Native English-speaking children: burden or blessing? Featured
The ‘English-Speaking Children’s Parents’ and Guardians’ Association of Catalonia’is something of a mouthful, as group monikers go. It’s certainly not likely to slip easily off the tongue of anyone who learned English inside the Catalan public education system: despite English being a compulsory subject for all students, the general standard of school leavers is lamentably low. It is frequently cited as a major disadvantage for Catalonia in today’s perilously-competitive international economy and a threat to its stated goal of becoming one of Europe’s leading R&D hubs for Biotech, ICT and other industries.
Given this state of affairs, one might think that native English-speaking children entering the system would be viewed as a valuable resource. Sadly, this is not typically the case: non-native teachers frequently view them as a challenge to their own competency and the children end up being held back to the level of their classmates rather than allowed to develop at their own pace.
It’s this situation that the association came together to address. As stated on the group’s website:
“We believe that publicly funded schools should stream children who are native or near-native speakers of English into enriched, content-based English classes. This would entail the setting up of magnet programs attracting students from several schools. We believe that programs tailored to the English skills these children already possess will better enable them to use written and spoken English with the same depth and breadth of skills and purposes for which they are being educated to use Catalan. We believe that fostering a dual-language, cosmopolitan identity in these children, both as learners and as future citizens, will be of incalculable benefit to Catalan society as it meets the challenges of a knowledge-based, globalized economy whose lingua franca is English.”
One of the founders of the association is John Stone, a Canadian Assistant Professor at the University of Barcelona. He explained to BcnIn how it all got started:
“The association began with a Friday afternoon playgroup based in Poblenou. Everyone in the playgroup would like their kids to speak, read, and write English to an age-appropriate level for a native speaker. Some are married to native speakers of other languages (Catalan and Spanish especially but not exclusively); others are married to other English speakers. Almost none of the children goes to a bilingual or English-medium school. Home environments and attitudes towards language use vary wildly, as you’d expect. I’ve a bit of a reputation as a fundamentalist as I never speak a word of Catalan or Spanish to my kids, and try to avoid situations in which they’d hear me speaking either language to other adults. Some other parents code-switch cheerfully. That said, it’s pretty common for parents in the group to arrange for private tutoring of their kids, or to do it themselves; and for some time I’d been taking my elder daughter to weekly English literacy classes every Wednesday afternoon, where her classmates were other playgroup kids, as well as doing two to six hours of homework with her every week.
“Then, one day nearly a year ago, on a beach with the playgroup parents one Friday afternoon, it dawned on me that (1) Spain in general and Catalonia more specifically have a grievous skills deficit, of which English is a part; (2) our children’s trilingualism would be of huge benefit to the development of this place; (3) schools seldom recognise that English-speaking children are specials needs learners inasmuch as they are often *not* learning from their English teachers, but rather growing bored, hostile, frustrated, etc.; (4) my own trilingual students–I’m a lecturer in an English department and always have a handful of students who’ve grown up speaking English with one or both parents–can *speak* well enough, but haver poorer written English skills than, say, the average German Erasmus student; and (5) other jurisdictions have more flexible approaches to language learners (this I knew from being placed in Advanced French when I was 12, in Canada).
“I asked the other parents on the beach if I should start an advocacy group and try to change policy makers’ minds about language-teaching policy, they said yes, and away we went. The association was founded in February, and recognised legally in May. We have about thirty members in a legal sense and another fifty or so on Facebook. I’ve also used FB as a way of gathering and sharing information about bilingual school and related policy around Europe and around the world. Many cities make an effort to accommodate English-speakers in their school system and actually use them as resource for teaching, say, young native Viennese or Berliners in English, half days, from an early age. The system is called dual-language immersion schooling and it’s increasingly popular in the US, Canada, and Australia as well.”
While the group is still in its early stages, it has attracted an impressive list of endorsements with some extremely highly-credentialed academics adding their support to the cause, such as Dr Joan Massagué (Chairman, Cancer Biology and Genetics Program, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York) and Dr Josep Baselga (Chief, Division of Hematology/Oncology; Associate Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center; Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Bruce A. Chabner Chair, Hematology/Oncology, Massachusetts General Hospital). Both Catalan, these men are at the very top of their respective fields internationally and understand better than most what is needed here in order for Catalonia to be truly successful on the global stage.
The involvement of people of this calibre underlines the fact that the association is not about expat parents wanting special treatment for their kids but instead about keeping the Catalan education system effective and relevant.
Catalonia has always liked to imagine itself as progressive and class-leading – the most European of Spain’s autonomous regions. If this is indeed the case, it is to be hoped that the relevant authorities will seriously consider the association’s proposals: an outcome beneficial to students, the system and society at large is attainable if they seize the opportunity.
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