Kathleen Heugh – “This is Not a Game Any Longer, We Know That This is Extremely Serious”




Latest News

Print article
Dec 15, 2017
by Mirva Villa
Register for our Newsletter and stay up to date
Register now
Kathleen Heugh – “This is Not a Game Any Longer, We Know That This is Extremely Serious”

Associate professor of applied linguistics urges governments and educators to recognize the sense of urgency in providing multilingual education Kathleen Heugh by the lake during Springboard for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World

Kathleen Heugh has enjoyed a long career in linguistics, with her research focusing particularly on multilingual education policies and practices. She has advised 35 national governments on language policy in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and South America, and has engaged in a number of initiatives promoting multilingual approach in education.

Heugh was in Salzburg in December 2017 to share this lengthy experience at the session, Springboard for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World. According to Heugh, children coming from marginalized language backgrounds, particularly in the former European colonies across the world, often feel pressured to develop a high-level proficiency in a European language, such as English, in addition to or instead of a local language and a national language in order to succeed in life.

“The problem is that the sooner one drops into an English-medium education system, the less likely it is that people’s aspirations will be met,” she says.

Multilingual education is a valuable method for keeping children, especially girls, in school until the end of primary school. If the transition to an international language, such as English or French, happens too soon, the girls will be more likely to fall out of schooling, says Heugh, as they are often called home to take care of their younger siblings. If they don’t succeed in school, there is a lot of pressure for them to get married early on.

“Being schooled through home language means that you have a chance to stay in school for a bit longer, and there’s a chance to go into secondary school. And we know that the longer girls are in education, the better their family’s chances are of escaping poverty later on.”

Heugh’s interest in languages was sparked from a very young age, when she herself attended a bilingual (English and Afrikaans) school in South Africa. She wanted to become an English teacher for students speaking African languages, but after training she was unable to find job as she was considered to “politically problematic” by the Apartheid government.

“I went back to university to do a master’s degree in language education, and I then discovered the Apartheid’s system had largely been based on a language policy of separation and segregation. I realized very quickly that if language policy can segregate and separate people, there must be a better way of having a language policy that could draw people together.”

Shifting geopolitical power balances and the mass movement of people create an urgency across the globe to rethink multilingual education. Many countries receiving large numbers of migrants do not yet have systems geared towards multilingual education. Keeping children in school is important to avoid social exclusion, and while providing education in the mother tongue of every child may not be possible, there are other ways of ensuring multilingual education. However, this requires comprehensive working with teachers, rethinking of teacher education programs, and governments and education departments understanding the urgency of this need, Heugh says.

Heugh is currently teaching English at the University of South Australia. Most of her students are either international students or have migrant backgrounds.

“I cannot speak all the languages of my students, but I try to use multilingual techniques… In every assignment, the students are expected to do research in their home language as well as in English, and to bring in the resources and the knowledge that they glean from their research articles and academic texts in at least two other languages together in their assignment, and which they then craft into English.”

The use of multiple languages encourages the international students to cooperate with the native speakers of English, and vice versa. Heugh aims to bridge connections and build co-dependency between her students, and she has noticed this has increased the self-esteem of international students as they see that all of their contributions are valuable. The domestic Australian students have also been humbled and exposed to new knowledge of the world. “None of them can actually complete an assignment unless they have sourced information from another language or a student who has access to knowledge in another language.”

Heugh believes that one of the ways in which to achieve sustainable multilingual education across all ages is to engage with the people working in the administrative or implementation side of government policies. Unlike politicians who have limited term of office, administrators often have long careers in their departments, so it is important to build their capacity in understanding how to implement sustainable policies for multilingual education.

“This is not a game any longer, we know that this is extremely serious. We actually have to make sure that education systems across the world understand that we have to look at how we might be able to provide multilingual education, and what sort of systems can we put in place.”

The session, Springboard for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World is part of Salzburg Global Seminar multi-year series  Education for Tomorrow’s World. The session is being held in partnership with ETS, the Qatar Foundation and Microsoft. This project was also supported by The Erste Foundation. To keep up to date with the conversations taking place during the session, follow #SGSedu on Twitter and Instagram.