Several Dutch universities have embarked on a research project to better understand the impact of education on the country’s multilingual communities and their role in society, the Groninger Internet Courant reports.
A quarter of the population speaks a language other than Dutch at home, according to the University of Groningen which takes part in the study.
Yet this cultural and linguistic variety is poorly reflected in the country’s educational institutions, where Dutch is still the dominant language, the researchers point out. The new study entitled ‘Taal voor de Toekomst’ (Language for the Future) aims to explore these realities in order to come up with proposals to better capitalize on this valuable and untapped resource.
A recent survey by the CBS statistics bureau shows that no fewer than 149 languages and dialects are spoken in the Netherlands, all of them linked to various cultures.
However, instead of celebrating this diversity, the discourse surrounding multilingual students in the education system is frequently tinged with negativity with the languages spoken by migrants typically assigned a lower social status. That, in turn, has a detrimental effect on the students’ mental wellbeing and their motivation to learn, which can ultimately lead to a failure to function optimally in society.
The research institutions that teamed up to spearhead the Language for the Future project hope to bring about a shift in mentality by gradually integrating multilingualism into the educational system.
Two RUG researchers, Merel Keijzer and Joana Duarte, who are actively participating in the study, emphasize the importance of multilingualism as one the strengths of the Netherlands. Keijzer is Professor of English Linguistics and English as a Second Language and head of the Bilingualism and Aging Lab, which explores multilingualism across the lifespan. “It is time we started paying serious consideration to the potential of language as a conveyor of diversity and identity,” Keijzer says. “I think that in the Netherlands we’re failing to appreciate just how much knowledge is out there.”
Joana Duarte is Associate Professor within the Minorities and Multilingualism/Frisian department, as well as a lecturer in Multilingualism and Literacy at the NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences. She is also professor by special appointment of Global Citizenship and Bilingual Education at the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “We sometimes refer to inequality of opportunity as the multi-headed monster,” she says. “It’s impossible to identify a single problem area and just tackle that. It’s an issue that is interwoven with so many different layers and facets of the overall way national educational system.”
Both the researchers view multilingualism as an opportunity that is not being exploited to its full advantage. RUG researchers are already studying various forms of multilingualism, including the link between multilingualism and cognition. speaking a number of languages places certain demands on a person’s cognitive abilities, Keijzer explains. “People who do so regularly experience certain benefits,” she says. Multilingualism, for instance, can have a beneficial impact on memory and has even been linked to a delay in the onset of dementia, researchers point out.