2.4 Appreciating linguistic diversity in GCE

What kind of global citizens do we want our children to be? Unit 4 on Recognising diversity – towards inclusive, multingual practices in the classroom, advocates for a global citizenship that cherishes linguistic diversity, that is curious about other cultures and open towards minority perspectives. In this guideline we will briefly explain why we think it is so important to connect global citizenship, multilingualism and diversity.

Unit 4 was developed by Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning in Leeuwarden, capital of the Dutch province of Fryslân – in other words, at the heart of a living laboratory of multilingualism: approximately half of the population in Fryslân speak Frisian as their first language, and roughly half speak Dutch. While all Frisian-speakers also speak Dutch, the national language, most Dutch-speakers only understand Frisian, but do not speak it (well).

In short, Frisian functions in society as a regional minority language, to different extents comparable to Welsh in Wales, Berber in Morocco, Quechua in Peru or Tibetan in China, to name just a few of thousands of possible examples. Typically a regional minority language is spoken by a minority of the population in a given country, so it is not the dominant, national language of the country, and it has a lower level of governmental protection and social prestige.1

Melting pots

Another layer of linguistic diversity includes communities of migrants who – either for work or family reunion or because they seek refuge for political violence, persecution or natural disasters – moved to a new home country. The (minority) language they spoke in their country of origin is part of the cultural heritage they carry with them into their new home country. Especially larger cities, but increasingly also rural areas – in Fryslân as well – are thus becoming melting pots of linguistic diversity, also in school.

As migration and other aspects of globalisation influence our societies more and more – think about the impact of climate change, new technologies or the growth of multinational companies – it is only logical that global citizenship education (GCE) is included in the curricula of more and more primary and secondary schools.

While GCE aims at fostering a sense of global citizenship, since its inception as a field of academic study and as an educational practice, it has been dominated by scholars and educators from the Anglosaxon world (Parmenter 2011). Although this dominance has been challenged by scholars from the Global South, English still functions as the lingua franca in GCE.

Neoliberal approach

Within a specific, narrow interpretation of global citizenship education commonly referred to as the neoliberal approach, this dominance of English is very much accepted and even being promoted. According to this approach, global citizens are those who are best equipped to benefit from and be successful in today’s globalised world economy. In the neoliberal framework of GCE, speaking other languages and being able to communicate across cultural boundaries is seen as instrumental to this individual success. It is no wonder then that English, being the language of global business and science, is considered to be the most important linguistic asset of a global citizen (Heller 2010, Marshall 2011).

When this neoliberal approach is adopted, GCE tends to reinforce preconceptions that students already have about what it means to be a proper global citizen. For example, some studies found that students typically consider fluency in English to be a prerequisite for being a truly global citizen. The higher their proficiency in English, the more easily they identify as global citizens (Cavanagh 2020, Parmenter 2011).

This means that students tend to subconsciously award greater authority to people who have English as their first language than to others to determine what a proper global citizen should be like. This is a pity because there is no reason why speakers of other languages would not make equally valuable contributions to humanity’s thinking about global ethics, ecology, power dynamics, diversity and inclusiveness or any other topic related to global citizenship – they do, but their voices are rarely heard in the Western world.

As apposed to this neoliberal, English-centred approach , we have tried to paint a different picture of global citizenship in Unit 4, one in which there is a place for smaller languages as well, be it regional or migrant minority languages. After all, dealing with diversity is very much considered part of GCE, and we believe that should include diversity of languages as well.

Teachers and students deserve a positive image of themselves as global citizens, whatever languages they speak. Their learning outcomes will benefit from it too: actively using students’ linguistic repertoires in class not only results in higher self-esteem (Lee and Oxelsen 2006) and a greater sense of belonging (McGlynn-Stewart et al. 2018; Van Der Wildt et al. 2017), but also in greater cognitive development (Bialystok 2017; McTiernan et al. 2020).

Kwame Appiah

For our unit we took our inspiration from philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s work on cosmopolitanist ethics – basically, the idea that all human beings are, on a basic level, part of a single world community. That is not to say however that Appiah believes in a large set of universalist norms and values that all people do or should embrace. On the contrary, Appiah’s cosmopolitanism is all about sincere curiosity about cultures, norms, values and ways of life that are different from your own. Cosmopolitans, or in our terms, global citizens, make serious efforts to understand the other, and they cherish the great diversity of human societies.

In our unit, we intended to apply Appiah’s ideas on diversity to languages. We did so not only by including exercises about minority languages and ways of protecting and promoting them, but also by encouraging you as a teacher (educator) to use the full linguistic potential of all your students in class: by translanguaging, as we call it – actively using different languages in class – students (and their parents, too) experience that their linguistic backgrounds are being valued and made productive in class, thus contributing to positive attitudes both towards their own and their peers’ languages.

We hope that you will be inspired to see how smaller languages – be it regional or migrant languages – are part of the world’s linguistic diversity and deserve every global citizen’s sincere attention and curiosity. ‘Think globally, act locally’, it is often said. For students and teachers alike, thinking globally about linguistic diversity means acting locally by sharing our own language(s) with others and learning new ones along the way as we keep enriching our global citizenship. Join us on this journey!

1 For the sake of clarity, we can stick to this given definition, but one could think of in-between examples that do not tick all these boxes. For example: Irish is spoken by a small minority of the people of Ireland, yet it is the national and first official language of Ireland.