Over the last year together with other volunteers from Mother Tongues I have been given the privilege of working with children in a primary school situated in a culturally diverse area of Dublin city centre.
As I was planning the lesson for a 5th class I was trying to think about an activity the children enjoy but that would also help them to reflect on the importance of language in people’s lives. Many of the children in the class are bilingual from birth, some started with English at some point in their childhood but are now fluent speakers, some have started their language learning journey only a few weeks ago.
While preparing for this class I came across two poets that really touched me.
American Rapper Andrew Figueroa spoke in a BBC video about his frustration about not being able to fully converse in his parents’ language, Spanish. The second poet, George the Poet, also expresses the same feeling in his poem Mother Tongue: “Hearing my people speaking my language is like smiling from prison”.
Because of my personal history and my upbringing, I know that there the strong link between language and belonging and I felt that the poem by George the poet would stir some emotions and get all of us thinking. Heritage languages allow children to truly connect with the extended family and a good command of the language helps them to fully enjoy family life, especially if the extended family lives outside of Ireland.
Research shows that heritage language competence is easier for families to foster during the early years. However, by the end of primary school, many children lose some of the fluency and the command of the heritage language, especially if they only have one parent who speaks it.
This is why George the Poet’s Mother Tongue is so moving. George says his parents were advised against bilingualism and now he feels like he is missing out on something he could have easily had.
The children watched the video and immediately empathised. They loved the rhythm. They knew exactly what he was talking about. Maybe it was the first time the children heard someone as cool as George the Poet put those feelings into words and rhymes.
There was no need for a lot of explanation. The children were ready to organise their feelings and thoughts and put them into words. They brainstormed on keywords and rapidly got writing. Most of them were extremely proud of their work and wanted to share.
The two children who were new to English wrote the poem in their mother tongue. We were lucky to have Language Explorers volunteers who spoke those languages and acted as interpreters to guide their children in their writing and then translated the poem to the class.
These two children were among the ones who wanted to share their poems, standing up in front of everyone and speaking their own language. When children are learning English for the first time they can feel like they are progressing slowly and they are not as good as the others because they may not understand everything. The experience of writing a poem in their mother tongue and sharing it gave them the opportunity to show everyone that they are capable of writing and speaking out loud.
All poems that were read that day were extremely powerful and showed how much of George’s poem the children had internalised. Every language matters, and primary school children know that.
I hope that by sharing this experience more teachers and parents will feel encouraged to promote and support heritage languages and to value them as a precious resource.
If this post has unleashed the poet in you, do consider talking to your class about entering our competition! Any child between the ages of 8 and 18 can enter.