Interview with Ms Ellen-Rose Kambel, PhD director of the Rutu Foundation, a foundation that promotes cultural diversity in schools. Rutu Foundation issued a report Alternative Report on Language Based Exclusion, Punishment and Discrimination in Dutch Education to the United Nations Committee which oversees the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
On the 25th of August 2021, the UN Committee Against Racial Discrimination urged the Netherlands to ensure that multilingual pupils are not restricted or punished when using their mother tongue at school. The Committee expressed its concern about discrimination experienced by pupils with a migration or minority background in Dutch primary schools. The Committee expressed also concern by reports of discrimination of students with ethnic minority and immigrant backgrounds pointing out that that they are more likely to receive a lower assessment from their teachers for secondary school admissions than what they could receive on the basis of their school results.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowka: According to various publications parents of multilingual children express their dissatisfaction about the fact that their children are discouraged by Dutch primary schools to use their native language. Is using your native language your fundamental right?
Ellen-Rose Kambel: Yes. A fundamental principle of international human rights law is the principle of non-discrimination. Language, along with race, gender and religion is one of the grounds based on which discrimination is not allowed. (see for example article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”). In addition to non-discrimination, language use is also protected as freedom of expression and – in the case of minorities – as a right to use their language with other members of the group (e.g. the Convention on the Rights of the Child).
But all human rights have limitations and the exercise of the right may be restricted. The question we wanted to have an answer to, is whether children speaking a language different than the language of instruction are allowed to be restricted from using their language in the classroom. Which is a different question than the right to be educated (instructed) in their home language.
On the 25th of August 2021, the UN Committee Against Racial Discrimination urged the Netherlands to ensure that multilingual pupils are not restricted or punished when using their mother tongue at school. What has the Committee confirmed with its conclusions and recommendations? (1)
With the concluding observations and recommendations on the report from the Netherlands by the UN Committee against Racial Discrimination, the Committee made clear that restricting or punishing children with an ethnic minority or migrant background for speaking their home languages at school is not allowed under the Convention. This is a very important interpretation of the Convention which – as far as we could ascertain – has not been expressed before. The Committee recommended that the Netherlands expand its teacher training to include multilingual education. Within one year, the Netherlands must report back to the Committee on the measures it has taken to implement the recommendations contained in paragraph 20 (a), (b) and (c).(2)
Parents hear at Dutch primary schools that it is better to stop speaking their native language as speaking your native language which is not Dutch is bad for the development. What do you think about that?
This unfortunately still happens quite often. Parents are told that if they want to prevent their children from having a language delay (‘taalachterstand’) they should speak Dutch with their children. Teachers genuinely believe that the more Dutch is spoken, the better the language will be learned. And that learning more languages at the same time will confuse children. Researchers have known for quite some time now that this is not the case. Children are perfectly capable of learning two or more languages. And in fact, the better developed both their languages are, the more advantages they can expect. Not just advantages in terms of communication – because when you speak more languages you obviously are capable to communicate with many more people and you have access to a larger world. But there are also cognitive advantages. This has to do with the brain ‘gymnastics’ that is taking place when bilinguals switch from one language to another. Bilingualism is associated among others with stronger multitasking skills, creativity, and working memory. Bilingualism may even provide longer protection against the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
So the research tells us that bilingualism or multilingualism should be encouraged rather than restricted. What is important is that children are motivated to learn a new language. And this is something that is not well understood: if teachers prohibit, discourage or punish a child to express themselves in their home language at school, no matter how well intentioned – the message the child receives is that they are not welcome. Not fully at least. Only part of them – the Dutch-speaking part – is allowed and valued. This is a powerful message sent to children whose parents and grandparents speak a different language: your parents and grandparents are not part of our community, you must leave them at the door when you come to school.
A student gets the feeling that part of his or her identity should not be there, that is bad for their development. Children become ashamed and lose their self-confidence. When children are discriminated against in school, humiliated by teachers and bullies, or regularly punished, their socio-emotional and cognitive development is greatly hindered. They feel greater shame for who they are. They feel even more like outsiders at school. And they perform worse academically than children in schools where such practices do not occur. These children drop out at higher rates.
Additionally, research in Flanders has shown that the result is exactly the opposite of what teachers try to achieve: children who are punished for speaking their home language are shown to perform worse at for instance, comprehensive reading, than children whose languages are welcomed at school.
What other forms of limitations of the use of your native language have you come across?
Signs in the classroom that say ‘here we speak Dutch’. A teacher recently explained in a national newspaper (Volkskrant 18/2/21) that when she catches her students speaking their own language in class, they are forced to copy pages from a Dutch dictionary during lunch break. This was presented as a good practice. Parents are also frequently asked to speak only Dutch with their children when picking them up or taking them to school.
Other examples are children having to write lines like “I will not speak language x”. Also, parents are asked not to speak the home language with their children when dropping them off at school or picking them up. There are even schools where parents are not allowed to translate for other parents. But exclusion does not have to be explicit, the message that your language is not welcome can also be expressed implicitly: when your language is nowhere to be seen or heard at school. Or when none of the school materials include or refer to your language. When newsletters or websites are only provided in Dutch, even when current translation technology is freely available. Children pick up these clues very quickly and start feeling shame for their parents when they come pick them up and greet them in their home language.
We also hear that teachers are sending children who speak a different language at home to speech therapists, to ‘get rid’ of their accents or because they believe they have a language problem, because the children don’t have the same vocabulary as their monolingual native Dutch speaking peers. Many teachers are not aware that bilingual children are developing in a different way than monolinguals and that if they really have a language delay, they will have this in all of their languages. There really is huge lack of knowledge and awareness around languages and language learning.
Why is the native language seen as a disadvantage and not advantage which can help with the acquisition of the Dutch language? And are there any developments on this matter?
As explained above, it is a lack of knowledge about the current research on bilingualism. But we cannot blame the teachers for this. In 2004, the Dutch government banned programmes that promoted mother tongue education in languages such as Turkish and Arabic. Since then, the official policy has been that only Dutch should be allowed in the classroom. So without further information or training, it is no surprise that many teachers believe that including children’s home languages is detrimental.
Only the last couple of years, we are witnessing some changes at the policy level and at teacher training institutes where the number of courses in multilingualism is increasing. But these courses are often only offered as electives so only students who are really interested, take them. At policy level, we see some changes taking place at the municipality level. For instance, the municipality of Zaanstad is probaby the first who have adopted a policy for multilingual children with a migrant background which states that their multilingualism should be encouraged and parents should be advised to use their home language as much as possible with their children. But there are also municpalities, such as The Hague, where there multilingualism is persistently viewed as something negative and where a policy was adopted this year to encourage parents to speak Dutch with their children (see: https://denhaag.raadsinformatie.nl/document/9955570/1/RIS307986_Bijlage_1_Taalnota ). In this policy, you can also clearly see the negative framing of multilingualism which is baked into the definition of ‘low literacy’. When you don’t speak Dutch at a certain level, you are considered low literate, even when you are highly educated and highly literate in another language. It’s viewed as a deficiency. So there is a lot of work to do here!
I am surprised that in the country where it is so popular to follow TTO ( tweetalig onderwijs, education offered in two languages, most often in Dutch and English) speaking and using your native language which is not Dutch is still seen in a negative way.
This has a lot to do with the way languages are valued. English and Dutch have an ‘economic’ value and parents believe that a good command of these two languages means that their children will have better job opportunities. Which is not untrue. However, what both parents and teachers often do not realize is that children will be able to get an even better command of both English and Dutch when they have a strong foundation in their home language, no matter which language. So it is not an either/or situation but an and/and.
Do you agree that in the Netherlands what language you speak defines your chances and the expectations levels of teachers? It is trendy when a child speaks French, English or German but for example Polish, Turkish or Armenian is a clear ‘’no-go’’ and children speaking these languages are seen as those with special needs. Do we have better and worse languages?
Negative connotations are often attached to the socio-economic status of the speaker. The languages spoken by groups who are perceived to occupy a low socio-economic status – in the Netherlands these are languages such as Arabic, Turkish and languages spoken by eastern Europeans – are less valued than languages with a high status. These perceptions are of course very dynamic and context-specific. A language can gain and lose its status over time or when the context shifts. We can see this happening today with Mandarin which is offered at certain Dutch schools to attract highly educated Dutch-speaking parents. Yet, children and parents speaking Mandarin as their mother tongue may be asked not to use their language at school.
If children are denied the right to use their native language at schools and are discriminated against because of the migration background who should the parents complain to, contact?
Parents can help us collect information by filling out this form: https://forms.gle/oekL4ba3QGmSRLEm8 . They can do so anonymously if they wish. They can also contact Defense for Children for free legal advice (see: https://www.defenceforchildren.nl/actueel/blog/carrie-van-der-kroon/helemaal-jezelf-mogen-zijn-op-school-een-kinderrecht/ and https://www.defenceforchildren.nl/wat-doen-we/kinderrechtenhelpdesk/)
What would be your final tips?
For parents it is crucial to be well informed about the rights of your children to speak their home language at school and also about the benefits of developing the home language as much as possible, along with Dutch and/or English if they wish. The Language Friendly School is a network of schools where all languages are welcome. On the website both teachers and parents can find more information on how to create a linguistically and culturally inclusive school including how to integrate multilingualism at school in practice (see https://languagefriendlyschool.org/faq/).
The UN Committee on Racial Discrimination is the supervisory body of the International Convention Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The members are independent experts who base their conclusions and recommendations on reports received from the State, the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights and NGOs. As a Member State, the Netherlands is obligated to report on it.
Image: ©Ellen-Rose Kambel
(2)19. The Committee is concerned by reports of discrimination of students with ethnic minority and immigrant backgrounds, including that they are more likely to receive a lower assessment from their teachers for secondary school admissions than what they could receive on the basis of their school results. The Committee is further concerned that:
(a) Students with ethnic minority or immigrant backgrounds continue to face discrimination with respect to obtaining internships, which negatively impacts their future prospects on the labour market;
(b) Multilingual students with an ethnic minority or immigrant background are allegedly restricted from or punished for speaking their home languages in the school environment;
(c) The COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on the education of children from ethnic minority groups and with lower socio-economic status (art. 5).
20. The Committee recommends that the State party take measures to increase equal opportunities for all children in education, regardless of their background, and monitor the effectiveness thereof. The Committee also recommends that the State party:
(a) Ensure that all children receive an adequate assessment from their teachers for secondary schools, without discrimination including implicit bias, based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin;
(b) Take measures to combat and prevent discrimination in accessing internships, develop protocols or guidelines that teachers can follow when students report such discrimination, and ensure that teachers are aware of these protocols;
(c) Take measures to ensure that multilingual students from ethnic minority groups are not restricted from or punished for speaking their home languages at school and expand teacher training on multilingual education;)
Author: Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska is an award-winning international journalist, TV correspondent, author, chief editor of international journalism centre, Central and Eastern Europe Centre, board member and a sworn translator. She was born in Warsaw, Poland and has also Armenian blood and roots in Lvov, which is now part of Ukraine. She has been living in Dutch city of Heerlen since 2005.