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KNOX – The value of learning in your mother tongue first

MOUSTAPHA FALL had an upbringing familiar to a lot of Canadians.

He spoke one language to Mom and Dad at home, then studied in another at school. So while he can understand and speak his parents’ language fluently, he can’t read or write it at all.

With more than one in five Canadians born outside the country, a lot of us can relate.

Except Fall’s story comes not from Canada, but Senegal. At home he spoke Wolof, just like many of the African country’s people, while school was in French. The latter is Senegal’s official language but the mother tongue of just two per cent of its population.

Fall, who teaches applied linguistics in the University of Victoria’s French department, is researching whether the absence of literacy in people’s first language affects their ability to learn in their second.

His interests overlap those of another UVic academic, Ewa Czaykowska-Higgins, whose work in the linguistics department focuses largely on the Salish languages of the West Coast.

Both believe in the value of being educated in your native tongue first, then using that base to learn another.

With Canada having a large proportion of immigrants — not to mention two official languages, plus scores of indigenous languages that range from thriving to barely hanging on — we’re familiar with the idea of people who grow up with one language at home but another at school. The thing is, what we think of the Canadian experience is not at all rare, linguists say. Nor is the way in which it can hinder learning.

“This is a serious problem around the world,” Czaykowska-Higgins says. It applies not only to, say, Spanish speakers in the U.S. or to former colonies such as Senegal, but to parts of the globe that aren’t thought of as linguistically diverse. We tend to view European languages as monolithic, but even there countries are divided by dialects and minor languages such as Kashubian, which more than 100,000 Poles speak at home, or Friulan, spoken by half a million Italians. Half the people on the planet might use the 10 most common languages, but there are still another 7,000 languages spoken today.

Both professors say overall literacy would improve if people could learn in their mother tongue first — though there are some obvious roadblocks. “Clearly, there’s an economic issue that is not easy to solve,” Czaykowska-Higgins says. The logistics and cost would cause school administrators to swallow their gum.

There’s also the troubling question of whether isolating students in language silos builds strong ethnic communities at the expense of national unity, dividing us.

Czaykowska-Higgins and Fall say that’s coming at the issue the wrong way. The idea isn’t to learn languages in isolation, but to use a solid grounding in your mother tongue to transition to the language that is dominant.

Strong skills in the mother tongue lead to strong skills in other languages, Fall argues, and that makes for improved communication. “We need multilingualism to understand each other.”

“Languages can be used politically to divide, but languages themselves don’t divide,” Czaykowska-Higgins says. “I think we need to be comfortable with variety and difference.”

They also say the first-language-first idea doesn’t clash with French immersion programs, given that students in those classes are otherwise surrounded by English all the time.

Canada has a hierarchy of language, Czaykowska-Higgins says: English dominates, even though French has equal standing under law. After them come the immigrant languages. Then come the indigenous languages that officialdom tried to snuff out for so long.

Immigrants have the advantage of being able to brush up on a language by returning to the old country; aboriginals do not. Still, Czaykowska-Higgins is enthusiastic about revitalization efforts in indigenous communities: “It’s not just a story of loss.”

Retaining languages is about more than literacy, Fall argues. If you cease to use your mother tongue, you lose the way the accompanying culture views the world.

© Copyright Times Colonist

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About Mel Rothenburger (4913 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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