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For as long as I can remember people (well English people at least) have been saying that to me. Pursing their lips and, to my mind, spluttering like fools trying to get me to comprehend the difference. I don’t. It all sounds the same to me and I’ve spent too many years trying to get my head (or ears) around how little sense certain aspects of English makes to even try anymore. I’ll usually just laugh it off, or if I’m feeling particularly sensitive that day, remark on how much of an improvement this is compared with how I used to speak – omitting articles (especially definite articles) left right and centre; dropping an ‘r’ in where it shouldn’t be and utterly failing to grasp the linguistic differences between certain words (there was a beech tree by my Grandmothers terrace; and she certainly wasn’t impressed when I would remark to all and sunder that she had a lovely ‘bitch’ in the garden).
The problems I faced as a child weren’t unique. I am the product of an English Mother and a Yugoslav Father; and although born in London, spent the formative years before my parents’ divorce being carted between Zagreb and Belgrade. Many of the phonetic sounds found in English and other Germanic languages just don’t exist in Serbian, and since Serbian was my day to day language – the language of school; my half siblings; games and most importantly the language of Jana (the woman who looked after me) – it was Serbian that I considered myself to be, and it was Serbian that I spoke. It wasn’t until I moved to London in the mid-90’s that English really began to make an impression. In an effort to Anglicise me my Mother not only divorced herself from my Father, but me from my language. Until then English had been something of an afterthought – a language I would greet my Mother with in the evenings or utilise if I wanted to watch an American TV show. But now, here I was aged six and a half (the half I remember was important) clutching Zeko (my stuffed rabbit) thousands of miles from home and wondering where on earth I had ended up and what I had done to deserve it.
Zeko is the Serbian word for ‘bunny’] I remember the first few months being very difficult. No one would speak to me, or at least, no one would speak to be in Serbian. “You are English Alexander!” my Mother would say “And in England we speak English!”. The children at my new school wouldn’t play with me and laughed when I mixed my vowels up. Within a few months I’d decided that I didn’t want to be English and I would be leaving as soon as I could. Unfortunately, after smashing open Svinja (I was ever the imaginative child) I realised that a paltry £4. 56 plus дин714 didn’t equal a ticket home. Over time I found myself losing my first language. My Mother explains that it was a ‘necessity’, that if I had been left to my own devices I wouldn’t have been able to take full advantage of the educational opportunities offered that having a strong grasp of English has afforded me. Svinja is the Serbian word for ‘pig’. Thanks to that maternal assassin, I can now confidently say that (minus the [t]he’s) I have acquired English most effectively. Nonetheless, I am still unsure of exactly when or how it happened. I have a few theories however – one being that a comprehensive acquisition of the English language, has in my case, perhaps produced the phenomenon known as ‘replacive bilingualism’, whereby the first language is supplanted totally through the acquisition of a second. Sometimes I wonder if my Serbian is just locked away in my brain somewhere. Still, regardless of the methods, my English acquisition has certainly had a major impact on my learning and the kind of teacher that I want to be. As a learner, I experienced the concept of mechanical learning – learning through emersion, deletion and repetition. I believe it is paramount that, as teachers, we understand this concept. Our students may not always be aware of their own academic development (just as I was not aware of my English acquisition) therefore, it is vital for teachers to regularly make students aware of their progress. Taking note of successes and keeping students abreast can be both encouraging and comforting, often contributing not only to a better learning attitude, but also increasing motivation. Leading on from this however, I would still make sure that (in the case of EAL students) English was not supplanting the ethnic language. I believe that few among us comprehend what is really happening while children are learning a second language.
Quite the contrary in fact. With immigration numbers rising over the past several years, there has been an increased concern among government officials, educators and the media that these new arrivals are not assimilating into British society fast enough, with language acquisition being at the forefront of these concerns. We, as educators, must be certain that in teaching the children of immigrants we focus not only on English instruction but also on inclusion – whereby the native language plays as big a part in the learning as English. Only though such a process can we prevent the loss of a native language; something which may well result in a fractured sense of identity. The DfE expects schools and teachers to implement ‘effective strategies’ to assimilate immigrant children effectively into the system. But in what way should we interpret ‘effective’? The DfE’s key stage 1 and 2 framework states that “Teachers should plan teaching opportunities to help pupils develop their English”. But what of retaining and supporting their native language?
Language is the tool that we use to understand the world around us. Utilising a process of cultural interpretation (which occurs through language) an attempt is made understand the situations and events that are experienced, ultimately seeking to know how we ourselves fit into the society around us. Only through the diversity of language can we explain to ourselves and others the richness of cultural expression. It is the medium through which identity and culture intersect; and is also why the loss of a language is such a concern and why stronger measures should be taken by governments, and especially schools, to protect the minority language rights of immigrant students, because ultimately our language(s) disclose to ourselves and others both a historical and cultural connection, with the loss of a that first language oftentimes equalling a loss akin to that of a link to the past. Without such links pupils thrust into new societies might well one day lose their sense of purpose – “’Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go. ’ James Baldwin. ”
For many years the loss of Serbian, in a way undermined my sense of identity and belonging. True, with English becoming dominant I eventually become fully incorporated into my Mother’s culture (most who meet me fail to see anything other than English until they see my name) however I can’t help but feel that somewhere along the way I have lost a part of my heritage. The challenge that I have faced in recent years has been that melding and balancing my past with my present. I think in English, dream in English, speak it every day. I have very little knowledge of Serbian left to me. And although this does pain me, I have at least words to describe its loss. It may sound ironic that the words that I am using to describe this sense of loss are the same ones that contributed to my original tongues annihilation, however I am not the six-year-old boy who came here 23 years ago. Although I still have Zeko (he’s sitting next to me while I type this) I’ve grown up. And I have, much I am sure to my six-year-old selves dismay, come to love the English language – even with all its peculiar irregularities. It is the language of Shakespeare, of Shelley and Byron, Woolf and Hemmingway. It is the language of international communication, politics and trade. It is a language that I have grown to love and, regardless of how I got here – I’m glad that I understand it’s peculiarities and nuances as well as I do. It’s an odd language true; the language that will ambush unsuspecting languages on dark nights and riffle through their pockets for any loose vocabulary and grammar they might have – but it is one that I am proud to know and that I look forward to sharing and teaching in years to come.
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