Human language is much more than a means of communicating — it creates a sense of belonging. Children learn very early that the language they speak identifies them as a member of a particular group. According to Piper (1998) children acquire their first language within their society of language users. They learn language in order to become a part of that society, and their learning is influenced by a variety of social factors.
When children experience a discontinuity between the language and culture of the family or community and the culture of the school (which is often modelled on the majority or mainstream culture) this can disrupt their learning. Language discontinuity between the home or community, and preschool or school can be a problem for many Roma children, and has been identified as one of the key reasons for the low educational performance, failure, exclusion, or self-exclusion of minority groups like the Roma.
The precise number of Roma who today live in the Republic of Croatia and their territorial distribution is difficult to ascertain. This is because of their territorial distribution and the fact that they are not a homogenous population — with differences in language, socioeconomic status and religion. However, the latest available data, obtained by mapping Roma sites in 15 counties of Croatia in 2017 (Klasnić et all, 2020.), suggests that there are about 24,524 members of the Roma national minority living in the Republic of Croatia.
The importance of multilingualism
Recently, the Open Academy Step by Step Croatia organised a focus group with educators from public primary schools on the topic of multilingualism. The group explored the importance of language development and the challenges that Roma children face when entering school, as well as the increase in the diversity of languages and cultures in Croatia. This article will explore language development based on insights gained from the educators practice, and the theory of language development.
Language is the main component of early literacy development, but including children from different languages and cultures involves more than just teaching them the alphabet. According to Nemeth K. (2021), five factors combining the social/emotional as well as cognitive domains need to be considered in diverse early childhood education programs. These are:
- Identity and self-esteem
- Tolerance and acceptance of diversity
- Family strength
- Supporting the home language
- Support for teachers
1. Identity and self-esteem
In the process of developing language, it is important that Roma children are not denied the right to enjoy their own culture, and religion or to use their own language. However, educators should also be aware when they develop activities using the Roma language, that this does not serve to exclude Roma children from the culture and language of the wider community, and that the educational activities delivered in the Roma language are of the same quality as those delivered in the mainstream language.
During the focus group that was organised on the topic of multilingual learning, educators suggested that interactions between minority children with others provide an opportunity for the minority children to show respect for their culture and language. This is illustrated by one of the teachers who mentioned that “When Roma children say something in their own language or show some of their subjects to non-Roma Croatian children, they feel important and accepted.”
A child’s home language is the language of his family. It is the language used to love and nurture him from the time he is born and it is the language in which he learns about the world and how he fits into it. It is so important to support and honour this powerful beginning and to help the child see that this part of his life is valued and understood.
2. Tolerance and acceptance of diversity
Rather than using the word “tolerance” which suggests enduring someone’s existence and nothing more, the educators prefer the word “inclusion” in the true sense of the word, and emphasize that, “Opportunities for this need to be created.” From their experience, the educators added that “Children in a classroom benefit by learning to make friends with others who may look or sound or behave differently and to interact without fear or judgment.”
Even if the adults in the classroom are not bilingual, each child’s language and culture should be reflected throughout the classroom (Espinosa, 2009). In practice, educators use various strategies to address diversity in early childhood like sharing books about the similarities and differences between people, enjoying music from different countries, and inviting families to come in and share aspects of their culture and life. When educators were asked about the benefits of minority students’ plurilingualism and the benefits this has for other students, one educator said that “Non-Roma Croatian children really love to hear about Roma culture and they are interested in learning more.”
3. Family strength
The idea of family strength comes from the fact that parents are the child’s first teacher and are critically important in supporting teachers. To help parents become aware of how they can be effective partners in the education process, teachers should talk with them as early as possible about the parents’ hopes and aspirations for their child, their sense of what the child needs and suggestions about ways teachers can help.
In the Croatian case, the biggest challenge is changing people’s opinion that Roma parents. Many teachers assume that Roma parents are disinterested in their children’s education, as illustrated by one educator who stated that, “To the parents of migrants and minority children, school is very low on the scale of importance.”
It is arguable that because many Roma parents, particularly mothers, have not been to school and are illiterate themselves this restricts their ability to support their children’s education. Community-based programs are therefore necessary to help parents to improve their own literacy in order to break the cycle of poor educational outcomes across generations. Parents should be recognized and supported as advocates for their children’s right to education and the value that it has for them.
4. Supporting the home language
While supporting the use of the home language at the same time as encouraging the learning of Croatian can seem rather complicated, children already have some knowledge of how language works. This means that in learning Croatian, they need only grasp how the new language works and how it differs from their first language. It is important that educators are aware that children from different cultural backgrounds may have different ways of expressing themselves. Instead of judging these as wrong or in need of fixing, the teacher must use information obtained through observation as the relevant starting point for that child.
5. Support for teachers
Teaching in a diverse and inclusive classroom place many demands on the teacher. In order for the teacher to be successful, a number of program supports should be in place.
Children need to be stimulated to develop and use their mother tongue skills. Parents, schools and the community have been shown to play an effective part in this. Opportunities for children to use and develop their mother tongue skills enable them to gain recognition for skills and see that they are of equal value to other language skills. Informal programs for learning mother tongues should be provided and encouraged.
As Croatia becomes more and more diverse, educators play a pivotal role in helping the new generation of children grow up bilingual, culturally aware, and ready to get along with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. What a wonderful opportunity to give every young child — an advantage for a lifetime!
Iva Sviben, program coordinator, Open Academy Step by Step Croatia
Photos: Taken in Orehovica, a municipality in Međimurje, July 22, 2021.
European commission (2015). Language teaching and learning in multilingual classrooms. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
Espinosa, L. (2009(. Getting it Right for Young Children from Diverse Backgrounds: Applying Research to Practice, Pearson
Klasnić, K., Kunac, S., Rodik, P. (2020.) Uključivanje Roma u hrvatsko društvo: žene, mladi i djeca. Ured za ljudska prava i prava nacionalnih manjina Vlade Republike Hrvatske. Zagreb, page. 68
Piper, T. (1998). Language and learning: The home and school years. III edition. Upper Saddle River, N. J: Merrill Prentice Hall