What will your school be doing to commemorate International Mother Language Day this year?
International Mother Language Day, celebrated on February 21st, is a key event in the calendars of many international schools. Schools around the world mark the day with special assemblies, class activities, or other events that celebrate the mother languages in their communities or raise awareness of the value of multilingualism and important issues like language extinction and the need to protect indigenous languages.
“We must strive for more.” Celebrating diversity is not enough.
Activities focused on celebration and raising awareness are important, but are they enough? There’s a risk that these activities will remain superficial or tokenistic and will not contribute towards advancing inclusion if they’re not also accompanied by specific and intentional actions to leverage linguistic diversity and ensure equity for students of all language and cultural identities.
In his article, Equity Literacy: More than Celebrating Diversity, Paul Gorski describes a school that, with the best intentions, celebrated diversity with activities like multicultural arts-and-crafts fairs and diversity assemblies but, in the background of these celebrations, minoritized students “on average, felt invisible in the curriculum, were frustrated with teachers who ignored racially tinged teasing and were unsure whom they could trust with their concerns.” As Gorski explains, enthusiasm and celebration are not enough. “We must strive for more,” he writes, and work “with a deeper commitment to strengthening our understanding. We [must] allow a deeper understanding of diversity to guide our practice.” In a similar way, International Mother Language Day is an opportunity for us to go beyond the celebration of different languages within our international school communities to renew our commitment to engage with a deeper understanding of linguistic diversity and what it demands of us all.
“Multilingual education – a necessity to transform education.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) theme for 2023’s International Mother Language Day is Multilingual education – a necessity to transform education. This year’s theme is a valuable provocation for us to reflect on the ways in which multilingualism might transform international schools and engage more deeply with the ways in which we might leverage the linguistic and cultural diversity in our school communities to, as the United Nations puts it, use multilingualism to “advance inclusion and the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind.”
Imagine if international schools were spaces in which all languages, accents, and dialects were respected, valued, and cared for. Imagine if our curriculum were intentionally designed to draw upon the various languages in the classrooms to broaden and deepen learning through diversifying perspectives. Imagine if pedagogical translanguaging was part of the regular practice of every teacher so all students were empowered to use their complete language repertoires for learning. Imagine if students were enabled to maintain and develop all the languages that are important to their identities. Imagine if we fostered every language with care to build belonging and deep, meaningful international mindedness. Imagine if multilingualism was only ever considered an asset and never a problem we needed to fix.
This vision for more inclusive multilingual school communities will not happen on its own. It is not an inevitable by-product of linguistic and cultural diversity. Our annual celebrations of International Mother Language Day are important, but not enough. We need to work intentionally by taking actions rooted in a deep understanding of the diversity of our communities to make this vision come true. We all have our parts to play in this to truly go beyond enthusiasm and celebration to bring more meaningful change.
As the Mother Language Day assemblies draw to a close and the student artwork has been displayed, what does the spirit of the day and its theme of transformation through multilingualism demand of us? It demands, I think, that we all reflect on our positionalities and how our own language profiles intersect with power in our communities. It demands that we design policies and practices to center different ways of being and doing through language(s). It demands that we allocate resources to ensure equity for those students whose language profiles have left them marginalized in our school ecosystems.
“Multilingual education must be anti-racist and anti-discriminatory.”
When we engage in this deeper engagement with linguistic diversity in our school communities, we need to continually remind ourselves that this work never unfolds on a level playing field. In her book Growing Up in Transit, Danau Tanu explores the linguistic and cultural hierarchies in international schools that privilege English as the only legitimate language of learning and conflate fluency in English with “being international” and the high status that implies. Language and power are deeply entwined, and these language and culture hierarchies will be unconsciously reproduced if we don't interrogate how they manifest themselves in our schools. For these reasons, as Quechua activist Tarcila Rivera reminds us, “multilingual education must be anti-racist and anti-discriminatory.”
Speaking of indigenous language protection, Rivera explains that “one of the many reasons why parents and grandparents from indigenous and minority societies do not pass on languages to new generations is because of the persistence of racism, discrimination, Eurocentrism and the coloniality of power, knowledge and speech.” We too in our international schools should take these issues seriously. Our context is different, but we still need to consider the ways in which forces like racism, discrimination, coloniality, and Eurocentrism shape our policies, practices, and personal beliefs related to languages, particularly minority or marginalized language groups in our schools.
What else might we do to go beyond the celebration of languages?
As well as celebrating languages this year, we - as individual teachers - can ask ourselves questions like:
- What languages and cultures are represented in our classrooms? How can we make others more visible?
- How might our units, lessons, and class activities be re-designed to more intentionally leverage the languages in our classrooms as resources for learning?
- How can we learn more about the linguistic and cultural identities of our students and how they feel about their languages and the space they are given (or not) in our classrooms?
And we can take actions like:
- Working with students in our classes to create a charter of language rights and responsibilities that sets out how we will respect and value each other’s multilingual identities.
- Creating opportunities for students to reflect on and share their own complex and dynamic language and cultural profiles using creative tasks like language portraits or identity collages.
- Educating ourselves about the languages and cultures of our students and learning more about pedagogical approaches like translanguaging to explore how we can open up spaces for those languages and cultures in our classrooms.
As well as celebrating languages this year, we - as school communities or leadership groups - can ask ourselves questions like:
- Who is involved in the process of creating policies related to languages in our schools? How could we include other voices and perspectives in these processes? How can we use these perspectives as lenses to improve school policies?
- To what extent are the visions, missions, and guiding statements of our school rooted in multilingualism and the development of multilingual competence?
- What processes are we using to gather and listen to the views and lived experiences of students, staff, and parents from different language and cultural communities?
And we can take actions like:
- Reviewing the curriculum across the whole school to audit the extent to which it meets the needs of students with different language profiles, including evaluating provision for mother language development and support for students developing proficiency in the language of instruction.
- Working with organizations like Language Friendly Schools to create a development plan focused on how you will work to become more linguistically and culturally inclusive.
- Arranging professional development for staff that enables them to develop skills to teach inclusively for students from different language backgrounds but also engages their hearts and minds in the development of empathy for multilingual learners and reflection on their own mindsets and internalized language ideologies.
Looking forward to International Mother Language Day with renewed hope.
So, like every year, I look forward to celebrating International Mother Language Day with students in my school and hearing about how other schools commemorate the day. There’s certainly a place for taking joy in the languages in our communities and celebrating their special value and importance. But this year, I look forward to the day with renewed hope that our international schools will continue to build on the momentum of the celebrations to take the spirit of this year’s Mother Language Day theme even further to explore more deeply how the multilingualism in our communities can be used to transform our schools into more inclusive and equitable spaces.
Jacob Huckle is an English language acquisition teacher and head of multilingual learning at an international school in China and a part-time doctoral student researching multilingualism and interculturality in education.