness. Hence, all the language recommendations and acts passed in the European Union are aimed at raising people’s awareness of the rich linguistic legacy we have at home and at encouraging them to learn to communicate in a wide range of languages so that their plurilingual and pluricultural competence becomes a dream come true.

6. A true democratization of language learning on an unprecedented scale: this is the really revolutionary phenomenon we are witnessing nowadays. In the old days, learning languages was the preserve or privilege of the intellectual elite –it was an elitist enterprise after all–. Fortunately, things have changed for the better: more and more people have the opportunity to be exposed to and learn languages other than their mother tongue. Several factors account for this. One of them is globalization, which is to say that we live in a world with no frontiers where mobility –people moving and travelling from one place to another thanks to faster means of transport– is the most marked characteristic of modern societies. Another important factor are the so-called ICT (Information and Communication Technologies), which make instantaneous exchange of information and communication possible in ways never dreamt of in the past. As a result, the world has become a tinier place, a subtle network of people communicating with each other through a variety of media all the time, at the speed of sound. The non-stop flux of information is simply dizzy, even though we are well aware that information is not synonymous with knowledge.

7. Bilingualism is good for the human mind and the human body. The cognitive, emotional, cultural, political, economic and social benefits of bilingual teaching are undeniable, and there is by now sufficient scientific evidence that bilingual individuals are smarter and have brighter brains than non-bilinguals –they are also more open-minded and flexible in the long term–. 21st-century citizens of the world need to be plurilingual: this may sound like wishful thinking, but it is an essential prerequisite for cosmopolitan humans that happen to live precisely at this moment in time to realize their full potential as human beings. There are lots of positive side-effects to language learning, for languages open many kinds of doors in life: language learning is a path towards personal self-fulfillment; language learning means better opportunities in the labour market; it also means access to a mass of data and cultural phenomena encoded in different languages; there are lots of advantages associated with leisure time, travel, and meeting other people from all over the world; and, on top of that, language learning is also closely related to social prestige, as it is a sign of a well-rounded education.

8. The concepts of bilingualism and bilingual education are slightly different in each European country and education system. What is out of the question is that every country in the European Union is concerned with language learning and that it is struggling to find the right path towards efficient bilingual teaching. Plurilingualism does not necessarily mean that the language user has a perfect command of two or more languages: being plurilingual (or polyglot) means being able to communicate efficiently (or successfully) in more than one language, to be able to cope with different communicative situations where a huge repertoire of skills is at stake. In bilingual teaching we are facing similar challenges across Europe: recruiting highly qualified teachers and training them properly to update their academic knowledge, pedagogical and linguistic skills; designing the right materials and resources for use in class; and fostering teachers’ motivation and commitment to their job, which has an intrinsic ethical dimension. Education is all about cultivating humanity, humanity runs through our veins, and languages are the channels through which humanity best flows from one person to another.

9. CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) is possibly one of the greatest educational challenges we are being confronted with nowadays. In bilingual education, content subject teachers teach their subjects through a language which is not their mother tongue, using the L2 (and even L3) as both tools of communication and tools of knowledge in the classroom. So CLIL is a dual-focused approach that is truly innovative and creative, an approach that reminds us that language and knowledge go hand in hand, for it is through words that we access and handle ideas, concepts and knowledge. CLIL also gives us the chance to approach human knowledge in a more sensible way: as a whole or Gestalt. Reality is one, and so human knowledge is also one, even though we tend to split it up into separate subjects in our school curriculum (and the curriculum in any education system is but a simplification, stylization or condensation of human culture, which is that huge body of knowledge, skills and practice we consider worth passing on to subsequent generations to guarantee the survival of the human species on Earth).

10. The ideal situation in bilingual teaching is to have teachers who have a very good command of the L2 (and L3), a deep knowledge of their subject matter or academic discipline, and pedagogical skills to teach their subject in a creative and efficient way. Teaching is a harmonious balance of art and technique, and so motivation, creativity and commitment are key words in this context. If teachers believe in what they do, if they perceive bilingual teaching as being a professional challenge to learn a bit more and to start anew (for teachers are also constant students), then the whole thing will make sense to them and will be a rewarding experience. Needless to say, educational authorities must care for and take care of those bilingual teachers who are eager to perform their job much better with the passing of time, and should probably think of ways of encouraging them in their effort and dedication.

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