Minority children poor at reading, study reveals

A lack of support in their mother-tongue language has led to substandard reading abilities among the children of immigrants, critics argue

August 19th, 2011 10:24 am| by admin

The reading capabilities of second-generation immigrants falls well below the average standard of reading in Copenhagen a study published this week reveals.

The 2010 PISA report into reading standards of 15-year-olds – carried out by the Danish Institute of Governmental Research (AKF) – has shown that 46 percent of children of born to immigrants, defined in the study as 'second-generation immigrants', do not have functional reading capabilities.

While this is an improvement on 2004 (51 percent) and 2007 (47 percent), the average rate in Copenhagen is a much lower 24 percent.

Many experts point to the government’s 2002 decision to end state supported supplementary teaching of Danish to children in their mother tongue as hurting their reading abilities.

“We know from international studies that mother-tongue education has a documented effect on reading capabilities,” Anna Holmen, from Copenhagen University, told Politiken newspaper.

And Christian Horst, from the Danish School of Education, explained that teaching children in their mother tongue is essential for their ability to learn other languages.

“If they are not taught Danish in their mother tongue, they find it more difficult to use Danish as a tool for learning. They might learn how to speak the right local accent and everyday language. But it’s not enough,” he said.

The criticisms that were initially levelled against the government's 2001 decision to remove state supported mother-tongue education have persisted ever since, with the topic recurring in the news almost every year.

In 2007, Pernille Vigsø Bagge, of the Socialist People’s Party, argued that the funding for mother-tongue education should be provided by the state, and not come out of the pocket of individual councils as is now the case.

“Councils with bilingual children should be obligated – and provided with extra funding on top of their ordinary grants – to provide mother tongue teaching because it is a huge problem for society if we don’t lift these bilingual students,” Bagge said.

While the Social Democrats also supported the idea, state funded mother tongue education has not been reinstated despite repeated calls from the European Union to support such measures.

“It’s of great consequence to immigrant children’s understanding of their cultural background and self confidence that they master the language of origin which can also benefit them in their future employment opportunities,” according to a 2008 European Commission report.

The commission made a similar call in 2005, but the government has repeatedly responded that it is not the role of the state to teach children in their parents’ mother tongue. 

“The government has removed the obligation because we believe there are other elements that are more important to integration than teaching second or third generation immigrants in their mother tongues,” said former immigration minister Rikke Hvilshøj in 2005 to Berlingske newspaper. 

“There needs to be a focus on Danish and succeeding in primary school,” she added.

And Jesper Langballe from the Danish People’s Party told the paper that “one’s mother tongue – as it the term itself says – should be learned from one’s mother.”

The Conservatives echoed the same sentiment in 2007: “It’s up to the parents to ensure extra lessons in their mother tongue,” Charlotte Dyremose said.

While reading standards for children in the 'second-generation immigrant' category have slightly improved since 2004, they still fall well below the standard of white Danes and have led to calls for action.

“The decision to remove mother tongue education was a massive own goal for Danish society,” integration consultant Allan Hjorth from Connectingminds told TV2 News last October.

“If they don’t learn their mother-tongue they can’t learn Danish properly. And if they don’t learn Danish properly, then they can't help but be bad in other academic subjects.”

But should the state choose the fund mother-tongue education again, it may still face some problems.

A 2001 cross-county study revealed that many schools had difficulty finding qualified individuals to teach Danish to children in their mother-tongues.

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