BLOG: Challenges in immigrant education and integration
"Mummy, I'm not made of chocolate", said my indignant firstborn 25 years ago. We had been called to his kindergarten to pick him up early as 'something' had happened. The something was that the kids had been licking him thinking he was made of chocolate! He stood there with a disgusted expression on his face with arms outstretched while the personnel explained what had happened. Our son sat in the car with his arms still stretched until we put him in a bath on our return home! Cute tale - I can almost see people smiling on reading this.
But, as a first generation parent, who had birthed a second generation child and 'sentenced' him to such an identity in my 'adopted' country - The Faroe Islands, far from South Indian shores, I was in a dilemma.
We were parents who were keen on retaining our respective L1 in our communication with our first-born, who then would have Faroese as his L3 and Danish as L4. Little did we know that our lives were going to be complicated! Our son learnt Tamil & English through speaking to us and learnt Faroese from his kindergarten. When he began in primary school, it was clear that he lacked vocabulary in Faroese to communicate comfortably and coupled with the problems his chronic ear problems posed, we were advised to drop one of our L1s. Tamil was dropped, and we thought he would now cope better. However, more was to come - bullying from grade 4 made his life a misery, and by grade 9, his faith in school was gone.
The challenges of education for a second-generation immigrant were far greater than we had naively imagined. As parents, we were flummoxed by the sheer inability of the school or the municipality to help. When we spoke to the school principal, he suggested we solve the bullying problem outside the school! As for Faroese, our son was given a few extra classes, and it soon became clear that language issues were not the only problem. Bullying by a teacher saw me having to confront school authorities and threatening to go to the newspapers before action was taken.
The sheer unpreparedness of school and staff to include second generation immigrant children and child immigrants, who were few in number in the 90ies is one thing, so what is the situation today? There are many more second generation immigrants and child immigrants. There is the same provision for them to have extra Faroese classes as 25 years ago, but as teachers point out, this means they are taken out of other classes, and this only compounds the problem further. The extra hours allocated for a child could vary from 9 hours to 30 hours in an academic year! Anyone can gauge how much effective language learning takes place in the given hours!
The biggest challenge is the discourse when immigration and learning Faroese are discussed in public forums and official policy-making circles - a monolinguist policy and a near xenophobic fear of the influence of other languages on Faroese. There is a simplistic attitude, which sees second-generation immigrant children and child immigrants as automatically being able learn Faroese as native speakers. This lack of understanding of the role of language, and the complexity of relationships that are built around identity and language usage in the consciousness of individuals find no mention.
This attitude of assimilation means that teaching Faroese to non-native speakers of the language is not a concept that has found a foothold. As recently as March 2020 only, has a project leader been appointed to explore preparing pre- and in-service teachers to teach Faroese as a second language - I have a quarrel with this term. For most of these children Faroese is L3 and for some, it is L 4 even! I would define it as teaching Faroese to speakers of other languages.
It is my contention that in not having a clear language policy for teaching Faroese to second-generation immigrant children, child immigrants and adult immigrants, the authorities have created barriers for education and integration. This is detrimental to both individuals and the society at large. I am fully aware and fully support that all immigrants to a country should learn the local language, but not without taking into consideration their L1 and culture, which are inextricable parts of an individual's core identity.
The complexity of different kinds of immigrants - first generation, second generation, child immigrants and the significance of their backgrounds in language learning are all areas that have not been explored in our society by policy makers. In the absence of a clear integration policy, there are too many loose ends.
I hope to give further insight into the issues raised in this blog in subsequent ones.
Faculty of Education
The University of the Faroe Islands