Languages without borders
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Languages without borders

Throughout the week before the holidays, ISUtrecht celebrated what is universally known as, ‘International Mother Language Day’ (more on this title later as it rose questions in our students’ inquiring minds). The Day has been observed by UNESCO since February 21st 2000 and its objective is to spread awareness about the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism in order that we might make our societies more sustainable.

By Helen Absalom, English Language Acquisition and classroom teacher KG White

Students in grade 2 wrote their own stories in their home language and shared these with their parents

This particular day was chosen by UNESCO as it marks the anniversary of the struggle for the recognition of Bengali as an official language of Bangladesh in which university students lost their lives. Each year, UNESCO chooses a theme for the day and the theme for this year was: ‘Languages without Borders’. The rationale for this was: In all regions of the world, some local languages, rather than vanishing, are in fact flourishing. Many of these fast-evolving languages are cross-border languages.

In primary, ‘ISUtrecht Languages without Borders’ was a whole community effort which brought together and comprised contributions from parents, mother-tongue classes, teachers, staff, and students. What better place to celebrate ‘Languages without Borders’ than within a community made up of people who have crossed borders and brought our home languages with us, creating the multilingual tapestry that is ISUtrecht! Curious about our staff members’ home languages? Please watch this video, made by KG teacher Annika Doornenbal.

And on the subject of borders… during our inquiry into home language activities, we were able to transcend a less traditional border known as the classroom wall and see how languages were being celebrated during this very special week. We discovered a potpourris of language engagement:

In the library, parents visited all week reading in their home languages to groups of children from all language backgrounds and ages, talking to them about traditional stories from their languages and words which had cross-linguistic connections.

Students from MYP and DP visited us in the primary section where they planned language lessons around a book in their home language. They read to early years classes in their own home languages and then helped the students find key story-words in the home languages represented in that class. We listened to Turkish, Hebrew, Dutch and Italian. Some students explored their lines of inquiry in their own languages and turned their discoveries into posters and short clips. Investigations were also done into literal translations versus free translations. Other students took a more humorous approach and created jokes and puns about the complexities of their own languages and/or common mistakes.

In other classes, the teachers taught songs, rhymes and played games in their own home languages a few examples are: Italian, German,Kiswahili and Welsh. In many cases the language of instruction was a language to which none of the students had previously been exposed thus promoting new languages as well as ones known.

Younger children brought in reading books in their own languages and read to the class then, with the help of the teacher, over the week, the class translated the book to English and parallel read with the original text. We saw this in Korean, Swedish and Polish.

Other classes chose to use the opportunity to peer teach and we saw children choosing vocabulary in their home language to then teach to other children in their class: in Arabic, Hungarian, Marathi, Portuguese, Spanish, Bengali, and Ukrainian. Students from upper primary carried out an inquiry into the poetry of their home languages, translated them and discussed the themes and messages with their peers.

From our Mother Tongue classes, we collected video footage and shared it with the community. Amongst others, we saw children reading in French, reciting in Tamil and Portuguese, performing in Hindi, playing games in Greek and Russian, and roll-playing in Telugu.

Our Host Country Language, Dutch team, together with their students had taken the ‘Languages without Borders’ theme to research languages with a close connection to Dutch. With this new language knowledge, they then devised a ‘Kwartet’ game where the family to be collected was the same word in the four languages: Dutch, German, Afrikaans and Swedish.

Finally, teachers and staff read their favourite home language book: here as well as lots of the languages already mentioned, we heard, Afrikaans, varieties of World English, Malay, Gujarati, Irish Gaelic and Chinese.

The week culminated in a video of a selection of the week’s activities being played during morning arrival, break times and home time, parents, staff and children alike stopped and watched and listened for a while.

And now, as promised, to the title, ‘International Mother Language Day’. The IB has recently begun to refer to languages as ‘Home Languages’. UNESCO continues to use the term, ‘Mother’. At ISUtrecht we rather like this little anecdote…

When we introduced the day to our students, it did not take them long to question the use of the word ‘Mother Language’. Of course, ‘Mother’ in this context pertains to family language, heritage language or the language with which you have been brought up but for our younger students it gave rise to the following: ‘I don’t think it’s just your mother language. It can be your father language’…  ‘or your sister language’ … ‘or your brother language’… ‘or even your baby brother’… ‘but not your dog’s’.

Always space for reflection and dialogue… Happy Home Languages Day!