Sarah Campbell (Team Sweden) interviewed two trainee teachers at Uppsala University about working with plurilingual pupils in school. The interview was done in Swedish, below you can find a summary in English.
Sarah: Can you tell us a little bit about where you are at with your studies and what kind of practical experience you have of teaching and so on?
Elsa I’m in my first semester of teacher training for classes 4-6. Before starting my teacher training I worked in schools for two years, mainly in upper secondary, and mainly with Swedish as a Second Language classes.
Evelina And I’m also in my first semester, like Elsa, but I haven’t worked in schools at all yet, but I realized that was something I’d like to do.
I first met Evelina and Elsa when I happened to be privy to a really fascinating and inspiring discussion they were having together about working with plurilingual children and their families, so I asked them a bit about that, but first I was interested in their own languages and languaging…
Evelina I have Swedish as my mother tongue, and I can speak fluent English. Then my partner is from Kurdistan, so we speak a lot of Kurdish at home.
Elsa I speak Swedish and English fluently, and I can also speak Norwegian, and I’ve tried to learn a bit of Arabic and Dari, but I’ve kind of lost that now that I’m not working with my pupils. I haven’t got very far with it. It was because of them that I was trying to learn the language – I didn’t take any course or anything, rather I was learning from my pupils.
If we think a bit now about the experiences you’ve had (both positive and challenging) with regard to plurilingual children, both on the teacher training programme, and out in schools, how has it been for you? What kinds of situations have you found yourself in, what did you do in those situations?
Elsa The first time I was working in school was in 2015, when the refugee crisis came, and at that time we had so many pupils who didn’t speak Swedish that they had a separate class of their own – a ‘preparation class’, which I thought worked relatively well. But the problem was that it became very segregated, and it was, a bit like our lecturer also mentioned to us, the preparation class was hidden away in some corner of the building. So because of that, it was very segregated, but in terms of them actually getting into the Swedish language, it was really effective in preparing them for entering the mainstream classes.
Then I moved to Norway for a period of time, and then when I moved back to Sweden I started working in schools again, and by that point, the number of pupils had gone right down, so there wasn’t any preparation class for them, they were placed straight into the regular classes. I felt that was really problematic because it’s not easy when you’ve literally just arrived and don’t even know the basics such as yes and no, or hello, and you’re expected to take part in a history lesson about ancient Rome.
Thinking about when you met those pupils, and you couldn’t speak their languages and they couldn’t speak so much of your languages, how did you make it work, practically speaking?
Elsa There was a lot of body language, and imitating for example. But then really you just have to find ways of working around the issue – building up strategies as you go. And that was why I also started to try and learn a bit of Arabic too, and the students really appreciated that – they were learning Swedish but it was nice for them to be able to do some things in Arabic with me, and in that way it was a shared learning process, from both sides.
How did you find that the pupils you worked with viewed their own languages? And what did they all make of each other’s languages and languaging? What about the pupils with Swedish as a first language?
Elsa The place I was working was a very small community, and rather isolated, so unfortunately there was quite a bit of xenophobia. I wouldn’t say that the Swedish pupils were particularly interested in making contact with the other pupils, but within the Swedish as a Second Language group, they were very interested in each other’s language, and what things were called in the different languages.
Do you think that that helped them in their learning?
Elsa Yes, but above all it helped them to make contact with one another, be comfortable talking with one another, and in that sense it helped them with their Swedish learning.
Evelina, you’ve just started your teacher training programme – how do you feel that it is preparing you for working with plurilingual children? Is it something which has been brought up explicitly?
Evelina So we’ve just been looking at it recently, as we’re taking a course in Swedish, and we’ve just had a whole seminar on Swedish as a Second Language learners, and how they write texts, what can be developed and so on.
Do you think that trainee teachers generally need more course content related to working plurilingually, or different types of input on the subject?
Evelina Yes, it’s so important because it’s something we’re going to face when we are out working in schools – it’s not just something which can be swept aside, and we have to be inclusive as teachers. And so I think it’s really important that our training gives us the right tools to be able to do that in the best way possible.
Is it theory you think will be needed? Or practical tips?
Evelina Both, definitely.
Thinking about language and identity, Evelina, how do you view that? Are they related to one another for you? How do you think you will work with language and identity matters with the pupils you will work with?
Evelina Absolutely, they are definitely related, of course. And as I say, my partner speaks Kurdish and so there’s a lot of Kurdish when we visit his parents, and it’s something which is part of ones identity. It’s not just the case that you lose it just because you move to another country – you don’t simply lose who you are. I think that for a lot of Swedes, it’s hard to put themselves in that position, and they can misunderstand the situation.
Indeed, and I think it’s really interesting that you bring up the point about immigrants not simply exchanging one language for another. May I ask, how did you learn Kurdish? Was it from talking with your partner, or did you take a course?
I was planning to take a course, in fact I am going to, but for the moment we learn a lot just by being with his parents, sitting and chatting together, and I’m able to practice different sounds which we Swedes aren’t so used to – the [ħ] sound which we don’t use in the same way. An then my partner puts up lots of post-it notes at home, lots of different words related to the home, different phrases (for example how you say thank you in different ways), which I think is really fun.
Do you think that your own experiences of having been in a different language environment will help you as a teacher?
Evelina Absolutely. Because I think that if you haven’t had that experience, it’s almost impossible to understand it. If you’re only speaking Swedish with Swedes all the time, you haven’t got much diversity in your social circle, so it’s hard to have an understanding of how it is to come here with a different language – the kind of difficulties they can experience. So yes, I think it’s really important.
Elsa, you’ve worked with slightly older pupils, but have you had any contact with their parents / guardians?
Elsa Yes a little bit. Through the church I’ve actually worked at an evening ‘language café’, and it tends to be the same families coming, so I get to meet them. And the idea is that Swedes and new Swedes can have a fika together, get a dialogue going, so that the new Swedes can become part of the society.
When you meet children’s parents, have you been able to learn anything about how they see their children’s language practices? What do they think about their children learning Swedish, for example? And do they see the importance of the children keeping hold of their mother tongue?
Elsa The parents I’ve spoken to when I was there, they were really very positive towards the idea that their children should learn Swedish quickly, and become part of the society and ‘earn their place’ for want of a better word – their feeling is that the children need Swedish so they can get a job, and be independent. So yes, definitely, very positive towards the children learning Swedish. That said, I’ve also seen how the women often tend to end up being a little on the fringes, unfortunately.
The mothers, do you mean?
Elsa Yes, unfortunately, mainly the mothers. The children at these language cafes are very engaged, and the dads also come forward and talk, whereas the mums are rather at the sides. And it can tend to be the same in the job world too – it’s often the men who get work first, and the women end up at home, which can lead to them becoming segregated. They spend a lot of time with one another, and then, quite understandably, they want to speak their own language together.
Exactly, and this ‘being an outsider’ is something the government are also trying to address with their initiatives to bring language learning into open preschools (playgroups) and so on. So it’s a very important topic. Do you think that as a teacher, or a future teacher, there is anything you can do to support mothers in the situation you describe, or is that not really your role? How do you view your teacher role in relation to the whole family?
Evelina I think it’s definitely important to be inclusive, and to be clear that all caregivers can come into school, not just the dad if he’s the one who is furthest ahead with his Swedish. We must make sure that we are inviting and welcoming both parents to parent-teacher-meetings, not just one.
Is there anything else you’d like to take up here? Or is there something you hope will be part of your teacher training related to these issues?
Elsa I really hope that we will get practical tips. Having worked in schools, I’ve found myself feeling in adequate if I’ve had a whole class to whom I have to teach History, and I know that I have three pupils who don’t understand what I’m saying – but I also know that I have 22 other pupils who I also have to teach! How do I reach them all? It’s so hard because you’re working so hard to give everyone the time they need and deserve, but sometimes there just isn’t time. So I hope we will receive concrete tips on how to manage this kind of situation.
Indeed and this is something that research is showing also – even if teachers have a very positive mindset towards working with plurilingual students, it is the question of how it will work in practice which is so crucial for trainee teachers and teachers to get an answer to. But nonetheless, I’d love to ask you two now, what tips do you have already for other trainees or existing teachers?
Evelina I think the main thing is to have an open mind and open attitude, and to try and show an interest for these pupils and their languages – (some of them) have been through awful things, and need the security which comes from someone being interested in them. I think that’s the first thing.
Elsa I agree, I think the most important thing is to see pupils as individuals, not just to say ‘Oh yes, here comes a pupil from Syria’ and assume that all pupils from Syria have the same background, because of course, they don’t. When I’ve worked with pupils, they’ve really appreciated it when I’ve talked to them personally, found out about who they are as a person, what kind of background they have, for example.
Thank you so much for talking to me today!