ISSN 2330-717X

Building Bridges On The Tower Of Babel

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In Basque, all you have to do is look at the verb to see whether the sentence has a direct object. Why not take advantage of this knowledge to learn the syntax of Spanish? If we already know how to form conditional sentences in Basque and in Spanish, why do we start from scratch when we have to learn the same thing in English?

The DREAM group (Donostia Research group on Education And Multilingualism) is seeking to revolutionise this educational trend that is widespread and erroneous in equal measure. According to these researchers of the Faculty of Philosophy and Education of the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), the key is to be found in synergy: by taking advantage of the features that languages share in order to educate truly multilingual students in schools.

“We are looking at how to design a special programme to intensify links between languages and assess their effectiveness,” explains Durk Gorter, an Ikerbasque researcher and the group’s co-ordinator.

The research carried out by DREAM on this subject has been warmly welcomed worldwide. One of the most recent examples demonstrating this is the contribution by Gorter himself and Prof. Jasone Cenoz to The Modern Language Journal, a prestigious American publication, in the autumn of 2011. In a monograph issue devoted to multilingual education, they were the architects of the introduction as well as of an article on writing skills in Basque, Spanish and English. And their way of working is in fact underpinned by the philosophy think globally, act locally.

“We studied the data in the BAC (Basque Autonomous Community), which is a wonderful laboratory for multilingual education and very interesting in this respect. But in any case our projection is, above all, international. Our aim is to detect the phenomena that take place here and compare them with the research done in other places and spread them internationally,” says the researcher.

Switching on metalinguistic awareness

Bilingual people find it easier to learn a third language. At DREAM they are focusing on metalinguistic awareness. In fact, what they are doing in this research is to prepare the way for designing a programme that can be used for switching on this awareness in order to make the most of it.

“We are studying what happens if we take the languages in our education system (Basque, Spanish, English and French) out of their watertight compartments. In other words, if the students use the languages they already master as the basis to help them to learn other languages. In theory, and if we take into consideration other previous research, the results ought to be very good, but we want to put this into practice,” says Gorter.

This research group defends the idea that it is possible to build bridges between any language types. And not just between Spanish and French, German and Dutch or other languages that appear similar. What matters here is not the appearance but the essence: “In our society, people often think that Basque languages cannot be used for this because it is totally different. But the key is often on a conceptual level. Many things have nothing to do with linguistic distance. They go deeper.” The researcher speaks of language resources: “It is possible to use what the student already knows in order to use other languages better.”

This project still has a long way to go. The first experimental tests have already been conducted: surveys, observations, interviews, etc. “For example, we have run tests using different languages in a very specific way. We have seen what happens if we present certain stimuli or questions in different languages simultaneously, and if we ask the students to produce something in all these languages,” explains Gorter. In any case, they want to gather more experiences and carry out a full intervention in a school. To do this, they are now working on a “bigger” project.

Several paths towards a single aim

And beyond this initiative the members of DREAM have many tasks ahead of them. They are working on all aspects of multilingual education, on languages in schools, because it is a multidisciplinary group. Cenoz and Gorter are specialists in minority languages and multicultural education, but they are working with colleagues who are studying the sphere of multiculturalism and the languages of immigrant students (Felix Etxeberria), statistics and assessment (Juan Etxeberria), family and school advisory services (Juana Maria Maganto), and teaching and school organisation (Xabier Etxague). Jokin Aiestaran, Eli Arozena, Irune Ibarra, Garbiñe Bereziartua and Beñat Muguruza are part of the team, too. Together, they are not only doing research, they are also training people (they are organising the European Master’s in Multilingualism and Education) and are spreading the results they are obtaining (through summer courses, reports, etc.).

All these tasks are aiming to make a major contribution: “Think about how much is invested in learning languages, how much the teachers and students work, how many courses are organised to achieve this… If we have the chance to build some bridges and to see how this learning can be done more efficiently, if that way we can achieve greater quality with respect to multilingualism, then that is good for everyone.”

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