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Educating ‘bilingual’ children in Spain and Denmark

June 26, 2015

Educating ‘bilingual’ children in Spain and Denmark: childhood bilingualism as opportunity or constraint

by Kenn Nakata Steffensen
University College Cork/University of Tokyo

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The word ‘bilingual’ has acquired vastly divergent politicised meanings in contemporary Spanish and Danish discourses on childhood education. In the former, it tends to denote competence in a foreign language, which is almost universally assumed to be English, while in the latter it refers to relative lack of competence in Danish. The two conceptions of ‘bilingualism’ as an opportunity or constraint are thus positive and negative, both in an evaluative and descriptive sense.

In Spain, ‘bilingualism’ is a desirable marker of success and upward social mobility, in Denmark it is an obstacle to the same. In both national discourses, language comes to stand for something else, namely class and ethnicity, as well as integration into (in the Spanish case) a transnational elite and (in the Danish case) the national community. In the Spanish context, ‘bilingualism’ is constituted as a personal and public good to be developed through the education of children and adolescents, hence the growth of ‘bilingual’ schools in recent years. In Denmark, childhood ‘bilingualism’ is seen as an ill to be eradicated through the education system.

The language that Spanish parents and politicians want their children to become ‘bilingual’ in is, above all, English. It represents global power, progress, modernity and recovery from imperial decline. Following the maxim ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’, Spain was historically defeated by English-speaking imperial powers and now seeks to join an ‘Anglobalising’, post-imperial, world order on its terms.

In Denmark, fluency in English is also – but to a much lesser degree – a marker of elite status which is widely distributed among the population and not associated with ‘bilingualism’. The mostly Middle Eastern, South Asian and African languages that pose the ‘bilingualism’ problem in Denmark are associated with backwardness, poverty and ignorance. With the strong historical link between ethnic nationalism and the Danish/Scandinavian welfare state model, failing to address the problem posed by ‘bilingualism’ threatens the survival of the state as a community of shared values embodied in a strongly monolingual conception of the nation.

In both cases, the supposed objectives are unlikely to be met and are not ultimately grounded on language and bilingualism as such. The different meanings ‘bilingualism’ has acquired in the two countries have their historical origins in the nature of their particular early-modern composite monarchical states, the rise and demise of their colonial empires, and their respective 20th century experiences of modernising authoritarianism and welfare capitalism.

Real full paper (PDF)…

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