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Our mother tongue is an equity pillar

My life’s work as a teacher, principal, school superintendent and then as vice-president of a college has been in the area of equity and speaking out for the rights of marginalized and minority students.

I inherited this work by default of birth, having been born on the “wrong side of the colour bar” in apartheid South Africa and having lost family members in the fight against apartheid.

The life-and-death struggles with legalized racism in the first 21 years of my life solidified my quest for equity. In the 40-plus years since leaving South Africa and living, working and studying in Canada, I have found that while Canada is indeed one of the most tolerant countries in the world, Canadian society still has gaps in its approaches to equity.

My anti-oppression work led me to see the suppression of mother tongues in Ontario schools as an issue of equity and ethics.

Very early in my Canadian teaching career, I started to explore the extent to which the acknowledgement of students’ first languages in class affects their self-esteem, identity and degree of engagement in literacy and other academic activities.

I observed that students flourished when asked to teach their language to others in class.

As superintendent and vice-president, I conducted research with students from grade four to post-secondary, exploring the extent to which the structured incorporation of students’ mother tongues into classroom instruction positively affects students’ academic progress.

Learning experience cannot be optimal if students are forced to leave certain integral aspects of their personal identities, like their first languages, at the door of their classrooms.

A foremost authority on the subject of the role of mother tongue in education is Professor Jim Cummins at OISE/UT.

In several of his books and articles on the development of bilingual proficiency from home to school, identity construction in multilingual classrooms and multilingual identity texts, Dr Cummins points out that identities are negotiated between students and educators and schools create power structures that impact on identity formation.

According to Cummins, there is consistent research support for language interdependence.

He suggests that in learning a second language, students will transfer knowledge from one language to another in reading, listening, speaking and writing.

In my research with college students I found that their mother tongues play an integral role in the construction of their identities and in enhancing their academic knowledge.

In my next article on mother tongue I will talk further about what college students said in my study about how their mother tongues help them in their studies here in Canada.

                                                                                                                                                       – Dr Vicki Bismilla

 

• Dr Vicki Bismilla is a retired Superintendent of Schools and retired college Vice-President, Academic, and Chief Learning Officer.

Posted: May 30, 2017

August 2017



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