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Creative Multilingualism: Why we need to be smarter when we think about languages

  • By Sam Holmes
  • 30th January 2015
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More than a million children in the UK use languages other than English in their daily lives. But for the most part, says Sam Holmes, Free Word's Researcher in Residence, we're not very good at understanding what that actually means. Words like 'bilingual' and 'home language' don't do justice to the complex, interrelated ways that many young people blend languages together in different parts of their lives. So how should we be thinking about it? We asked Sam to explain.

One break-time on a rainy October morning, back when I was still teaching in a South London comprehensive, I found myself with the job of recruiting a Portuguese speaker. I had one more place to allocate on a Portuguese language creative writing course being organised for the following December so I set off round the school with a list of pupils who had Portuguese recorded on the official database as their “home language”.  Halfway down the Maths corridor I found Jamila waiting outside a classroom.  As if reading my mind she greeted me with an apparently fluent ‘olá’ and then asked me whether I knew that she spoke Portuguese.  I didn’t.  Jamila, as far as school records were concerned, was of Jamaican heritage, and her friendship group consisted largely of other “Black Caribbean” girls.  Although Jamila lived with her Jamaican mother, I discovered she had learned some Portuguese from her Angolan father, and was keen to be recognised as a Portuguese speaker. That chance encounter earned Jamila her place on an Arvon course in Devon. For me it provided a stark warning about the limitations of the ethnic and linguistic labels we use, and the inaccurate assumptions which tag along with them.

Another surprise came nine months later, on a sunny morning in mid-July.  It was sports day and, as I was stewarding the organised chaos, two year 9 pupils, arms linked, approached me across the playground.  Alícia had arrived from Brazil eight months earlier, while Adriana, born in Madeira, had been in the UK for over five years.  The two had become inseparable and, as they began chatting to me in Portuguese, I noticed something new had started to happen with their language.  I could remember conversations with Adriana from the previous year when she spoke to me with a distinct Madeiran accent, whereas now her vocabulary and pronunciation had a recognisably Brazilian dimension.  When I pointed this out Alícia beamed with pride at the influence she claimed to have had on her new friend. I thought about the database which recorded students’ “home language”, and wondered where Adriana’s new Brazilian Portuguese would fit. Her “home languages” were really the Madeiran Portuguese she spoke with her mother, and the English she spoke with her siblings. From her perspective, Brazilian Portuguese was very much a “school language”.

The following winter I got another wake-up call to the shortcomings of our blunt labelling systems. I was reading the first draft of a piece of writing in Portuguese produced by a pupil, Moussa, about his journey to the UK.  The story began in Guinea Conakry where Moussa had attended a French-medium school.  His family set out by car, crossing Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Morocco and Spain, eventually ending up in Portugal.  They settled in Lisbon for several years, gaining Portuguese citizenship, then moved to London.  Moussa was fluent in Fula and Portuguese, highly literate in French and was entered early for his GCSE English Language exam after just 2 years in the country, achieving a grade C. Moussa clearly had lots of stories to tell, and words like “bilingual” and “home language” just weren’t that useful in capturing the kind of experiences he’d had. But it was not just in describing Moussa that the school systems fell short, it was also in giving him a space to tap into, express and develop the wealth of linguistic skills he brought with him. That’s where the Arvon Foundation and their (M)Other Tongues project came in.

Initiated by the Gulbenkian Foundation, (M)Other Tongues courses involve 16 pupils spending a week at one of Arvon’s writing retreat centres; living, working, eating and sleeping across two languages. While school can be a multilingual space, where pupils use English in lessons and other languages with friends, each language tends to have a distinct role. The Portuguese-speaking pupils I took on Arvon courses moved freely between the languages, whether they were discussing their work during the day, or cooking dinner together and relaxing in the evening.  The writing they produced reflected this open space, both in uninhibited autobiographical pieces, as well as structurally and linguistically experimental stories and poems. For the pupils this was transformative. Some wrote in Portuguese for the first time, despite it being the dominant language at home. Other, more recently arrived pupils, had their first real opportunity to write creatively in English, taking bold steps and going way beyond what they could produce back in school, confident that they could always fall back on their Portuguese. One of the nicest things was seeing the traditional pattern of new arrivals being looked after by more established pupils turned on its head. For once, being fresh from a Brazilian classroom and able to write fluently in Portuguese gave pupils a much sought-after skill set amongst their peers.

This experience got me thinking about how this valuable, open space could be recreated in schools. I don’t think anything quite replicates the experience of an Arvon course, but I’ve seen lots of projects which manage to bottle a similar linguistic magic for use in the classroom. Translation Nation, initiated by the Stephen Spender Trust and implemented by Eastside Education, is one of the best. In its primary school model, pupils bring in stories from home in different languages, often narrated by older relatives. Pupils then work in groups over the course of 3 days to translate these into English and perform them. While some pupils get a chance to be experts in their “home language”, others have a role as specialists in whatever register of English has been selected for the translation. This kind of collaborative approach is also advocated by Translators in Schools, another Stephen Spender Trust initiative with funding from the Gulbenkian and the European Commission, which trains translators to develop and deliver their own translation workshops in schools.

It’s not just in mainstream schools where this kind of work is taking place. The Department of Education at Goldsmiths University has been working with a whole network of supplementary schools on its Critical Connections project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. This initiative is based around multilingual digital storytelling, and involves young people making short films on topics of their choice, drawing on the language of the supplementary school as well as English. On a smaller scale, I have been involved in setting up the Londonwordscape Project, a series of multilingual creative writing courses across a range of mainstream and supplementary schools, again funded by the Gulbenkian. What I’ve seen is just how keen schools are to provide these opportunities to their students if they are given the necessary support.

My PhD research looks at the diverse backgrounds and skill sets behind the limited linguistic and ethnic labels we use in schools. More than one million children and teenagers in the UK use languages other than English within their daily lives, often in hybrid and innovative ways. These skills are starting to be recognised and developed by the kind of projects I described above, which could collectively be termed “Creative Multilingualism”. My current “Researcher in Residence” placement at the Free Word Centre is all about joining up some of the dots in this emergent sector in order to facilitate more development. From January to March I will be working with a range of partners to produce a summary of best practice in Creative Multilingualism. In drawing together examples of successful projects in this area we will be looking to identify key principles which underpin this work. The next step will be to construct a Creative Multilingualism website to better connect the various organisations involved. This will be carried out in collaboration with Meg Van der Merwe at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, who runs an MA course there in Multilingual Creative Writing. After this, plans are underway for an events series jointly hosted by King’s Cultural Institute and the Free Word Centre in order to develop ideas further and forge new partnerships across the sector.

Just before Christmas I was at the book launch for an anthology of creative writing spanning English and Croatian, produced during one of the Londonwordscape courses. An anxious mother approached me and asked what she could do at home to support the multilingual development of her children. She particularly wanted to know how to get her English-speaking children engaging with her language whilst still keeping it fun. I’m hoping that this research will help bring together more and better answers to vital questions like these.

  • It is fascinating subject that I was thinking about for quite some time now and had no clue about the above described work going on.
    I would be very interested in reading a copy of PhD dissertation to ascertain whether there is a scope for ‘Creative Multilingualism’ within Community Interpreting and especially health sector.

    Best wishes

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