Multilingualism in Brussels 'key to success of children'

Multilingualism in Brussels 'key to success of children'
Credit: Belga

Improving student engagement with languages in schools will play a key role in the success of multilingualism in Brussels, as well as the future of its children, says the region's Multingualism Minister Sven Gatz.

On 25 September, the second edition of Brussels' Day of Multilingualism, optimising linguistic diversity in education is at the centre of the debate in the region, which plans to mobilise as many sectors as possible to support multilingualism.

"Since this day last year, the Council for Multilingualism worked to create a vision of languages in Brussels' schools and now has a roadmap with a pedagogical plan detailing how multilingualism can be approached in schools," Gatz told The Brussels Times.

Gatz explained the desire among parents for a concrete plan for multilingualism in schools and affirmed its necessity for the future success of children in the region.

Apprehension of 'the other language'

One barrier pupils feel to committing to becoming fluent in both the region's languages – Dutch and French – was the belief that this is unnecessary, a sentiment particularly clear among pupils in French-speaking schools.

"For a long time, French-speaking children saw learning Dutch as a necessary evil. Even now, the general opinion towards the Dutch language in many schools is not very positive," Gatz said.

But, he added, "multilingualism, in general, is more important now than it ever was before, and I think we must make it clear to young people that knowing these basic languages is important to get further in life."

Although most French-speaking students can get by just speaking French in Brussels, most jobs, both in Flanders but also in the capital region, require applicants to have a solid knowledge of both languages.

"Teaching children multiple languages is like giving them a longer stick in pole vaulting, so they can jump higher and further in life," Gatz said.

He added that, in general, there seems to be more of a linguistic sensitivity among young Brussels residents, and hopes that younger generations become more positive towards multilingualism.

"I believe this narrative of negativity towards the other language can only really be turned around with more and better language teachers, preferably ones who are native speakers," he said.

Steps towards a multilingual future

For Gatz, a more proficient exchange system for native language teachers between French- and Dutch-speaking schools is key. This had been put in place but was put on hold due to the coronavirus crisis.

However, he stressed that such a measure cannot be immediately implemented in all schools, in part due to the shortage of teachers which he fears will make schools protective of staff and refuse to exchange the teachers they are able to hire.

"I'm not looking to change the world in one day. Instead, we should be setting up the system in some schools as an example, and then implement it on a wider scale. But for that, I need help from the two education ministers (Caroline Désire and Ben Weyts)," he said.

Another measure to promote multilingualism in schools is immersion education, a system in which certain academic subjects are taught in target languages –Dutch and French in the case of Brussels.

Currently, between 10 and 13% of all French-speaking schools use this system, whilst in Dutch-speaking secondary schools, the relevant legislation allows for just five teaching hours to be dedicated to teaching subjects such as history in geography in other languages.

"We would like to see more flexibility in the legislation, certainly from the Dutch-speaking education stakeholders," Gatz said.

Looking ahead to next year's Day of Multilingualism, Gatz aims to work with companies to see what role they can play in promoting multilingualism. This would focus on the economic aspect of multilingualism to better include all sectors and secure Brussels' international position.

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