Community Languages in Schools

Source: University of Minnesota Extension.

I recently read this suggestion about starting a language program at your local school.  It starts by describing how learning a language increases academic achievement overall.  Then it suggests looking for teachers.  Significantly, the article suggests finding a teacher first, then choosing a language.  This approach helps redirect the divisive question of what language to teach.  Finally, the site addresses how to fund and structure your program.  Sadly, the government grant it suggests for funding was ended for 2012.

I was inspired and I took the plunge at my daughter’s middle school.  I decided to work with the school to expand the language program.  Presently, the school has Spanish and French for seventh and eighth grade, and not for sixth.  French is not common in the district, and Chinese is growing in interest.

Contrary to the above website, I started with picking a language: I suggested the Somali language.  I wanted to incorporate the ideas I have for community language education (See this earlier post.)  Our metropolitan area has the largest Somali population (~60,000) in the US, the second largest in North America.  Moreover, our suburban district includes a fair number of Somali families, as well.  So I met with the principal about adding Somali as a language option for the students.

Presenting another model of language-learning motivated my suggestion for Somali rather than, say, German (a more commonly taught language) or Mandarin (a more “up and coming” language).  The places that consistently produce multilingual people share native language knowledge among speakers of various languages.  In Singapore, for example, everyone speaks at least some Tamil, Mandarin, and English.  They might also speak some Cantonese and Malaysian.  In Mumbai, people will often speak at least some Hindi and some English, along with at least one other language.  This contrasts with the US where a non-Hispanic resident of Texas probably can’t ask in Spanish where the bus stop is.  A wall exists between English speakers in the US that does not exist among speakers of various languages in other countries.  I want to breach that wall.

Our city holds a huge cache of knowledge, even in the school itself, that community-based language-learning can mine.  I want to learn from my fellow Twin Cities residents and bring in Somali teachers.  Anyone can go to the grocery store, the mall, or the park and find speakers of Somali.  But no one is using these situations for learning.  The school principal I talked to related how several years ago, many Russian students came through the school, and Russian resources for them and their families were in short supply.  I said, “What a pity!  Those kids could have been teaching Russian to all the other kids.”  We missed an opportunity.  Often we consider ELL kids deficient.  If we realized instead that they possess rare, specialized knowledge, they could teach us and we would all be better off.  I don’t want to miss this new opportunity in Somali.

At the moment, I am looking for a Somali teacher.  So many people speak Somali, yet so few know how to teach the language to foreigners.  In the process I may have stumbled upon another project: teaching folks how to teach their native language so that we can have the tools we need to mine these resources.  One site I’ve found helpful for training teachers is “Where are your keys?” which uses any knowledge of a language for teaching.

Any suggestions how I can find Somali teachers, or train native speakers to teach their native language?  Thank you!  Also, have you started a language program in your school?  How did you do it?  Any suggestions?

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14 thoughts on “Community Languages in Schools

  1. Great article and great approach. What language we learn and teach is too often dictated by economic calculation (German, Chinese), which is in a way against the spirit of language learning as a cultural experience. Stepping out of this treadmill is something our kids will be grateful to us for in the future, IMHO.

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