Now, more than ever, there is a genuine need for multilingual and multiculturally minded education in our increasingly global society. As the world around us becomes ever-more digitalised, connected and accessible, it is essential that we equip our young learners with the skills and tools that they will need to communicate, connect and thrive in their local and global communities.
In this blog, I will reflect on some of the benefits of teaching and learning in a bilingual, multicultural context: including the ability to support learners to develop critical skills in reflecting on and questioning the world around them, using the medium of language as a vehicle for teaching cultural awareness, tolerance and compassion.
Yesterday’s events in Westminster, London struck close to home. As a born and bred Londoner, Westminster Bridge has a special place in my heart. Just a few short months ago, I stood on Westminster Bridge on a visit home, reflecting gratefully for having been raised in such a tolerant, diverse, and open-minded city so full of life and opportunity. Whilst in recent times, this gratitude has often been clouded by news of political decisions I’ve found hard to stomach, or attitudes expressed by a small minority of UK citizens that I have been ashamed to witness, the deeply saddening image of Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP desperately trying to resuscitate a police officer as he lay bleeding on the ground (after being attacked defending the safety of those citizens inside and around the Houses of Parliament), reminded me of this: we are all human. Differences and viewpoints aside, we all feel pain. We also have the unique ability as humans to respond to pain, injustice or suffering with human compassion. If I can teach my students anything in my precious time with them before they embark on their journey to secondary education, it will be the ability to view others with compassion, tolerance and curiosity: to listen and seek to understand before seeking to be understood. To help others whenever they can, however they can, because at the end of the day, we all share responsibility for this space we live and all Earth.
As we continue to face an increasing number of global challenges – political and social – gone are the days when we can shy behind nationalistic attitudes or an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to global decision-making, or to global events and changes. As Hugh Evans points out in this article, “peace and prosperity here depends on peace and prosperity there”. We must act with a great sense of urgency in providing an education that empowers students to develop an outward-looking, global mindset, if our students are to be effective changemakers in the context of the societal challenges that they face.
Whilst London and indeed the UK’s response to yesterday’s tragic events have been admirable, brave and unified, what has also struck me is the call of solidarity that has followed from fellow nations and communities around the globe. A small but significant gesture was one minute of silence held at my school today by staff and students in Spain: a reminder that London is not just a special place for Londoners, it also represents a place of tolerance, diversity and openness – values upheld and cherished by many citizens globally. The Spanish phrase “te acompaño en el sentimiento” bears an important significance in this context: today, my Spanish coworkers paid their respects in the same way as many UK citizens will also have done for the lives lost and the injuries endured in our capital city. Yesterday’s events were not simply an attack on London, but on the global values of tolerance, citizenship and democracy that we share worldwide with those committed to making our global community a fairer place to live. Together, we will continue working towards those values as a global society.
So, what does bilingual and multicultural education have to do with this?
Take today’s moment of silence, for example. Not one student questioned the validity of this silence (a difficult task for a group of talkative ten year olds), and many of my students were able to empathise with the impact of the events on their global community. Many of their questions showed great tolerance, acceptance of cultural difference, and open-mindedness.
‘Why did the man want to kill innocent people?”, one student asked.
“Terrorists attack innocent people because they want the whole world to sit up and take notice”, replied another. “They don’t care who is affected, as long as their message is heard”.
“But how can we be sure that he was a terrorist, or that he attacked London for those reasons?”, interjected a third student. “We should try to understand it from his point of view too even if we don’t like what he did”.
This led to an interesting class discussion about the potential dangers of assumption, neatly summarised by one student’s comment: “Sometimes people do things not because they are bad people, or because they hate other people. Sometimes they do things because they believe that it will change the situation, make it better, or get them noticed. I think that sometimes we forget that we live in a democracy [we recently learnt this word in a Social Science lesson on the history of Spanish politics!] and we have the right to say what we want to say or to question important people who make decisions if we don’t agree. But sometimes democracies don’t work: sometimes certain people don’t get a chance to say what they want to say. Maybe he didn’t have that, and he turned to violence as a cry for help”.
As a ten-year old, the ability to show such compassion and curiosity regarding the motivations of someone unknown to them and labelled a “terrorist” is something I consider truly remarkable. I have no doubt that this child is a special soul, in spite of any bilingual or multicultural instruction he has received over the early years of his life in a bilingual school environment. Clearly, his parents are also doing an awesome job or raising an inquisitive, compassionate human being. However, I do also believe that by teaching young learners about different languages, cultures and customs, we as educators can open doors to a world of differences and similarities, prejudices and injustices, cultures and customs. In doing so, we can enable our students to engage with the global community in an inquisitive, empathetic manner that will improve their ability to engage critically and curiously with the world around them: an invaluable set of tools for our modern, global society.
Therefore, it saddens me that typically, language learning occupies so little time and space in the British National Curriculum. Through struggling to understand adverbial phrases, articles or gender pronouns in English, whilst inquiring about their place in the living and breathing cultures of the places that speak the language, I have seen over time how my students have become more tolerant of and curious about the people they encounter on their travels and in their communities. One student excitedly told me that he had made a new friend on his travels to Italy this summer: a Syrian boy around his age now living in Germany who didn’t speak any Spanish. English was the common connection between the two children. Proud not only that he had put his newly acquired language skills talking about “hobbies and free time” to use in order to discover that his new friend also enjoyed playing with LEGO, my student was thrilled to learn more about a different culture that he could share with his peers at school.
This student told our class what he had learnt about his new friend’s school in Germany, as well as his family’s reasons for fleeing Syria to seek refuge in Germany. My student spoke with significant reflection about the family, friends and culture that his friend had left behind. This was a special friendship born of mutual respect and curiosity about different cultures: a quality that enabled conversations beyond the latest computer game, film or device and into a highly meaningful, globally-minded discussion about cultural difference. The connection that this student built with his new friend through a shared language, and the impact of his friend’s story has inspired him to question his own responsibility in the Syrian refugee crisis, telling us that “now I really want to do something to help”. I can’t wait to see the changes that he will make in his local and global community as a result, whether that’s right now or in the future.
Another student recently told me that when she was older, she wanted to travel as far and wide as possible so that she could make friends around the globe and learn about their lives and languages. “Maybe I could teach them some Spanish and help them to see that we don’t all have an afternoon siesta and eat paella all day long too”, she half-joked. Despite being so young, this student was already aware that cultural stereotypes exist, and that we all make them. Sadly, prejudice and injustice is a daily experience for young people and adults alike. The good thing is, this student is one of a generation of many globally-minded young citizens that is keen to change that.
I’m currently teaching at a bilingual primary school in Madrid, Spain. You can read more about my vision for my pupils and our work together here.