Mother-tongue teaching reintroduced in primary school

January 25th, 2013

This article is more than 11 years old.

Government trial will test whether teaching immigrant children in their mother tongue improves their Danish language skills, but the opposition questions the timing of the proposal

Bilingual primary school children will be offered teaching in their parent’s mother-tongue in a new 30 million kroner trial announced by the Education Ministry today.

The programme will apply to around 3,900 students in years one and four – six-year-olds and nine-year-olds – in the 200 schools where more than 10 percent of children speak another language at home.

According to the education minister, Christina Antorini (Socialdemokraterne), the programme is designed to test whether mother-tongue teaching raises the skill levels of students, particularly those with Arabic and Turkish backgrounds.

“We want to know more about what helps develop the language skills and knowledge of bilingual students,” Antorini said in a press release. “The trials will use and strengthen the tools that some schools and councils already have available today.”

The students’ progress will be monitored by researchers who will assess to what extent the mother-tongue teaching improved their language and mathematics skills, inclusion in class activities, motivation, achievement and self-esteem.

The need to raise the academic achievement of non-ethnic Danish children was revealed after the publication of the 2010 PISA report into the reading standards of 15-year-olds. It showed that 46 percent of Copenhagen children born to immigrants do not have functional reading capabilities, far higher than the city's average of 24 percent.

But before the programme has even started, politicians have questioned whether the program is a good use of resources. According to Alex Ahrendtsen (Dansk Folkeparti),  the problem faced by the children of immigrants is poor Danish skills.

“That’s why all the resources should instead be placed on acquiring Danish language skills before they arrive at school,” Ahrendtsen told Ritzau. “It’s sad that the Education Ministry’s only proposal to improve integration in primary schools is to keep the bilingual students in their own culture instead of trying to include them in the Danish culture.”

Mother-tongue teaching was a right for all primary school students until 2002 when the former centre-right government, led by Venstre and Konservative, made it a voluntary programme. Once it was no longer compulsory, councils slashed funding for it to such an extent that it almost disappeared.

The benefits of mother-tongue teaching are not conclusive and some research indicated that the current voluntary programme is mostly used by middle class immigrant families who have the least need for it.

The new trial is intended to gather data to see how effective mother-tongue teaching can be, but the government’s intentions are now being questioned because of the timing of the proposal. The government is currently drawing up a reform of the public school system, which has lead some politicians to accuse them of introducing mandatory mother-tongue teaching without involving parliament.

“[Antorini] is sneaking it in by the back door by masking it as a trial,” Konservative MP Mai Henriksen told Politiken, adding that the move will damage the reform negotiations. “It’s dishonest and it’s a real shame because what we need now are good negotiations. Teachers, students and the whole of Denmark needs this reform to be good.”

Even if the government’s trial does show that mother-tongue teaching is effective, Niels Egelund, an educational researcher at Aarhus University, questioned whether the government can roll the programme out nationwide.

“There are not enough qualified teachers who can provide mother-tongue teaching in Denmark,” Egelund told Berlingske newspaper. “In some schools with a high proportion of immigrants there are as many as 50 languages spoken by the students so it’s only the largest groups that will be offered the teaching. And that means giving some groups preferential treatment.”

Rune Hejlskov Schjerbeck, head of section at the Ministry for Education, responded to the criticism.

“We chose Arabic and Turkish because they are the two largest groups and so are most suitable for testing in the trial,” Schjerbeck told The Copenhagen Post. “The problems with these groups is that their academic achievement is much lower than the rest of the general population, so the trial will try and determine why this is and whether mother-tongue teaching can help.”

Schjerbeck added that while there were enough qualified teachers to cover the needs of the trial, there may be problems if it were rolled out across the country.

The trial will last until 2016 and the first results will be available in 2015.


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