As you enter the portals of the Dubai International Academy (DIA) at Emirates Hills, be prepared to be greeted with a welcoming bonjour, ni hao, marhaba, namaste, ola, konnichiwa, or just a hello. A far cry from the monolingual environment that is the norm in most schools. Here, diversity of languages is celebrated and is an integral element of the school ethos. Recognising early on the individual identity and value of all languages to serve as adequate modes of expression, DIA has given special focus to teaching the mother tongues of its diverse student body to help them retain a connection with their home language and culture. The DIA spearheaded the push for a multilingual environment right at the time of its inception in 2005, when it offered four different languages as part of its Mother Tongue Program that was integrated within the regular school curriculum.

‘The Mother Tongue Program has since evolved and transitioned through the school’s journey to now include Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hindi, Mandarin, Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Bulgarian,’ says James Lynch, the principal of the school.

A better understanding of one's mother tongue is said to enhance the development of personal, social and cultural identity
Stefan Lindeque

Managed by Innoventures Education, DIA offers the full continuum of the International Baccalaureate programme and has a student population of over 2,300 from 80 plus countries. ‘The rationale behind the introduction of the Mother Tongue Program stems from the IB philosophy of developing international-minded global citizens by celebrating human commonality, diversity and interconnection through wide-ranging forms of expression,’ explains James. ‘Language is fundamental to the development of intercultural understanding and a foundation in one’s mother tongue enhances the development of personal, social and cultural identity.’

For children to have a deeper understanding of who they are, their family heritage, traditions, country of origin, and even their place within society, a strong foundation in their mother language is required, he adds, elaborating how culture and language are inextricably linked. ‘By building pride in their culture and history, the programme enables the kids to embrace the culture and worldview of other students too and thereby provides a great learning experience. This leads to greater respect and tolerance for practices and values that are markedly different from their own.’

Several research studies have pointed to evidence that suggests literacy in the native language leads to better academic performance as understanding of concepts and instructions become effortless when communicated in the language children are familiar with.

According to Mayssoun Jaber, clinical manager, speech and language therapist at kidsFIRST Medical Center in Dubai, ‘Exposing children to two languages or more at a younger age provides a cognitive boost, helping establish better problem-solving skills. In a bilingual brain, both languages are activated and therefore the executive functions are consistently utilised to focus on one language versus the other, depending on the context and the environment.’

Swedish is one of the languages in DIA's The Mother Tongue Program
Stefan Lindeque

This switching ability, she adds, ‘demonstrates flexibility in thinking and it becomes more frequent as children grow. As the vocabulary stock expands, the cognitive skills become stronger.’

Yet another school celebrating the linguistic diversity of its students is the IB curriculum-based GEMS World Academy (GWA) in Dubai which has, for the first time, introduced 13 mother tongue languages for its students at the start of this academic year.

‘The importance of learning and speaking multiple languages cannot be underestimated,’ says Micheline Chaia, director — language institute at GWA. ‘In a globally transient world, it is imperative that we retain our cultural identity, language being critical in this area. It is an important part of developing critical thinking skills which can be utilised in wider application. Various studies have also shown that multilingual individuals perform better on tasks that require attention, planning, short-term memory and problem-solving skills.’

Learning two languages paves the way for gaining proficiency in other languages, she adds. ‘For example, if you are learning Italian, then French and Spanish become much easier to learn. The mental dexterity that is required in learning and thinking in multiple languages continues to develop the brain.’

Learning of one’s native tongue impacts not just the children but extends to their families and the community as well, asserts James, who has seen parents get emotional on describing the joy of hearing their kids speak in their native tongues. ‘Children can make the transition between two cultures – that of the resident country and the place of their origin – with greater ease, and seamlessly find a footing in both the cultures,’ he says. ‘It brings families closer as parents can connect children to their shared past; while familial bonds with relatives in the home country are strengthened owing to the ability to converse in the same language. Parents also take pride that the traditions of their respective cultures are perpetuated through the use of their language. For children, this strong sense of identity can mould them into more self-confident, resilient, and aspirational adults.’

'Our goal is to encourage children to become active, compassionate, lifelong learners,' says James Lynch
Stefan Lindeque

As a school that has made wise use of its resources on establishing a strong mother tongue programme for more than a decade now, Dubai International Academy is also committed to empowering its students for a lifetime of learning. According to Lynch, ‘Our goal is to encourage children to become active, compassionate, lifelong learners. Our Mother Tongue Program teachers share the language and culture of the children and are skilled at making the lessons enjoyable and when children enjoy this process, they blossom.’

Class sizes for the language programmes are deliberately kept small at both DIA and GWA to enable children to establish stronger ties with their peer group from different classes through the medium of the shared language. ‘All our language programmes are adapted based on the curriculum pertaining to the respective country so that if children, for some reason, have to return to their home country, it takes the pressure off families of having to cope with the language course,’ says Lynch. ‘We also introduce elements of geography, history and traditions in the language class to recreate the feeling of learning the language as if they were in their home country.’

With sufficient classroom strategies in place, children should ideally be exposed to learning two languages in their early years, although language milestones could occur slightly later, opines Mayssoun Jaber. ‘The mother tongue should not be suppressed during the process of learning. It is important that children do not lose their oral and written language proficiency in their home language as it is essential to maintain the sense of their culture.’

In the classroom too, the use of home language should not be prohibited, she advises. ‘Students should be permitted to use the home language while interacting with peers, and while discussing the lesson with their language buddies.’

Ultimately, decoding the words on a page is not what constitutes literacy. A child should derive meaning from it which can happen only in a language that is understood. When children are thrust into studying a new language curriculum quite abruptly, some kids may present with selective mutism – an anxiety-based disorder where a young person or child is reluctant to speak in certain situations, says Dr. Adrian Harrison, psychologist at kidsFIRST Medical Center. ‘This can be because the child is afraid of making a mistake in speech in their new language school and so, they prefer to remain quiet.’

To create a smooth and successful transition between home and school, parents are advised to clearly explain why the child is being taught in a different language
Stefan Lindeque

To create a smooth and successful transition between home and school — especially when the mode of instruction is not in the native tongue, Dr. Harrison advises parents to clearly explain why the child is being taught in a different language. ‘Provide for additional tuition as deemed appropriate, identify a support network of friends for the child, and ensure that there are opportunities for the child to participate in social activities in his/her mother tongue. In addition, there should be trained and experienced staff knowledgeable about working with bilingual children in schools.’

Learning to read any language requires a range of complex skills, and language is more than just a cognitive tool, believes Jaber. ‘It is a way of communicating thoughts, emotions and needs whether verbally or in writing. These thoughts are communicated through a system and used by a community, using a variety of languages. Those languages are more than just sounds, semantics and sentences; they reflect culture, heritage and identity. We have to therefore encourage children to use the language they are most comfortable with.’

Echoing a similar thought is Micheline Chaia of GWA who believes that preservation and understanding of one’s mother tongue is critical to give children a sense of pride in their heritage and identity. ‘Languages are also learnt in a cultural context rather than a vacuum, so the development of culture comes naturally in language education.’

One of the oft-cited reasons why children miss out on learning the mother tongue at home is because many parents mistakenly believe their children should be spoken to in the language of instruction followed by the school. There are several others who also believe that English, because it is widely regarded as being ‘global’, is the language children should first gain fluency in. However, says Chaia, having a solid foundation in one’s first language is extremely important, and parents have a vital role in developing and maintaining this.

She therefore advises parents to speak their native language with their children at home. ‘Practice is vital to language acquisition,’ says Chaia. ‘In a city like Dubai, it may be easier to speak English but any opportunity to speak in the mother tongue should be actively encouraged.’

A language programme merged into the formal school curriculum tends to become part of a child’s educational journey
Stefan Lindeque

Perhaps the greatest benefit of having a language programme merged into the formal school curriculum, and not studied in isolation or as an optional subject after school hours, is that it tends to become part of the child’s educational journey, believes Lynch. ‘At DIA, we have three hours of mother tongue language programme every week. We support it with extra-curricular activities in the form of music, dance, storytelling, art and craft, and special assemblies centred on festivals or traditions of various nationalities to link and strengthen the knowledge gained in the classroom.’

The programme has been a great success, he says, adding that the inclusion of new languages based on the needs of the students is an ongoing process. ‘The Mother Tongue Program has had a ripple effect across the school and the parent community, bringing parents and the student community together in greater team spirit. The opportunity it provides to understand more than one culture or celebrate more than one set of traditions not only instills pride in their identities but is also empowering our students to become global citizens of the future.’

Perks of being bilingual

• In an increasingly globalised world, the ability to speak a second language has become a valuable asset as it throws open more opportunities for employment. In 2015, CNN Money had named bilingualism as the "hottest skill" for job seekers as employers seek candidates with language fluency to meet the demands of the modern business setting.

• According to Sanjeev Verma, Founder & Director of Intelligent Partners, an education consultancy in Dubai, ‘The need and importance of knowing a second language in today’s globalised world cannot be overemphasised. A second language increases your mobility between careers and geographical locations, arming you with a significant asset that differentiates you from the rest.’

• As businesses look to reach customers around the globe, having the requisite linguistic abilities of a specific geographical region or territory will certainly boost the prospects of an applicant. As majority of the population in various countries continue to remain comfortable in their own language and are hence monolingual, ‘imagine how your employability would soar if you could speak either Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, English or any other language or combinations of languages’, says Verma.

• Knowing another language will also mean understanding another culture resulting in better negotiations and decision making – all eventually increasing your employability, he adds. ‘Your counterparty will always be appreciative should you make the effort of knowing their language – another intangible benefit.’

• English is often considered as the dominant language both in trade and employability, and fluency in this language will always be an advantage for those who are not native English speakers, says Verma. ‘On the flip side, as English is not the first language in parts of the world such as Europe, Middle East, China, Russia, Japan and where all communication and correspondence continues to be in the local dialect, knowledge of a second language - other than English - will always help in business and trade.’