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The Language We Carry Inside

Rose White Fran Paffard

‘Everything can change, but not the language that we carry inside us, like a world more exclusive and final than one’s mother’s womb.’

             Italo Calvino

Why is it that even in schools that explicitly value children’s home languages children may become reluctant to use their language in the classroom? The received wisdom is that children benefit educationally and emotionally from being able to access their home language in school (Cummins 1983) and yet practice in schools is disparate and the benefits not universally acknowledged (Nieto 2010, Hélot, 2011). This small scale research project investigates children’s own attitudes to their home languages across two inner city early years settings. Each setting has high numbers of EAL children and positive approaches to bilingualism but with quite different demographics. The Nursery School has a very mixed intake with Turkish and Polish predominant but other East European languages and African languages represented. The Reception class has a large majority of Bangladeshi origin children with some Somali speakers and very few monolingual English speakers. Children and staff participated in both semi-structured and unstructured interviews that were taped or videoed.

Many of our findings confirm the existing research e.g.

  • Embarrassment (Mellen Day (2002) Certain children became giggly and shy when asked about their language and one girl explained gravely that she wouldn’t speak Sylheti ‘or they might laugh’.
  • Children’s views about their home language evolve over time (Caldas 2008) Experienced staff reported the rejection of home language as, for many children, ‘a phase they go through’ and suggested that given positive messages on home language children would eventually regain pride in their bilingualism.
  • Children have their own views about the right place to speak their home language (Gibbons, 2002). Children varied in their opinions on where and with whom to use their language. Layers of use were identified: children who never used their home language even when encouraged, children who would use their home language only with their friends, and children who would happily use their home language in all contexts and with staff.
  • Children may use their language as a tool to empower themselves (Martin 2003). Some of the children used their home language as a private communication tool, a way of keeping a distance between their world and that of the school. Some very deliberately teased us – giving us wrong words and laughing together when we asked about their language.
  • School policy and practice do not always ‘sync’ – we found that even in these explicitly positive schools staff knew that there were ambivalent attitudes to home language use present in the school. The current emphasis on assessment of progress by assessing English only created a tension between beliefs that children should maintain their home language and the pressure in school to show achievement.

the attitude of the parents seemed a far more significant factor in children’s ease and confidence than the attitude of the staff

There were however, two unexpected findings in our research that we offer tentatively as worthy of further research. The first is that our own preconceptions on the importance of the school message was challenged by our findings that the attitude of the parents seemed a far more significant factor in children’s ease and confidence than the attitude of the staff. The second was that there were noticeable differences between the attitudes of different cultural and linguistic groups. An example would be that the Turkish-speaking children used their language everywhere, the Polish speakers used their home languages among friends and Twi speakers spoke only English. While there are complexities here than cannot be unpicked in so small a project, our findings suggest strongly that engagement with parents and communities is more crucial than is currently recognised in maintaining children’s home languages in school.


Caldas, S.J (2008) Changing bilingual self -perceptions from Early Adolescence to Early Adulthood: Empirical evidence from a mixed methods case study in Applied Linguistics, 29 92, 290-311

Cummins, J. (1983). Heritage language education: A literature review. Toronto: Ministry of Education

Gibbons, P. (2002) Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning. Heinemann: Portsmouth, USA

Hélot, C. & Ó Laoire, M. (2011). Language Policy for the Multilingual Classroom: Pedagogy of the Possible. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Martin, D (2003) Constructing discursive practices in school and Community: Bilingualism, Gender and Power in Creese, A &Martin, P (eds) Multilingual classroom ecologies : inter-relationships, interactions and ideologies (Vol 44) Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 77-92

Mellen Day, E. (2002) Identity and the Young English Language Learner Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Nieto, S. (2010). The light in their eyes: creating multicultural learning communities. New York, Teachers College Press.

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