On Saturday last the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities North West (NICEM) organised a celebration of the International Mother Language Day.
The event was an opportunity for local communities to find out more about linguistic diversity in the Derry area and discuss the challenges faced by bilingual families and black and minority ethnic groups in maintaining language traditions.
“A figure of 1.74 per cent of residents in this region identified a language other than English as their main language” said Dr Philip McDermott from the Ulster Centre on Multilingualism.
“There continues to be a poor understanding of the benefits that new community languages bring to society as a whole here in terms of the cultural worth, and the benefits for the economy, the benefits for individuals who are bilingual. This is why events like Mother Language Day are important in raising these issues into the public consciousness,” he continued.
The invited speakers discussed challenges faced by bilingual families, in particular in relation to education of children and young people.
“Children of course are often living large periods of their lives in predominantly English-speaking environments like school and consequently the question that comes to the fore is, how do communities deal with that in assisting young people to maintain their heritage language? Is it indeed the local government’s responsibility to assist that process?” Dr. McDermott continued.
Mr Jason Aquitania, from Filipino group Kabalikat in North West, both of whose sons were born in Northern Ireland, explained: “My wife and I had a discussion about the time when are we going to teach our sons Filipino language. We were undecided and just let the time pass by without noticing that our child has no knowledge at all of our native language.
“We have tried several times but when we saw the lack of interest from him, we’ve easily given up.”
Bilingual education presents serious challenges for parents, children and wider communities. Dr Mukesh Chugh, a representative of communities from the Northern Indian Subcontinent said: “It is recommended to reinforce the use of the minority language at home. It is the minority language, not the majority one, which is in danger of not developing”.
“Mixed families should arrange opportunities aimed at enhancing their children’s multilingual-multicultural competencies, such as book sharing and reading experiences,” he continued.
Dr Chugh also noted the need to make structural adjustments to foster bilingualism in some public schools since it is often treated as a liability rather than a rich cultural asset.
Monika Pochylska-Zajac, the Principal of the Polish Abroad Saturday School said: “Polish Saturday schools are not very popular among parents and children in Northern Ireland. Parents usually focus on English, forgetting that children spend five hours at school where they have to speak English. As a result Polish children can speak English fluently but they cannot read or write in Polish and some of them cannot even speak proper Polish. We are taking away from our children the opportunity to be fluent in both languages which is a really sad process.”
The speakers also emphasised opportunities bilingualism and multilingualism presents to those children who were raised speaking two or more languages.
“Children who grow up with two languages have a unique chance to acquire them both in a way that is not possible for those who meet their second language later in life,” said Mr Chugh.
“Those who speak two languages symbolize the essential humanity of building bridges between peoples of different colour, creed, culture and language”, he continued.
The event was supported by the Mayor of Derry, Martin Reilly, and was widely attended by local minority and majority communities.