Celebrating Cultural and Linguistic Diversity on International Mother Language Day

Posted: 21 February 2023

21st February each year is International Mother Language Day, a day designated by UNESCO for the promotion and celebration of linguistic and cultural diversity, and multilingualism.

With an understanding that cultural and linguistic diversity are crucial in building and maintaining sustainable societies, this year’s theme is “Multilingual education – a necessity to transform education in a multilingual world”.

It’s a theme close to our hearts in the Round Square community, with a network that spans 50 countries and is largely made up of international schools. Whilst English is our common language for Round Square Conferences and online discussions, across our community, hundreds of different languages are spoken, taught and celebrated, and many Round Square Schools offer a bilingual curriculum.

For example, Aubrick Multicultural Bilingual School in São Paulo, Brazil, offers a Portuguese/ English curriculum, and teachers observe that a bilingual learner can better understand and accept differences and tends to be more open-minded towards other cultures. And at Calgary French & International School in Alberta, Canada, French immersion starts as early as Preschool, driven by an understanding that second-language-learning enhances focus, increases problem-solving skills and creative abilities, and helps to build empathy. The school also reports that this early start encourages understanding of other cultures and ways of life, as well as making it easier for children to learn subsequent languages.

This is borne out by physiological studies, which have found that, in general, speaking two or more languages is a great asset to the cognitive process. A study from the Pennsylvania State University found that multilingual people, especially children, are skilled at switching between two systems of speech, writing, and structure. The study determined that the regular exercise of juggling languages, builds transferrable skills in multitasking and switching between different ways of thinking.

A recent study by researchers at Cambridge University found that students who consider themselves to be multilingual perform better at GCSE. The study, of just over 800 pupils in England, found a positive relationship between GCSE scores and ‘multilingual identity’ (pupils who felt a personal connection with other languages through knowledge and use). Those who considered themselves to be multilingual typically also outperformed their peers in non-language subjects including maths, geography, and science. Dr Dee Rutgers, a Research Associate at Cambridge University thinks “…it may be that children who see themselves as multilingual have a sort of ‘growth mindset’ which impacts on wider attainment.”

This is just a snapshot of the volume of research that tells us that language-learning and language diversity build transferrable skills that pay dividends in other areas of academic endeavour. But the benefits also go beyond academic study. As the Italian film maker Federico Fellini put it, “a different language is a different vision of life.” In other words, when you learn another language, as well as building your linguistic proficiency, you also broaden your understanding of a different culture, world view or “vision of life” in the process – you build international understanding.

International Understanding is at the heart of the Round Square movement – the first of our core themes, the Round Square IDEALS – and we look for every opportunity to build it: We connect students with their peers around the world in face-to-face conversation, either in-person at conferences and other events, or on Zoom. We know that students learn best when they learn-by-doing and in real-world contexts, and we know that International Understanding can be built through language-learning. Put these principles together, and you arrive at the Round Square Language Labs.

Our Language Labs are student-led zoom calls, in which the hosts lead conversations in their mother language for their peers, from Round Square schools across the world, who want to learn, and practice, that language. A language lab typically takes place over a series of weekly sessions, each led by students from a different school whose mother-language is the subject of the lab. Recent Round Square Language Labs have included Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, and the next will be a German Language Lab, with registration opening today.

Around 40-60 students from Round Square schools across the world participate in each Language Lab session, each focused on a different topic, chosen by the host students, and conducted entirely in the host’s mother language. For their Japanese Language Lab, Linden Hall School and Junior & Senior High School of Kogakuin University collaborated on three topics: Nature, Anime and Music. For the Chinese (Mandarin) Language Lab, Keystone Academy, Shenzhen Concord College of Sino-Canada and Ningbo Huamao International School hosted on the topics: Clothing & Customs, Festivals, and Food’. Rahul, a teacher from Ningbo Huamao International School said, “The Language lab was a corridor to know the culture of the world”.

For the Arabic Language Lab, King’s Academy Jordan and Amman Baccalaureate School (ABS) Jordan together hosted three Arabic Language Labs covering the topics of Food Traditions and Everyday Life. Commenting on hosting the Lab, Awn, a Grade 10 student from ABS Jordan said, “Not only did I have the opportunity to share my culture and identity by teaching someone a new language, but I also learned a new language myself – the language of teaching”.

The broad geographical spread of the Round Square network means that Language Labs can often bring together a culturally diverse team of student hosts. For example, the most recent Spanish Language Lab was hosted by native Spanish-speakers from Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Spain (from Godspell College, Belgrano Day School, Colegio Anglo Colombiano, Colegio Colombo Británico, Colegio de Inglaterra, Craighouse School, and SEK International School).

This year’s French Language Lab featured schools from Morocco, Canada and France (Elaraki School, Calgary French & International School and École Alsacienne) who led sessions on ‘cultural norms and stereotypes’, ‘music’, and ‘world foods’. These labs provided an extraordinary opportunity for students to build International Understanding whilst practising and learning a language from native speakers in different linguistic contexts, cultures and countries. As Language Lab participant, Shimwa from Brookhouse School in Kenya said “It was very interesting to hear different dialects of Spanish and their variations”. Fellow participant, Andrew, said, “the Lab sessions aided me in the development of my language skills and allowed me to interact with students of diverse backgrounds.”

Today we are pleased to invite Round Square Schools to register students aged 14-18 for a German Language Lab, which will run over three one-hour sessions from 12-1pm GMT on 7th March (when the topic will be Travel and Tourism), 14th March (Hobbies and Interests), and 21st March (Food and Festivals). The sessions will be led by students from Aiglon in Switzerland, Klosterschule Roßleben in Germany and Private Realschule Gut Warnberg in Germany. Click HERE to register.

In the coming months, we have further Language Labs to look forward to, offering more opportunities for host students to share their mother language and culture with the rest of the world. At the same time participants will learn and practice a language that is different to their own, building International Understanding, and growing their capacity to connect in meaningful ways with their peers. As Nelson Mandela, a Round Square Patron during his life, famously said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

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