Reflections on two decades - Mother tongue education

Dear participants, guests, my colleagues, friends and comrades, welcome to “The treasure of languages-Conference on practical ways of improving mother tongue learning in homes, schools and leisure”. With commission of the board of the Móđurmál, I would like to welcome you to this educative and meaningful gathering.

I would like to express our feeling of gratitude and gladness to our special guest, Dr. Deirdre Kirwan, principal of Scoil Bhríde Cailíní, from Dublin, Ireland. Thank you for coming, Dr. Kirwan.

I would like also to thank to the board members of Móđurmál for providing us such a good opportunity for deepening our understanding of multi-linguistic education and developing our teaching skills, as well as the dedicating activities on the daily base. The association Móđurmál is a sort of “Mother organization” for mother-tongue education, and today 24 language groups are joining Móđumál. This is a really remarkable development, I would say. Many well educated people are now working in the Móđurmál and are trying to share their knowledge and educational skills to the other members, it´s a fantastic thing, isn’t is?

Móđurmál was officially organized and legally registered in 2001. I was one of the founders of Móđumál, but Móđurmál at that time was far different from what it is today. There were 5 language groups, English, Russian, Lithuanian, Polish and Japanese. We were also closely working with the Vietnamese group.

The mother-tongue education itself began to be organized around the year 1993 with the cooperation and support of the Reykjavik municipality.But the support of the city to the mother tongue education was to be stopped at the end of 2001, so we, founders, hurried to organize the association Móđurmál formally.Because we needed to apply for grunts here and there, but to do so there had to be a registered association.

I myself have been involved in the Japanese group, and our group will celebrate its 20th anniversary in the coming school year. I was there from the beginning, but I don’t remember well if it was the autumn of 1995 or the winter of 1996. I have two kids, and they were then 5 years old and 2 years old, and now they will be soon 25 and 22.They have already graduated from the Japanese mother-tongue group, and I am half-retired from the group, too. 

So two decades is surely some period of time. I have been involved in the Japanese group without interruption through those two decades, so I think it is my privilege that I can compare then and now.

There are many things that have changed, but some things have not. Some things were topics of the discussion twenty years ago, and they are still topics for discussion today. Some things were important and worth paying attention to twenty years ago, and are still so.

I would like to point out only three points to remind you of their importance. But they are not about the theory of multi-linguistic education or teaching skills. They are more about the role of a parent. I am not educated in the field of multi-linguistic education. I am just a father of two children, and that is where I have been standing so far. Please understand this beforehand.

The first point is whether the mother-tongue teaching belongs to home education or to school education. This is a classic discussion. This happened really in some mother-tongue teaching groups, but numbers of parents misunderstood that if they took kids to their mother-tongue teaching groups, then the group would take care of everything and the kids didn’t have to do any home study. It became clear in some cases that the parents did not use the mother tongue at home even in communicating with the child.

In the Japanese group there wasn’t such an extreme example, since we didn’t have any educated teacher in the beginning, and we parents had a kind of agreement that we ourselves would teach our children, so there was no clear border between the home study and the education in the group. Yet there has been a constant misunderstanding, as if the mother-tongue education could be completed at the mother-tongue group. Of course, our weekly education for a couple of hours cannot complete anything, but it is an aid to stimulate the mother-tongue teaching at home.

This point is really matter of course for those who used to teach children their mother tongue, but is not necessarily taken for granted for those who have just stepped into mother-tongue teaching. It also happens that even though the parents are aware of the importance of home study, as a fact, they have fallen into counting only on the mother-tongue group unconsciously.

The second point is misjudgment or exceeding decision by parents that multi-linguistic education is too much of a burden for their children. Surely it is work to educate our children our mother-tongue in a situation where the language is not a common language. But no education is easy to obtain generally and whatever the children are supposed to learn, they have to make an appropriate effort.

We need to consider three things in this kind of misjudgment. First, the capacity of a child in leaning is much bigger than we think usually. Very often, we misunderstand that what we cannot do is difficult for our children, too. But it’s not true. I am not good at dancing, I don’t even dare to dance, but my son dances very well. My daughter is now reading books in English that I would never take in my hands. “This must be a burden for my child”: parents should see thoroughly the condition of their child before they come to such a conclusion.

Secondly, the burden which parents recognize as a burden might not be the child’s, but it could be a burden for the parents themselves. We all know it’s a considerable task to teach our kids our mother-tongue. I know it’s an especially heavy task for a parent when the parent is new in this country and is learning Icelandic for himself. This is a wall. I cannot say any easy words about this wall. We need to go over it.

If I may tell from my experience, it’s difficult to learn Icelandic and it takes a long time usually for us, but the really hard time in learning Icelandic is not endless. It’s just a certain period. Meanwhile our child is growing every day and it cannot wait for us making free time. So for a certain period, we should decide to do both: learn Icelandic and teach our kid the mother-tongue. We have to do it, and we can do it.

Thirdly, it depends also on the priority of the education for our children if the mother-tongue learning becomes a burden for them or not. In Iceland, it’s common that children learn many things at the same time: Ballet, painting, piano, violin, swimming, football, karate and so on.

And I think it’s a positive thing to give them all sorts of possibilities. In Japan, we don’t do this, and I feel sorry for that. I never got any music lessons when I was a kid. One of my dreams is to play the saxophone, I wish I could have had the basic lessons for it when I was little.

Anyway, the point is, if mother-tongue learning is just one of those subjects or if it has higher priority among them. Of course we should respect our children’s wishes fairly, but at the same time we should be aware that our children are not really capable yet to choose what is important for them. We are supposed to help them. It’s the responsibility of us parents.

The third point that I want to remind you of its importance is how we work in this society. As I have mentioned before, I weigh very highly the importance of home study of our mother-tongue in our family life. But nevertheless the mother-tongue education is not only a private matter of immigrants in their home. It is at the same time a social matter of Iceland because the existence of bilingual or multilingual citizens profits the whole society.

Counting from twenty years ago, mother-tongue education was considered as a private matter of immigrants by the education authorities in Iceland, and also generally in the society. Things have gotten much better today, as it can be seen for example in that Móđurmál got the Social award of Fréttablađiđ last year. But I don’t think it still enough.

One of the particularities of this country is, in my opinion, that society doesn’t know one thing and that is “to cultivate”, to grow up something. Instead they want to get only the result, the harvest.

Last years, my children have got many requests to make some assistance in Icelandic business such as RÚV or Stöđ 2 because of their fluency in both Japanese and Icelandic. They wanted to use the ability of my kids when they needed it. But they never thought from where their ability came. They might have thought that it was enough to pay my kids a small pocket money, but I did not think it was enough.

When I think about this “opportunism” in Icelandic society in general, I get angry. If they want to use the ability of bilingual or multilingual citizens, they should support us more. I don’t think anyone can deny the benefit that this society will get from our children who can manage two or more languages. Look, to which direction this society is heading. Global business, tourism and multiculturalism, can Iceland stand without those?

Mother- tongue education is not only about the language, but also it is about our culture. That’s the different point about mother– tongue education from the Icelandic student’s learning foreign language in a college. The society should recognize better the importance of mother-tongue education and support it.
We need to continue to appeal for this.

I have mentioned three points, that were important twenty years ago, and are still important for us. The importance of home study, the importance of not to misjudge the capability of our children and the importance of getting better understanding in the society regarding mother- tongue education. I am aware that you know these things well already. My apology if you got bored. Nevertheless it is worth repeating, I think.

Lastly I want to add one word and I think this is my mission word for today. Again I repeat a thing you already know well. My mission word for today is: “Continue, and never give up”.

I remember when my first child, my son, was so small and he had not begun to speak words. I was talking to him in Japanese every day, and got no response from him. It was as if I was talking to a wall and I felt like I was a stupid man who was making effort for nothing. So I was so happy when he uttered a word in Japanese “murasaki”, that meant purple color when he saw purple flowers in our garden. Ever since I use only Japanese in talking with my son, and also with my daughter.

My daughter speaks even better Japanese than my son. Actually she speaks Japanese quite the same as ordinary Japanese people. But she has never lived in Japan. She has visited Japan only in summer vacations that are only three to four weeks at most. I want to boast of my children, but more than that, I want you to see my daughter as an example of what mother-tongue teaching can achieve, even without living in the home country.

Our mother-tongue teaching is the mutual work of parents, kids and surrounding people, like the association Móđurmál. With mutual help and encouragement, we can do it. So please “Continue”, and “Never give up”.

Thank you very much for your patience to listen to me, half retired man.
God bless you, your kids and Móđurmál.  

-Welcoming speech at the conference of Móđurmál “The treasure of languages” 
 at the Gerđuberg, 21st of August 2015- 


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