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Multilingual Poetry in the Community

During summer 2019, together with a local poetry group, WFBG will be organising Displays of Poems representing the linguistic diversity of Waltham Forest. Poems in over 45 languages will be put on display in Libraries and Parks across the Borough and on The Walthamstow Town Square Big Screen. Children will be given interactive walkabout learning opportunities while visiting the exhibition with their schools. Adults will be given the opportunity to join poetry reading sessions in local libraries.

This project is generously funded by the London Borough of Walthamstow and the Big Lottery Awards for All.

Displays should be installed by 7th June with launch events planned on 7th and 8th June – watch this space for more details.

Park Displays:

  • Coronation Gardens, High Road, E10
  • Langthorne Park, Birch Grove, E11
  • Memorial Park, Chingford Mount Road, Chingford E4
  • St James Park, Essex Road, E17

Library Displays:

  • Hale End Library, Castle Ave, Highams Park E4 9QD
  • Leyton Library, High Road, Leyton E10 5QH
  • Leytonstone Library, Church Lane, Leytonstone E11 1HG
  • Walthamstow Library, High Street, E17 7JN

The backstory

This project was inspired by a collection of Multilingual Poems created by Dympna McGahern in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympics. A small informal poetry reading group in Leyton encouraged Dympna to reach out to others to bring multilingual poetry into the heart of our community in a very public way. WFBG immediately saw the value of this in celebrating children’s home languages and encouraging parents to value heritage languages and pass them on through families.

Methodology

This project will use a similar selection criteria as the famous “Poems on the Underground”. To be included in the collection a poem has to be “short and says something of significance, some poems speak about the human condition, some bring up people’s emotions, the whole idea is to show poetry as a living art featuring contemporary poets mixed with older traditional poems.”

The main intention of the displays is to represent the languages spoken in Waltham Forest and the ones that form part of the heritage of residents, including languages of the newer arrivals from the Baltics, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, the settled communities from the Indian subcontinent, some African, Caribbean and American groups. Around 45 languages will be presented.

Working with Joseph Clarke School, Walthamstow, Centre of Excellence for Visually Impaired and Students with Multiple Complex Needs, the Library displays will be accessible through Braille and Large Print copies of the Poems.

Love your heritage. Pass it on

The public display of Multilingual Poems will present Waltham Forest as a Borough that relishes its varied and rich community. It will be an open celebration of diversity in a very visual way – the various language scripts are a visual feast in their own right. It is also an opportunity to celebrate the heritage of people who are often culturally ignored, thereby enriching the whole borough’s appreciation of its own unique culture capital. The head of PEN International recently said that the story of Babel is the single most damaging myth in our culture: our global linguistic wealth should be more appropriately represented as The Tree of Life. From this suggestion the project has adopted a Celtic Tree of Life as its logo.

Children’s activities

All the local schools will be invited on a Poetry walkabout. An education pack accompanies the displays. A key element in the education pack is its emphasis on creating bilingual responses using peer and parent experts. This is central to the main purpose of the displays: community building and a wider social appreciation of our unique cultural heritage .

From students’ responses, it is expected that schools will create their own multilingual poetry displays. There is a plan to provide prizes for the best and celebrate them locally. An idea mooted for this by an Assistant Primary Head Teacher is to display students’ best bilingual poems in the autumn on the Town Centre Big Screen, thereby extending a sense of a local poetry festival.

The Research activities for older students highlight the economic and social benefit of multilingualism and seek ideas for keeping the great wealth of languages that currently exist in our country alive. We will make the education pack available to all schools in the Borough.

Poetry reading groups

An extension idea was to set up adult Bilingual Poetry Reading groups in local libraries. Unfortunately libraries don’t have funds to support this. Nonetheless, there is a take-up of the idea from Bengali and Tamil speakers and it is hoped to extend the bilingual reading groups to others, including Urdu, Chinese, Somali and Turkish speakers. Interlibrary loans of bilingual texts from the National Poetry Library, South Bank are being arranged so that multilingual poetry resources are readily available in the borough’s libraires.

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Alan Bradley

Alan Bradley was our first guest-speaker on the 6th November 2003.


He began by highlighting the varying situations of languages in Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Indonesia, India, Italy, Iraq and the Isle of Man. The languages varied from one that was now effectively extinct (Isle of Man) through widely used international languages (Italian), languages which had been not valued (Kurdish in Iraq), languages which were once suppressed but are now valued (Irish Gaelic) etc.

He also mentioned his experience of teaching Spanish A level evening classes where a large proportion of his students were mother tongue language speakers – i.e. parents bringing up children bilingually probably know a lot more than he can do. He mentioned that the academic field in bilingualism is still in its infancy, at an early stage of understanding and there is very little that the academics can say for certain. The research focuses on particularly difficult areas that we still don’t understand e.g. how the human brain works and how human being interact.

In the meantime, each family has a wealth of experience that they have acquired by trial and error. The only problem with this is that it is tempting to believe that what has worked for you will always work for others (to project your solution) whereas in fact each family is different. Academics can get together data from large numbers of families to try to determine what works for most people. In the academic field, until the 1960, most academics in the UK believed that bilingualism was not a good thing – was confusing for children etc.

Bilingual children were seen as being at a disadvantage, having a problem they had to overcome. This was known as the “deficit model. This linked into the prevalent politics of the time – with Britain running a colonial empire and English was imposed as a language all over the world. (One theme that emerged throughout Alan’s talk was the close link between languages and power). This also explained why there were absurd punishments for children caught speaking Welsh in schools and so on. Academics prior to the 1960’s used incredibly crude techniques to try to demonstrate that bilinguals had lower IQ scores i.e. they tested recent immigrants to the USA who were English Russian bilingual on tests which relied on a knowledge of baseball and then concluded when people failed that they were not intelligent!This also explained why there were absurd punishments for children caught speaking Welsh in schools and so on. Academics prior to the 1960’s used incredibly crude techniques to try to demonstrate that bilinguals had lower IQ scores i.e. they tested recent immigrants to the USA who were English Russian bilingual on tests which relied on a knowledge of baseball and then concluded when people failed that they were not intelligent !

The UK is still a society that does not value bilingualism and despite the multicultural variety of a city like London (possibly the most multicultural city in the world), very little is done to promote bilingualism. At every stage of life from pregnancy, health visitors to childcare to primary and later schooling and exams, monolingualism is the expected rule and bilingualism the exception.

Alan provided some useful working definitions that people use to talk about bilingual situations

Cultural capital: The value or assets that a person possesses that consist of their knowledge, skills, education, culture, and language. Not financial, though it may lead to financial success.

Code switching: Changing from one language to another in a conversation

Ethnolinguistic vitality: If this is high, a language group is likely to flourish in an intergroup context. Connected to numbers of speakers, status of the language, and the group’s control of the language.

Linguistic imperialism: The imposition of a language by a colonial power; the use of one language to dominate others.

Linguicide: The destruction or killing of a language. This may be done deliberately, or by neglect – which is often the same thing.

Linguistic landscape: The visibility or presence of a language in the surroundings: e.g. posters, signs, music. Research has suggested that the extent that a language is used in multilingual situations can be linked to how visible it is in the landscape.

Finally, Alan set out the results of a piece of research that he had learnt about whilst attending a conference in Bristol. The researcher was Annick De Houwer.
The study looked at home language use of 18,016 families of which 1866 involved a family where a language other than Dutch was used at home. The research was carried out in a Dutch speaking area of Belgium – Flanders.
The research on the 1800+ families discovered that the position of the child in the family (i.e. first child, middle child, last child) had no overall effect on whether or not the child spoke a minority language at home.
The group discussed this and several people could give examples where the first or second child had either acquired a minority language more quickly or where there had been a lot more resistance. It was agreed that different factors may come in to play with children at different ages and depending on the gaps between the children and so it was likely that there were a variety of positive and negative factors that had cancelled each other out statistically in the research.
The research also discovered that the gender of the parent using a language other than Dutch to the children statistically made no difference. Several of the group (including the note taker!) were very surprised (so much so that I stopped taking proper notes!). It was suggested that although it was still more common for women to be the primary care giver and to spend more time with children, it may also be true that men still tend to have higher status that women both within families and within society. This may mean that the children are more keen to speak the higher status language spoken by their father and this cancels out the greater time input from their mother. ( A great PhD for someone here!)

On the other hand, the language other than Dutch spoken by the parent did have an effect. Moroccan Arabic and Turkish were the languages most likely to be spoken by the children compared to other European languages. The group speculated about some of the possible reasons for this: large communities, strong traditions, mothers who may not work and who may not learn Dutch. All agreed and Alan confirmed that the difference between the languages i.e. coming from very different language groups with different grammars and so on makes no difference (Turkish is from a very different language family from Dutch) but clearly other factors (as yet not clearly determined) do.

The other factor that did make a difference was whether the parents spoke Dutch or a minority language to each other…

98% of families where both parents spoke a minority language and neither spoke Dutch had at least one child who spoke the minority language at home.

96% of families where both parents speak the same minority language but one parent also speaks Dutch had at least one child who spoke the minority language at home.90% of families where both parents speak the same minority language and both speak Dutch had at least one child who spoke the minority language at home.
79% of families where one parent spoke the minority language and one parent spoke Dutch had at least one child who spoke the minority language at home.

48% of families where one parent speaks the minority language and both parents speak Dutch had at least one child who spoke the minority language at home.

Alan began by highlighting the varying situations of languages in Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Indonesia, India, Italy, Iraq and the Isle of Man. The languages varied from one that was now effectively extinct (Isle of Man) through widely used international languages (Italian), languages which had been not valued (Kurdish in Iraq), languages which were once suppressed but are now valued (Irish Gaelic) etc.

He also mentioned his experience of teaching Spanish A level evening classes where a large proportion of his students were mother tongue language speakers – i.e. parents bringing up children bilingually probably know a lot more than he can do. He mentioned that the academic field in bilingualism is still in its infancy, at an early stage of understanding and there is very little that the academics can say for certain.

The research focuses on particularly difficult areas that we still don’t understand e.g. how the human brain works and how human being interact.In the meantime, each family has a wealth of experience that they have acquired by trial and error. The only problem with this is that it is tempting to believe that what has worked for you will always work for others (to project your solution) whereas in fact each family is different. Academics can get together data from large numbers of families to try to determine what works for most people.

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Amy Thompson

Amy Thompson from Speak to the Future – campaign for languages, the UK Federation of Chinese Schools and Chair at NALDIC – National Subject Association for EAL. (september 2012)


EAL is the “other side” of bilingualism. According to the January 2011 School Census, nearly 1 million pupils in English schools speak another language in addition to English. There are 16 languages which are spoken by more than 10,000 pupils. These numbers are comparable to the number of pupils with special educational needs (SEN), but the provision available is not comparable. The most spoken languages are Panjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Polish. There are 300 languages registered as being spoken in London.

Government policy to make learning foreign languages non-compulsory has led to a decline in language learning. (Schools are subject to pressure from league tables and it is considered more difficult for pupils to achieve high grades in languages.) The introduction of the English Baccalaureat (Ebac) has done a bit to reverse this trend.

In European survey on language competence, England performed very poorly. Only 9% of 14-15 year old pupils studying French in England reach the level of being “an independent language user who can deal with straightforward, familiar matters.” The corresponding figure for the 14 countries surveyed – usually for pupils learning English – is 42%. 30% of pupils in English schools do not reach the level of “a basic user who can use very simple language with support.”

75% of the world is bilingual. According to the Eurobarometer opinion poll on EU citizens’ attitudes towards multilingualism and foreign language learning, 72% of people in the UK think that everyone in the EU should be able to speak at least one other language as well as their mother tongue. However, only 39% of people in the UK (one quarter of whom are native speakers of other languages who can converse in English) are able to hold a conversation in a foreign language. This compares to an EU average of 54%. The UK remains near the bottom of the EU table.

There is a big discrepancy between the uptake of foreign languages in private and state schools. The languages taught in primary schools are dominated by French (89% of schools in 2008), Spanish (25%) and German (10%), while a small number of schools (3% or under) offered Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Urdu. The main languages taught in secondary schools are French, German and Spanish. Others include Italian, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Urdu and Bengali

The future of language teaching in primary schools will depend on the review of the National Curriculum (but the program struggles with the lack of expertise among primary teachers.) The government has decided not to proceed with the new primary curriculum which would have made language learning statutory in Key Stage 2. However, it has confirmed its commitment to the importance of primary languages, saying that it believes that language skills are important to the social and economic future of the country.

In the secondary sector, the government has said it is committed to increasing the number of pupils studying languages post 14. In 2011, they introduced the Ebac, by which schools will have to report on how many young people achieve A*-C grades at GCSE in English, maths, a science, a language and a humanity.

There are 16 languages with GCSE accreditation – these can change depending on the number of entries. Asset languages system – thinking of getting rid of some languages because they are not commercially viable.

There are many challenges ahead. The numbers of pupils studying French and German at GCSE plummeted by 54% between 2002 and 2011. There was some reversal of this trend in 2012 primarily due to the inclusion of languages in the Ebac. A’level entries for languages have fallen. One third of university language departments closed between 2002 and 2009. 60% of employers are not satisfied with the foreign language skills of graduates. There is a shortage of English mother tongue interpreters at the European Commission.

The objectives of Speak to the Future are to reverse the downward trends in the coming years, build on positive developments and ensure that languages are truly valued in this country.

Useful websites:
www.speaktothefuture.org
www.naldic.org.uk
www.all-languages.org.uk
www.cilt.org.uk
www.supplementaryeducation.org.uk

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Charmain Kenner

Charmian is a specialist in bilingualism and biliteracy (learning to read and write in two languages), a Lecturer at Goldsmiths College and the author of books about biliteracy.

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Vicky Obied

GUEST SPEAKER on 7th December 2013 

at the Limes 3.30 – 5.30 pm

Vicky Obied will come to talk to the group about the issues that may arise in multilingual families when the children are around secondary school age and get into the teenage years. 

Having herself raised two multilingual children through their teenage phase, as well as carried out research that involved interviewing multilingual teenagers, Vicky will share her insights about this phase of multilingual family life.

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Virginia Gathercole – 2006

Virginia Müller Gathercole is a Professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Wales Bangor. She is a specialist in bilingualism in very young children. Her main research in language acquisition was for monolinguals but she also studied some bilinguals (Spanish/English in Miami and Welsh/English).

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The resource Unit – 2006

The resource Unit held a talk for WFBG member on 25th September 2006.

The Unit runs training for people wanting to set up a school or who are already teachers or on management committees. 
You can contact them on 020 7700 8189 or on info@resourceunit.com.

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Li Wei

Professor Li Wei of Newcastle University is a well known researcher on bilingualism. Many bilingual parents intend to stick to speaking one language to their children, but some find themselves switching unconsciously. Professor Li Wei is the leading authority on this area of linguistics and came to talk to our group on 5th March 2005.

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Jean-Marc Dewaele – 2004

Jean-Marc Dewaele is Professor in Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has published widely on individual differences in psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, pragmatic, psychological and emotional aspects of Second Language Acquisition and Multilingualism.

He came to talk to our group on 14th December 2004.

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Francesca La Morgia – 2010

Francesca La Morgia talked to your group on 2nd October 2010. She is an academic specialist in multilingualism and has also set up a group to help multilingual familes in Ireland where she is based. Francesca will share with us her expericence and talk a little about the group she has set up: Bilingual Forum Ireland.

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Colin Baker

Colin Baker, Professor of Education at Bangor University, came to talk to our group on 16th September 2006. He is the author of a number of books including : A Parent and Teachers Guide to Bilingualism, Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education and B is for Papillon, Biliteracy in the home. Although an academic, Colin Baker is clearly committed to practical aspects of how to make bilingualism work in the family and at school.

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Bilingual families

Article published in local “Surestart” Newsletter in September 2004

Bilingual Families

There are many families in Waltham Forest who speak a language other than English and who wish to make sure that they bring their children up speaking two or more languages. English society is largely a monolingual one, in spite of a large number of minority language communities, and many people here find the idea of bilingualism odd and abnormal. Few are aware that across the world there are more bilingual and trilingual people than there are monolingual ones. Most people in countries like China, India and Kenya speak more than one language.

There are a lot of myths about bilingualism and many people who are not experts have opinions about it – even though their ideas are often ill informed and very out of date. People used to think that speaking two or more languages confused children and delayed their development. This has now been disproved and it is clear that bilingual and trilingual children are at least as intelligent as monolingual ones. In fact their multilingualism seems to give them a more flexible thought pattern which is very helpful in some areas of the curriculum (and in life generally).

As English is such a dominant language in the UK, and because there are no dedicated resources or information points for people raising children bilingually, it is difficult to know where to go for information. Of course, there are specialist speech therapists (including some within the Sure Start office) but their role is really to solve problems that children have in learning to understand and talk at all rather than to help parents encourage children to speak two (or more) languages fully. Many parents have lots of questions: –
• I am a mother tongue speaker of another language, but should I speak English to my children to help them settle into school when the time comes?
• Although I speak to my child in another langugage, he knows I understand English. Will my child think that everyone speaks English and will he or she try to speak it to their grandparents who don’t?
• Does the fact that it is the father in the family who speaks the non-English language (and who spends less time with the children) mean that it is impossible to raise children speaking both languages?
• Will I be able to teach my children to read and write in my language which uses a different alphabet?
Every family is different and there are no easy answers to all of these questions, but just listening to parents who are a few years ahead, whose children may now be in school, who speak two or more languages, can help parents think through these decisions and make the choices that are right for them and for their children. Also sharing these concerns with those who are at the same stage as you, can give you encouragement to continue, on those days when you wonder whether the effort is worthwhile.

In 2001, a group of parents who were all trying to raise their children bilingually got together. We found that between us we had lots of experiences and ideas that we could share. Out of this a small voluntary group was formed – the Waltham Forest Bilingual Group. More than 25 families have now joined. We meet regularly and exchange emails to share experiences and to encourage each other. We also arrange events where speakers come to talk to us about relevant subjects and we give presentations to other groups who ask us to.

‘We would warmly welcome you to join our group, as we are always looking for more members to share experiences and ideas. If you would like to join or to find out more about the group – please call Claire on 020 8531 6448 or Chris on 020 8529 8189.