Keep the languages alive: Community languages in the classroom

Did you know that in London alone, a staggering 300 languages are now spoken? If recent news stories are anything to go by, figures look set to increase too; in one Birmingham primary school a total of 31 languages are spoken! Several of these are community languages.

What is a community language?

The term ‘community language’ refers to ‘all languages in use in a society, other than the dominant, official or national language’ (McPake et al., 2007). It does not refer to any particular language or group of languages, but to the context in which the language occurs.

Why are community languages important?

In 2001, UNESCO adopted the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. This included an action plan which recommended the learning of several languages from an early age for reasons including ‘safeguarding the world’s linguistic heritage and ensuring that traditional knowledge is preserved’, to ‘ensuring that everyone can benefit from information and communication technologies and can participate in social, cultural and democratic activities.’

Government statistics show almost 15 per cent of UK primary school pupils and more than 10 per cent of secondary school students speak a first language other than English. In fact five years ago, Ofsted said that community languages should have the same status as French, German and Spanish in schools!

Community languages in Britain: case and point for Urdu
Developed from Persian, Arabic and Turkish, Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and the most widely spoken community language in Britain. Britain’s Pakistani community is one of the oldest and largest outside of Pakistan, with more than 1.2 million British Pakistanis living here today.

How hard is it to learn?

Amazingly, modern Urdu has taken almost 900 years to develop to its present form! Although Urdu grammar, word construction and sentence structure are very systematic, the language presents some challenges; Urdu uses formal and informal verb forms, each noun has a gender and pronunciation is not always regular. Interestingly though, learning Urdu makes it far easier to speak and understand Hindi – on a day-to-day functional level, spoken Urdu and Hindi are almost identical!

How can teachers introduce Urdu in the classroom?

Try playing Urdu music and using native audio files to help students become attuned to the sound of the language and refine their pronunciation.

Make the most of Urdu speaking students and provide opportunities for collaborative learning/peer mentoring. This develops relationships between pupils and gives those fluent in Urdu a chance to share more about their culture. Perhaps dedicate a language lesson to community languages, asking students to bring in food and music from the different countries which speak community languages. You could even ask the language speakers amongst the class to put a short presentation together on why they think having a second language is important to encourage their peers!

With students spending the vast majority of their free time logged on to the net, online vocabulary tools such as Vocab Express allow students the opportunity to practice their vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation skills in the comfort of their own homes.

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