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Promoting Multilingualism among immigrants – Stakeholder meeting report

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On Friday, 27th September 2013, Migration Policy Group hosted a SIRIUS stakeholder meeting on the promotion of multilingualism among immigrants. This meeting gathered a number of European stakeholders dealing with migration, education and/or language competencies, as well as representatives of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Education and Culture, to discuss recommendations 3 and 7 of the Language Rich Europe project.

Download Summary, Programme, Participants

Download Discussion Paper

photoAfter an initial introduction to the Language Rich Europe project by Thomas Huddleston (Migration Policy Group), Guus Extra (Chair of Language and Minorities at Tilburg University) and Joe Sheils (Former Head of the Department of Language Education and Policy at the Council of Europe) provided very thought-provoking feedback to the questions posed in the discussion paper, peppered with examples of good practices that they have encountered over the years. This feedback, and the responses of the participants to the questions that were put to the group, can be summarized as follows.

Going beyond the LRE recommendations, what are your more detailed policy recommendations for the Member States on what a language policy should look like? What should it cover and what should it not? And what should be the mechanisms to promote them?

  • Education systems should treat resources such as languages with respect by validating a plurilingual repertoire and having a diversity-oriented mindset. Any first language is a cognitive resource and can add to the successful learning of additional languages. The promotion of quality and inclusion in education means that the languages of immigrants need to be acknowledged and validated by the curriculum not only for their unique value as languages in their own right, but also in terms of their particular contribution to plurilingual and intercultural education more broadly. A curriculum that promotes the development of plurilingual and intercultural competence leads to the validation of plural identities and the plurilingual repertoires of all students, and supports them in extending their linguistic and cultural repertoires. This is important for motivation and effective learning, for developing language awareness and self-confidence in language learning, as well as for identity building.
  • A plurilingual policy acknowledges and validates the contribution of the languages of immigrants to the quality of educational processes. Their languages are seen as a key resource in a practical multilingual classroom approach to raising language awareness in a didactic approach that exploits and extends the existing plurilingual repertoires of learners.  Potential synergies and transversal links between languages can also be focused on in a more integrated, holistic approach to the curriculum. Languages are not kept in separate boxes but interact in learning and communication processes. Learners make transfers between languages and learn to exploit certain convergences and synergies. Rather than treating each language separately it is useful to explore the added value of a less compartmentalized, more coherent (and consequently more economical) curricular approach that enhances language awareness, reflection on languages and draws attention to transfer strategies across languages.
  • Schools should be allowed to provide languages on a needs-basis, and there should be connections linking formal and informal language learning opportunities, as future competences may also come from outside of the school environment.
  • Framework curricula could include immigrant languages, but would need additional teacher training on language diversity and the support of school leadership to put it into practice. The diversification of languages on offer could be based on parents’ choice and links to immigrant communities. Ideally, a whole school language policy would be implemented. Schools trained parents and conferred upon them the status of certified language teachers. Credit should also be given to students as it would encourage them and give status to the language.
  • Immigrants are not a homogeneous group, nor are their languages in terms of their presence or use. Policy strategies to include their languages in education need to take into account the specific context in each instance, bearing in mind the concrete social situation and the needs of the speakers. 

How should the perceived tension between the languages of schooling and the languages of immigrants be addressed?

  • The place and role of the languages of immigrants in the curriculum is dependent to a large extent on how the school responds to the linguistic and cultural resources that immigrant learners bring with them to school.  Are the languages and cultures of immigrant students viewed as a potential barrier to learning (leading to a subtractive approach), or as valuable resources to be exploited and enriched in an additive approach to the curriculum? There may be a temptation to restrict the diversity of languages in the curriculum in the current difficult economic climate, and in the light of international assessment studies which have led to concerns about (reading) proficiency in the main language(s) of schooling. But this need not lead to ‘tension’ between the need to mastering this language and supporting the languages of immigrants.
  • Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) are language skills needed in social situations while Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) refers to formal academic learning or ‘subject literacy’. Many young people with a migrant background have good conversational language skills but receive less exposure to the ‘academic’ use of the language outside of school. This could be lessened through additional support of the official language in school, but their sense of achievement, identity and educational success could be improved if they were also taught their home language at school.
  • The negative attitude to immigrant languages needs to be tackled by putting positive emphasis on their languages. The repertoire of immigrants is dynamic and plurilingual – they have more than one language and the individual’s repertoire is being ‘rebalanced’ in school. Giving due recognition to their own language in teaching and learning processes can help to affirm their identity, and consequently their academic involvement. One good practice that was mentioned involved using libraries to raise awareness and empathy among children learning immigrant languages. This would hopefully make people aware that learning an immigrant language does not take away from learning other languages, rather the opposite.
  • The profitability of linguistic diversity of immigrant languages needs to be promoted.
  • World language centres should be created in order to play host to immigrant organisations which could hold Saturday schools and help in the certification of teachers, for example.

Could networks, platforms or conventions be created for immigrant languages similar to the ones that exist for regional or minority languages? Where could the funding for such instruments come from?

  • The idea of a specific convention for the languages of immigrants (in education) is ambitious and not without challenges. We first have to consider the differences between an instrument aimed primarily at the promotion of linguistic diversity (eg the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages - RMLs) and one concerned directly with rights (e.g. Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities - FCNM). These two conventions are different but complementary in their approach. The language Charter’s key concern is with the languages per se and the protection and promotion of Europe’s linguistic and cultural diversity. It does not directly confer rights on individuals or specific groups but its ratification by a state then obliges it to make commitments to enact legislation and take positive steps to protect and promote RMLs (thus indirectly leading to rights). The language Charter addresses states and not the speakers of the languages concerned. It does not create a minority-majority dualism but views linguistic diversity as a cultural wealth for the benefit of all and everyone should be concerned (while the FCNM is concerned with ensuring non-discrimination of the minority by the majority). Both adopt a plurilingual approach whereby mastery of the state language is considered essential and the different languages are seen as reinforcing and complementing one another. Any proposals for a convention or similar are likely to lead to considerable and prolonged political debate and take quite some time to come into effect, if indeed they were eventually to become a reality.
  • While the language Charter provides a strong political and moral force for legitimising RMLs, perhaps the value and feasibility of other kinds of (non-binding) policy instruments or other targeted initiatives to enhance the status of the languages of immigrants in education could be investigated. One recent example is provided by the” Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education” (Adopted in the framework of Recommendation CM/Rec(2010) of the Committee of Ministers). This instrument sets out Objectives, Principles and Policies and proposes forms of evaluation and review of the strategies and policies states have undertaken with respect to the Charter. These include self-evaluation, shared evaluation with other member states and Council of Europe assistance where requested.
  • The “Platform of Resources for Plurilingual and Intercultural Education” of the Language Policy Unit of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg might provide some kind of template for the promotion of the languages of immigrants.
  • The 2012 Council of Europe Recommendation on ensuring quality education could also be interesting as a basis, but this does not deal with the issue of minorities and the issue of language would have to be further developed.
  • Nationals of Council of Europe countries have their rights supported in the European Social Charter with a guarantee of the rights of immigrants to language training /mother tongue teaching. The countries that have ratified the Charter can be seen here.
  • A Module, such as those that were already created for Migrant Integration, could be created that would offer a flexible framework, and if supported by funding, can be used according to the situation in any given country/region/school. It should be linked to the 1977 Council Directive on the education of the children of migrant workers, the Social Charter and the Council’s work on languages. This Module should:
    • Promote linguistic diversity for all
    • Reward an extensive range of language offers
    • Support the certification of teachers and student language knowledge
    • Create language centres of expertise
    • Encourage school autonomy to adapt the school offer to any given local situation
    • Include parents

How should the plea for the teaching of immigrant languages be embedded in the EC’s plea for trilingualism for all European citizens?

  • Promoting plurilingualism among immigrants should be treated as a subset of the general push to promote trilingulism for all. Most would then study the official language of the country/region, another major language such as English and a language of personal adoption. The language of personal adoption can be seen as a positive choice in this light, and if schools are rewarded for allowing students to choose their language of personal choice based on their parents’ language, this would be supported within schools.
  • While it is important to help parents learn the official language, they should be encouraged to speak the language they know best with their children. Verbal communication of parents with young children presupposes high language skills. If parents speak the official language insufficiently, using the mother tongue in parent-child interaction has strong cognitive advantages, also in learning other languages.

Do European Institutions need more recommendations on teaching the national language to immigrants?

  • A draft recommendation on the language of schooling developed by the Language Policy Unit of the Council of Europe is currently under discussion by the statutory bodies of the Council of Europe. This does not aim to deal specifically with immigrants as the issues addressed are relevant to all students.
  • There is a “Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (2008) on strengthening the integration of children of migrants and of immigrant background”. There are also a number of relevant recommendations and resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly and of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.
  • Rather than more recommendations therefore, it could be worthwhile pushing for states to put these recommendations into action! Some European Member States may already work together in order to help the home language development of European citizens living in a new country eg. Slovaks supported by their government in Ireland. Flexible funding could be available for this type of effort.


Good practices highlighted during the meeting include the following:

  • The Linguistic integration of Adult Migrants (LIAM) also offers a practical means of pooling and accessing resources.
  • The Victorian School of Languages in Melbourne is a government school that provides language programs for students who do not have access to the study of those languages in their mainstream schools. They are very accessible and students receive recognition for their language classes through credits. Funding is provided by the government and some parents contributions. Teachers are certified by the Department of Education.
  • The Czech School without Borders, London promotes education in, and understanding of Czech language, history and culture to Czech, English and other language communities in the UK and fundraise to provide the necessary environment and conditions for our activities.
  • Linguamón – House of Languages had a project that helped schools to raise the awareness of diversity in the classroom and enhanced the position of immigrant languages, thus making immigrants feel part of the wider school community.
  • Twitter Tongues was an initiative to map the languages used on Twitter in London over the summer of 2012. Another map highlights the most popular primary-language spoken in each area. These types of databases on diversity are a good tool to raise awareness of other languages.

Upcoming events
The European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC) will be hosting an event on 11 December on Migration and Cultural Integration in Europe.


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