I was looking forward to showing Ali* the science video that day. 

Ali had arrived at our school several years earlier, when he was in grade 2.  If he found sudden immersion in a new country and unfamiliar language at all unsettling, this confident 8 year-old didn’t show it. Despite having only beginner English skills, each new school day saw him marching down the hall with gusto, his infectious grin naturally drawing people to him. In those early days, it was typical to enter his classroom and find him engaged in animated, gesture-filled conversations with classmates and teachers – which, despite being entirely in Arabic, were somehow basically comprehensible to all. Weeks slipped into months, and finally to years. He conversed easily in English before we knew it. We no longer heard the exuberant flow of Arabic; gestures were now stilled. 

When Ali began grade 6, both he and his mother expressed interest in his studying Arabic.  Our department had a series of English-Arabic science videos  – explaining the science curriculum topics he was studying in class no less. I was excited to show him the video, in both languages. 

I remember sitting at the round table in the book room, and pressing ‘play’ on the iPad. Ali watched the video in Arabic in silence. As the short, simple clip came to an end, he looked up.

“What did you think?” I asked expectantly. 

Ali hesitated. Then he replied, “I didn’t understand it.”

I was confused. The topic was relatively simple, and Ali’s teacher had told me earlier that day how solidly he had understood the science unit. 

“You didn’t understand the science?” I asked. 

“No. I didn’t understand the Arabic.”

***

Losing first language is not often talked about in school. We are usually so preoccupied with helping students acquire English, that thoughts of their home language may fall to wayside. Yet the more I learn about this phenomenon, the more it seems to me like an insidious disease. Slowly advancing, symptoms hidden, its progress out of sight and unnoticeable — until it’s too late. 

Multiple researchers have noted that first language development is arrested upon entering an English-speaking school environment. And it can regress, with English quickly becoming the dominant language. Indeed, web searches for “first language loss” produce an endless chain of heartbreaking stories. Recently I came across an article by Jenny Liao in The New Yorker, which began with the sentence “When I speak Cantonese with my parents now, I rely on translation apps.” The This America Life story RSV-Pa begins with the descriptor, “Larry speaks English. His dad speaks Chinese … After 20 years, with the help of filmmaker Bianca Giaver, he and his dad have their first conversation.”

Their first conversation.

I cannot imagine what it would be like, to be unable to communicate freely (or at all) with the people I love most in the world. I cannot imagine what it would be like, to be unable to communicate with my own child.

Many years ago, I heard an ESL specialist state that the majority of students who begin school in Ontario speaking another language will eventually lose the ability to communicate in that language, to varying degrees, with English becoming their preferred and most fluent language. I remember wondering at the time how that could be true, especially if parents and family members continue to speak first language to the child. This was certainly the case with Ali’s family, who spoke only Arabic to him. But as I later learned, the type of language used in school can be vastly different from the type used at home. Rich and varied vocabulary and grammatical structures are required (and learned) when reading novels, writing literary essays, and explaining cell structure. The language at home can be comparatively simple: “Get your coat”, “Come for dinner”, “What did you do today?”  These every-day exchanges include fewer vocabulary items and simpler grammatical structures. Additionally, students are typically not learning to read and write in first language.  No wonder language acquisition and proficiency leans heavily in favour of English.

As teachers we are in the position of working with families and students to help maintain first languages. From recommending home language classes, to accessing the growing number of free dual language book websites, to encouraging discussion of news events and complex topics at home in first language, there are a number of multilingual supports at our disposal. One of my new favourites is storybookscanada.ca, which contains simple illustrated audio books, written and narrated in English and many languages.

We know that students who maintain and develop first language tend to learn English more quickly and do better academically than those who do not. But the preservation of identity and connection to family offer a particularly urgent motivation for creating a multilingual framework in our teaching practice. To all educators tirelessly working to include first languages in the classroom, 

Дякую 고맙습니다  شكرًا لك  merci  谢谢  gracias ਤੁਹਾਡਾ ਧੰਨਵਾਦ شکریہ mahadsanid Cảm ơn thank you.

 

*student names have been changed

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