MULTICULTUALISM: On bilingualism

In the last few years the number of children from national minorities has increased in Russian schools. Some children have two native tongues, if the parents come from different cultures and want their child to know both languages. Most of the time, though, children become bilingual only when they start school where the language of teaching is Russian (this is, for example, the case with the Kelderari Roma people.) How these children succeed in adapting to school and Russian culture obviously depends on their mastering of the Russian language, since that is the language of teaching as well as of entrance examinations to university.

First aspect: scientific

In general, language might be pictured in the following way: it is in the first place a set of elements, or a “dictionary”, in a broad sense of the word (dictionary of sounds, dictionary of roots and suffixes, dictionary of words), and, in the second place a set of “rules”, according to which the elements of the “dictionary” can be combined into meaningful chains – words, sentences, texts. In general, the difference between two languages is constituted both by differences of “dictionaries”, and by differences of rules. Regarding to phonetics, the “dictionary” is a set of sounds (vowels and consonants). But what are the “rules” for combining different sounds? Here are some: if the Russian letter ‘o’ is not stressed, then it is pronounced as Russian ‘a’ (we write “vOda”, but pronounce “vAda”); a voiced consonant at the end of a word, or just before an unvoiced, is pronounced as unvoiced (we pronounce “duBy”, but “duP”; “vaDa”, but “voTka”). If we consider morphological “rules”, we can give another examples. Thus, for Russian nouns we have a set of 3 endings of genitive plural (-OV, -EY and “no ending”), and we must know how to choose the right one.Imagine now the situation of learning a foreign language. Doing this, we adapt the system of our native tongue to the new language, and the result is so called ‘accent’. What is this? This is features of the speech, mistakes, as a result of the fact that these two systems are different. There are two kinds of mistakes. Firstly, “dictionaries” are different: one language might contain elements, which are absent in another language. In English, for example, there are the sounds ‘th’ and ‘ng’, which Russian lacks. Hence Russians speak with ‘Russian accent’: ‘I am sittiNK at ZE table’. Secondly, there are different “rules” in different languages for combining elements of the “dictionary”. In Russian language, for instance, there need to be a congruence between the gender of the noun and other words – a feature that many languages leave out. Hence this is a common source of mistakes for non-native speakers of Russian. The same phenomenon might be seen in English by non-native speakers leaving out the ‘-s’ on third person singular in the present time – ‘she speak’ instead of ‘she speaks’.

If two languages exist simultaneously in the family the two language systems cooperate in the child’s mind from the very beginning. Because of this, bilingual children keep making mistakes in both languages relatively long, before they fully master both languages. The research of language acquisition among bilingual children has developed into a separate sphere of psycholinguistics.

Everything said above concerns spoken language. We should not forget that writing skills, literacy, knowledge of literature are important aspects of our culture. For many people knowledge of a language comes only with the knowledge of reading and writing. In Russian, as in many other languages, we do not write exactly what we hear: for example we hear ‘vAda’, but we write ‘vOda’. Therefore children, who are native speakers of Russian, make several orthographical mistakes, not to mention the difficulties of non-Russian children who simultaneously have to learn both spoken and written second language.

Second aspect: teaching methodology

So, children who represent national minorities find themselves in a lingual and culturally unfamiliar environment. It becomes clear, that Russian schools are not yet prepared to efficiently teach children of different mother tongues. There are no special books to teach the minority languages, and complementary classes in Russian are not provided. What is the teacher supposed to do in this situation? Learn Romanes or Armenian? For the moment it is up to the individual pedagogue to invent methods and approaches to teaching these children. Teachers of classes which Kelderari Roma children attend must, for instance, combine several ABC-books into one, in order for these children to have more material to read – it takes longer time for them, than for native speakers of Russian, to learn how to read. Another approach often used by pedagogues is special classes with an easier, adapted program. But it is nearly impossible to continue education if a child graduates from this special class. At the same time, these children are mentally healthy and should not be left out of further education without the opportunity to develop. They need to study in ordinary classes, but with a specific methodology. Consequently there is a great need for methodological support of the teachers. Often teachers of “Roma classes” believe that there are no such schools in the world except their own, and they do not know that in the neighbor school teachers are meeting the same problems and are dealing with them successfully. Conferences, methodological seminars and master classes are needed to spread progressive experiences. Apart from feeling a great need for methodological and financial support to teach children from minorities, teachers often face a lack of willingness from school leaders and officials in the department of education to deal with these questions. The directors do not view language adaptation as a serious problem. They claim that the teachers solve this problem without any complementary methodology, the children anyway learn both spoken and written Russian, and in some way or another pass their exams. But the fact that the further education and even the future career of a child is dependent on the result of the Centralised Testing is often ignored. On paper all are equal, but in reality this turns out to be inequality.

Third aspect: protection of rights

If you study a foreign language in an expensive course you will not face any discrimination of the students: all come there with the same objective and on equal terms. In multicultural schools the situation is different. We have often seen children, and even teachers, being arrogant to children who are not fluent in Russian and who ridicule and humiliate them. And these insults easily develop into conflicts, which get a ‘national’ tinge.

On the other hand, discrimination of these children seldom comes from the teachers, but from the conditions of the Russian educational system itself. A child, who in every respect is normally talented in school, and even an excellent student in the previous school, might falter in the second year only because of insufficient knowledge of Russian, which leads to difficulties in studying the other subjects. Complementary lessons is obviously needed to overcome this problem, in primary school the children should have the help of a speech therapist. That kind of help, by the way, is needed not only by children of minorities, but also by children of Russian majority background. It is well known that children nowadays read less as television replace books in their lives.

Teachers thus face not only the purely linguist question, but also another task: to make the bilingual children’s stay in school comfortable. To do this at first  the teacher need to change the attitude towards the very phenomenon of bilingualism and – in a broader view – to the “different-being” of other people.

Firstly: bilingualism is an advantage, not a deficiency. Adults often do not recognize the fact that Roma or Armenian children, though with great difficulties and with many mistakes, are able to express their thoughts in Russian, which is not their native tongue, while the majority of our teachers do not speak even a single foreign language. Thus, there is no reason to be arrogant here; on the contrary one should respect these children.

Secondly: teaching of a bilingual child, the teacher has to be indulgent to this his or her specificity. It is important to remember that the child is all the time developing, always teachable and normal, and that one should not expect immediate results. Teaching programs for such children obviously need to be different than those for monolingual children. The contemporary school is slowly but safely moving from an totalitarian system towards a more individual view of the pupils. From this point of view we are all people with peculiarities, and we wish, of course, to be treated indulgently by others.

Thirdly: as parts of our society we are all interested in our children not being left behind without education only because our system does not provide complementary studies of Russian as a second language. A better educated population should also be in the interest of our government. Teachers all the time, however, experience the cut-downs of contemporary school politics: budget reductions, fewer lessons paid by the state, more lessons paid by the parents, and the closing down of small schools. For this reason open-minded and progressive school directors with enthusiasm responds to the initiatives of NGO’s and take part in projects to adapt multilingual children.




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