Pupils of differing language backgrounds in a Dutch-language Brussels school experience many difficulties in the face of monolingual policy, which may be both eased and compounded by the use of a home language, a study has found.
In spite of a nominally strict monolingual policy, with students often penalised for using their home language, certain teachers tried to foster a more relaxed and less pressured environment, where students could use languages other than Dutch in certain situations.
Jürgen Jaspers observed a mixed-sex class with lower-middle and working class students aged 13 to 16. The students were of various ethnicities and spoke languages other than Dutch in their homes.
Their Dutch skills were limited and they faced linguistic challenges daily, never truly relaxed in the face of the school’s frequently unrealistic language expectations.
One teacher, called Mr. S in the study, attempted to incorporate the myriad of languages of the pupils into his classes. He sang a multilingual welcoming song before his classes, used fragments of pupils’ home languages for humour and was willing to turn a blind eye to the infringement of school rules on language.
His approach was deemed by Jaspers to be encouraging for several students, helping to ease their feelings of linguistic incompetence.
Although Mr. S seemed to take a relaxed approach to the school’s policy, he was, in fact, the strictest when it came to imposing Dutch on the students. He embodied the clash between school policy and reality.
A pattern emerged in the way in which multilingual “bridges” occurred, in between classes and when social trouble arose. Jaspers posits that pupils were socialized into recognizing what types of language were acceptable, when and by whom – recognizing Dutch as the more “serious” language and their home language as more marginal.
Though the linguistic mixing of Mr. S may in some ways be seen to perpetuate the social disadvantage faced by many of these pupils, his successful fostering of a positive learning climate demonstrates the importance of negotiating such a socially and linguistically complex environment.
Andrew Leahy and Camilla Egan
Jaspers, Jurgen (2015) Modelling linguistic diversity at school: the excluding impact of inclusive multilingualism. Language Policy 14: 109–129. DOI 10.1007/s10993-014-9332-0