Springboard for Talent - Embracing the Value of Multilingualism and Minority Languages





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Dec 15, 2017
by Louise Hallman
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Springboard for Talent - Embracing the Value of Multilingualism and Minority Languages

Participants analyze the value of multiligualism, minority languages, and mother tongue instruction Friederike Sözen and Thérèse Mercader speaking at Salzburg Global Seminar

It is widely accepted that multilingualism is valuable to sectors such as tourism and international trade, but how do we convince more companies, local authorities, educators and the public alike of the more intangible values of multilingualism and encourage the continued use of mother tongue languages?

Economic studies show that multilingualism in the workforce has great advantages. The economic value of multilingualism to Switzerland has been estimated to be 10% of its GDP, while the UK and US lose revenue due to a lack of language skills – and the accompanying cultural awareness – in the workforce.

Learning a dominant language offers great economic and social opportunities, but language policies that encourage the learning of another language in place of mother tongue language instruction can greatly hinder students in the long term, not only in their academic lives but also later professionally.

Panelists across different discussions on the third day of Springboard for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World, agreed that, especially in multilingual countries, efforts should be made to offer education instruction in the mother tongue from an early age, with the predominant national language introduced later – and introduced using second language learning techniques, not submersion. Such policies not only ensure that minority languages are kept alive (unlike the linguistic genocide suffered by many indigenous languages as a result of the residential school systems for native populations in colonial Canada and Australia), but also better ensure students’ academic success by teaching them in a language they already understand.

While many countries do offer early years mother tongue instruction, this is often cast aside entirely at later stages in the education system in favor of the predominant national language. This results in a devaluing of minority languages. “Change the perception of local languages and you change many things,” noted one panelist.

One such change can be in the better provision of health care services. In Namibia, where medical students are taught in English, educators are now recognizing the value of maintaining high levels of local language competency as it enables future doctors to better treat their patients. While it is not possible to train all Namibia’s doctors in the country’s 13 national languages, it is possible to train them to be familiar with working in multilingual environments and through translation.

In Austria, while multilingualism is greatly embraced in its tourism industry and borderland outlet shopping malls, this is primarily focused on dealing with visiting foreigners rather than embracing the multilingualism already present inside the country’s borders. Austria has a large number of migrants from Turkey and former Yugoslavia, but they are encouraged to speak German, rather than the German-speaking workforce being encouraged to learn Turkish or Serbo-Croatian. German-language skills can be a barrier to these migrant populations entering the workforce or opening up their own businesses, with licenses denied if local authorities deem their skills to be insufficient. We need to recognize that many migrants bring useful skills to the workforce, even if they do not yet speak the local language, remarked a panelist.

Migrant populations should be strongly encouraged to maintain their own mother tongues rather than casting them aside in an effort to integrate, panelists advocated. In the Australian state of Victoria, where 20 different languages are taught in state schools and over 55 in community schools, a statewide campaign strongly encourage migrant families to speak the language with which they are most comfortable at home, rather than English. Research shows that this approach can help with students’ academic, cognitive and personal development.

For local populations, learning to speak the language or to appreciate the culture of an incoming migrant population also fosters greater social cohesion as they are more likely to welcome rather than fear the newcomers. Outside of schools, wider-spread production and consumption of cultural products (such as movies, TV, music and art) from other cultures can also foster this cultural and linguistic appreciation.

While the economic and social values of language skills are important to highlight, we need to also recognize the intrinsic, intangible value of language, urged some panelists. Students should be encouraged to learn languages for the “joy” of languages and the means of being able to communicate with others and enjoy other cultural products, not just get a different or better job.

“Learning a language is about more than just being able to buy tomatoes from the markets of the world,” remarked one panelist. Rather than teaching students to speak and use a single foreign language with the hope that they will be native-level proficient one day, we should instead teach about languages and their accompanying histories, cultures and peoples in other subjects, such as history, geography and art. This approach, currently being used in Scotland, can help those students who lack the opportunity to communicate with a native speaker of another language, either at home or aboard, to have a greater sense of the value of foreign languages and a stronger appreciation of and respect for other cultures and people.

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.