Our Multilingual World: Multilingualism and Children

We do indeed live in a multilingual world. Walking down any city street, sitting on the bus, standing in a queue at the supermarket, it quickly becomes apparent that there are conversations going on the whole time in languages from around the world. Nor will this be confined to crowded cities – though not necessarily as visible, there will be families and communities where more than one language will be spoken; or it may be that a different ‘language’ is part of everyday life. Awareness, acceptance and the realisation that multilingualism is not a barrier is growing – but the misconceptions – the myths as David Crystal terms them, still exist, preventing real understanding – myths he challenges in his article. Theresa Scibor also challenges assumptions and preconceptions as she describes both growing up in a multilingual family and creating a multilingual family of her own. What emerges is that it is not an easy path and requires determination and discipline but the rewards are life-enhancing.

However, it remains true that we live in a monolingual society and our institutions – libraries among them – focus on that language. How can young readers and families see themselves and their languages? How can the fact they may communicate in different languages be something to celebrate – something that can help them access their own histories and to feel validated? Sadly for many of us the acquisition of another language may not be possible but the provision of books and materials in home languages is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Certainly the concept of the ‘bilingual’ text with publishers such as Mantra Lingua producing picture books in English and another language with the aim of providing wider access is familiar in this country. 

But it is very limited. It is exciting to learn about the vision of real multilingual libraries stocking books in myriad languages for communities to access. In 1991 the St Johann JUKIBU Library opened in Basel – though it wasn’t the first – and now serves a community representing 53 languages with English just one of them. The importance of such spaces and the access to such materials for children and their families is emphasised by Sabine Little who introduces the multilingual library that has been created in Sheffield and the philosophy behind The Lost Wor(l)ds project which aims to bring an understanding and recognition of the need for a multilingual practice in the schoolroom. As David Crystal points out – multilingualism enhances learning and achievement, it is not a barrier.

What if your ‘multilingualism’ is not verbal? As Leigh Turina reminds us young readers might have other needs. In her article introducing the IBBY Collection for Young People with Disabilities she draws attention to a wider definition of language as a means of communication. ‘Language’ includes spoken and signed languages and other forms of non-spoken ‘languages’. The material housed in Toronto reflects this and she illustrates her text with examples. These will have been gathered from across the world – they are not drawn from one culture or monolingual society – and the catalogues for the collection which are available online demonstrate this. There is nothing to be afraid of and the resources exist – every library and classroom has the potential to be multilingual.

Ferelith Hordon