Saturday, 26 February 2011

Bilinguality and Literacy by Manjula Datta

I read this book when I was doing my research for the assignment I had to write in my course. I liked how the writer referred to her own language learning experience as a foreigner in the UK.

In the foreword, Colin Baker stated that 'the beauty in the cultural diversity of our world is well encapsulated in varied local literacy practices. To our global advantage, we reproduce and maintain such diversity. We do this not for the sake of literacy or language, but for the sake of children. It is in the richest interests of child development that minority language literacy and biliteracy is supported by parents, teachers, communities and advocates. There are many advantages for children who become bilingual and especially biliterate.'

The writer started teaching English, Hindi and Bengali in Calcutta. In India, she says, children have to learn at least three languages in school; including English, Hindi as the national language and one regional language. If there are other regional languages such as Gujarati and Tamil, the normal practice is to include these languages into the curriculum as well. She writes that in India all the languages have different functions and are used for different social purposes. For example, at home she spoke Bengali that her mother taught her. Hindi is the language spoken in Bollywood films, so to be able to understand these films she had to learn Hindi at school along with English.

She states that when she came to England in 1976, she had a big culture shock; she did not understand why they treated her as multilingual because there was a purpose and meaning to all languages she spoke, it was normal for her.

In countries like Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Finland, Sweden and Norway, multilingual education is also a common norm. Children in Switzerland learn at least three languages at school because in Switzerland there are cantons with different languages and people move between these cantons for education as well as jobs. Therefore, children are taught these languages at very early ages.

After marrying my husband who is Swiss but from the French canton, we lived in Zurich for three years. He worked in Zurich and travelled to Lausanne every weekend to see his family. He speaks 5 languages but he learned French, German and English at school. The other languages came from the necessity and interest. It was easier for him to learn Swiss German which is a kind of German dialect but has got nothing to do with the German reading and writing. Afterwards, he learned Spanish because he liked the language. He even learned some Turkish from my mother to make himself understood in Turkey where we travel regularly to visit family & friends.

Growing up in a very monolingual environment as well as the English that I learned at school, learning German in Zurich was quite tough for me. I went to a language school but I did not understand a word of what the locals were saying. In the language school, they taught normal German but people in Zurich did not like to use it. They preferred speaking their own dialect naturally. I decided to work in a shop temporarily to understand the language better. Only after a couple of months, I was able to comprehend what exactly the customers wanted. I am still impressed that the boss didn’t fire me after a week :)

The experience taught me one very valuable lesson; you need to be thrown in deep water to be able to learn and speak a language. None of the designed role-plays or scenarios will prepare you for real life. You can learn a language in a school but you can’t maintain it if you don’t speak it. As Manjula Datta pointed out in her book, languages should have a function and purpose in our lives because they are alive and dynamic..

Please write to me about your journey in learning another language...

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tuba!

    Thank you so much for contributing this wonderful blog post to the What's Your Story? blog challenge and giving me the opportunity to read it - and see I am not alone in my linguistic frustration here in Switzerland!

    It is also the third language for me, after English, my native language and Greek, my second - when I first came here and heard the language (I had no idea of German or Swiss German for that matter), I felt I was bumping into a wall, every single day!

    Now I feel much better having learnt quite a lot - but will feel even better when I have mastered the language!

    Thank you so much Tuba,