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As a language teacher, I find it incredibly interesting that two people from two separate and distinct cultures can experience the same thing and it will mean both the same and different things to each of them. Take a sign that we are seeing increasing more often in the world:
Even with no written text, we all understand this sign and the connotation it has. We understand the context. One year ago if we saw this sign, it would have a very different meaning, as it would be in a very different context. So the question here could be, how do we make meaning? You will have seen the word ‘context’ twice in this paragraph and that is one of the most important factors when we try to make meaning. Context is one form of input needed to make meaning of something. Another factor we need to make meaning is language. With this example, even without a shared language, we would understand what our social and cultural obligation is: Wear a mask. What our language enables us to do, is to understand the non-verbal command, ‘wear’ and what we must wear, ‘a mask’. It doesn’t matter what our home language is, the message is the same. We have made meaning of the sign.
Now the question arises; ‘You are an EAL teacher, why are you talking about wearing masks?’ Good question. I am going to slightly alter the question from ‘EAL teacher’ to ‘language teacher’. I see language as being functional. By that I mean, it serves and has a purpose. This point of view centres on the notion that language is a resource for making meaning (Halliday, 1975). The idea is that from the very beginning of learning a first language, children are ‘learning how to mean’ and that this act of meaning-making is social and is shaped by the cultural and social context. A young child is more likely to learn the language for eating, drinking and playing than for how to compose a text about the effects of globalisation on local economies. That is their context and the language is their resource for making meaning.
A few weeks ago, I was part of an EAL workshop for parents, and we looked at the factors needed to help develop a child’s English. Below is what we saw and then we looked at what factors are ‘being affected:
The two that we agreed aren't being affected are ‘age and ‘first language development’. I do find this rather comforting. I would suggest that with things the way they are, our children are more likely to be building and developing their first, or home language, more than ever. They are being exposed to their home language more than they would usually be and building the key vocabulary and cultural aspects that they may miss out on by being in Brazil and attending an English speaking school. As parents, we are talking to our children more about their learning and taking a larger role in it and this happens mostly in our home langage. The benefits of this will have long lasting effects. We are developing our children’s ability to make meaning in their home language which they will be able to transfer to English (and other languages) in the future. The home language is such an important part of developing not only other languages but also establishing culture, identity and making meanings of our situation. I like to use the following analogy; think of the stress inducing game of Jenga.
Our first language is the secure base on which we can continue to build the tower (language) up. Yes it might wobble and can be stressful when adding and rebuilding it, but ultimately it is enjoyable, as long as we have the solid base to build on. If you have ever played the game, there is always that one person who will take pieces from the bottom, which always leads to a shorter game, due to the less stable base. Leave the base alone! The base (the home language) is so important for later building.
Here I will give a piece of advice as to how to further develop both the home language and English:
Step 1. Read the task in English.
Step 2. Talk about the instructions in your home language.
Step 3. Discuss the task and any new vocabulary in your home language. Don’t be afraid of using Google Translate or similar to help.
Step 4. Ask your child to complete the assignment in English.
This code switching between languages is good for cognitive development and shows an understanding of the concepts, or helps us to make meaning of the concepts being studied.
In our current context, it is important to focus on the positives that we do have, and I believe that the opportunity to further develop the home language of our children is one of the biggest positives. Improving the home language will lead to them being better able to make meaning of their own context and lead our children to being better equipped to make meanings in all the new contexts that they will encounter, now and in their future.