Column: Anne Reath Warren and Hassan Sharif

Mother tongue instruction or Swedish? Pupils want both

Multicultural Sweden needs a substantial expansion in both mother tongue instruction and teaching of Swedish as a second language. It is not only school children’s language development but also affirmation of their identity and background that count, write researchers Anne Reath Warren and Hassan Sharif.

Mother tongue instruction is not only about children’s language development, but also their right to be who they are, and confirmation that what they bring with them from home is recognised as valuable at school.

“My mother tongue, for me, is the culture I grew up with – my parents,” says a pupil in Year 9, who is studying Kurdish, in Anne Reath Warren’s investigation of mother tongue instruction in compulsory school. Another pupil says she is studying Kurdish so that “I can feel more independent at school… I have a place at this school and a right to speak my own language too sometimes.”

Other pupils talk about the advantages of multilingualism in society.

“It’s better – I mean, the more languages you know, the more people you can communicate with,” says a pupil in Year 9 who is studying Turkish.

He says it is easier to get a job, for example as a police officer, if you know good Turkish: “Another language in Sweden is worth its weight in gold,” he explains.

Answering the question of how not being allowed to study one’s mother tongue at school would feel, a pupil in Year 8 who is studying Urdu said: “It would be a great shame, because now you have the chance to learn another language more thoroughly than you do by just talking it at home. You learn a lot more.”

The pupils in Hassan Sharif’s study of the Introduction to the Swedish Language programme at upper secondary school are well aware of the special position of Swedish at school and in society.

“You don’t become a real citizen here in Sweden if you don’t know Swedish well, so I want to learn good Swedish,” says a 19-year-old pupil.

There is no doubt among the pupils about the importance of the Swedish language for their chances of succeeding in higher studies, getting established and doing well in Sweden. For these young people, it is above all a matter of learning Swedish as a language of knowledge and instruction. But it is also about learning the language so that they can make themselves understood and forge friendship ties with their peers outside their own language community.

The pupils in our studies and we, the researchers, agree on the benefits of multilingualism for identity and knowledge development. Nevertheless, there are politicians today who want to abolish mother tongue instruction and the subject of Swedish as a second language in schools.

What multilingual, multicultural Sweden needs is not abolition but a major expansion of mother tongue instruction and Swedish as a second language. Moreover, courses on multilingual development and how it relates to knowledge development should form part of all teacher training and in-service training of professional teachers, since every teacher has multilingual pupils to teach. Good subject knowledge is based on good language skills, and together they build a strong, inclusive Sweden.

Anne Reath Warren, researcher in education specialising in multilingualism and recently arrived students’ learning, and Hassan Sharif, senior lecturer in child and youth studies specialising in recently arrived students’ learning, at the Department of Education.