Languages are much more than communication tools, they are strong markers of social identity. Linguistically sensitive teachers understand the complexity of the relationship between language, culture and identity and also know how to challenge the way learners perceive certain languages.
Schools tend to privilege dominant languages
Two types of values are associated with languages: the status value of a language vis-à-vis the status of the group (minority/majority) and the affective value of a language (1). It is for these two reasons that some languages or dialects may be considered more important than others. The language education in Europe, where a “multilingual paradigm” has recently emerged, still tends to privilege more dominant, prestige or regional languages. School systems often fail to properly recognize the languages and language varieties spoken by ethnic minorities and third-world immigrants. As a result, schools are at the risk of reinforcing the negative stereotypes about the value of linguistic and cultural backgrounds of the minority students.
Any language have socioeconomic benefits
With 97.3% of students learning English, the English language is the most dominant foreign language in the EU. It is followed by French, German and Spanish. Other foreign and minority languages are studied in only a few countries – mostly due to historic reasons or geographical proximity. The same logic applies to the perceived usefulness of languages. Most Europeans consider the above languages the most useful for their children. (2) However, research shows there are socioeconomic benefits associated with high proficiency in any language, even when the language is not a global one (3).
Schools can change how learners see some languages
Recently, the presence of some lesser used languages is becoming more apparent in European schools. But, instead of welcoming their presence as an opportunity for authentic and meaningful linguistic and intercultural exchange, many schools do not acknowledge their linguistic diversity. Very few schools provide students with home-language tuition or bilingual subject teaching. (4) The inclusion of home languages in class would show learners that all languages are equally valued. Indeed, schools can help raise the status of minority languages, shift the perception of languages from negative to positive and reduce the “us vs. them” mentality. (5)
To be linguistically sensitive means to acknowledge the value of all languages present in class, regardless of their status value and affective value. This could have significant benefits for the future of modern schools and societies. It could bridge the gap between the majority and minority groups by increasing linguistic and cultural awareness in class. Most importantly, it could make everyone feel an equal member of the community.