European Priorities and the Potential of Multilingual Education

On September 26 –the European Day of Languages set to help raise awareness for multilingualism in Europe– I was invited to Brussels for the 2nd European Education Summit and presented a U.S. perspective on the growth and potential of dual-language education, particularly as European nations seek to adopt new educational approaches to educating the youth while accepting more immigrant families into their school systems.

The summit was well attended with 800 participants from all over Europe, including hundreds of teachers, school leaders, civil servants, and 19 education ministers. This year, the theme was ‘Teachers first: excellence and prestige for the European Education Area’. Among the many important questions that were asked to the participants here are a few: What challenges are teachers facing today and what future developments do we need to anticipate? Are teachers adequately recognized by society? Do they receive the support they need? What is teachers’ role in bridging education and active participation in society and the labor market?

The Summit provided a platform for the release of the European Commission’s flagship publication, the Education and Training Monitor, which focused on teachers, their working conditions and careers, drawing upon evidence from the OECD’s survey. The report highlights the main challenges facing Europe’s 6 million teachers – and tells us what they need: better training in teaching students with special needs, in ICT skills & dealing with multicultural classrooms. Teachers are challenged with too much administrative tasks and discipline issues, while also accommodating diverse needs and behaviors. As a consequence, 26 countries in Europe face teacher shortages. Clearly, something needs to be done at the European level and I am optimistic that European collaboration and discussions like these can provide solutions.

It was clear from the debates that European school systems need to reward teachers more. As one of the speakers said, “Teachers aren’t ‘another brick in the wall’ of our society. They are the cornerstones.” In his opening statement, Education Commissioner Tibor Navracsics echoed these words and showed his support for the teaching professions by saying “Raising teachers’ prestige is a must.” Other speakers, including Senator Mario Monti and Li Anderson, Finland’s Minister of Education, stated that we have good reasons to look to the future with optimism on the condition that we empower teachers.

I was very inspired by teacher Christophe Schiebold who showed us that inclusion in education is also about teachers with disabilities: “I focused on all the things I can do and not the things I can’t. And I realized, there were quite a lot of things I could do.” A tetraplegic, his condition made him a teacher focusing on individual learning needs and pathways towards resilience, critical thinking and educating caring active global citizens. It was also inspiring to hear French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, say that “if Europe promotes monolingualism, Europe is not loyal to its core values.”

My panel, “Teaching foreign languages in schools a must or a luxury?” included Anna Ekström, Sweden‘s Minister for Education, María Isabel Celaá Diéguez, Spain’s Minister of Education and Vocational Training, Alex Rawlings, an author, blogger and polyglot from the United Kingdom, and Irina Pravet, a language coach from Finland. While the Ministers focused on presenting their countries’ accomplishments in language education and teacher development, the other panelists and myself discussed how learning languages is not only about discovering the wider world and building a more cohesive society, it is a tremendous source of joy.

I presented a U.S. perspective on the growth and potential of dual-language education, particularly as European countries face a surge in immigration and try to create appropriate approaches to educating immigrant youth. While giving examples from New York, Utah, and other States which now see bilingualism as an economic advantage I invited the audience to initiate a Bilingual Revolution in Europe and think about how every child should be able to become bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural, and how helping sustain the mother tongue of citizens with migrant background is crucial.

More than ever, I believe that multilingual education offers opportunities for school systems to seize, including providing teachers with the right skills to manage multicultural classrooms and include all our children. Dual-language bilingual education has the potential to offer greater academic and economic outcome, while providing linguistic and social-emotional strength to all students. More importantly, it can foster respect, tolerance, and mutual understanding in schools. These are the corner stones of a coherent and inclusive society which sees multilingualism, immigration, and the multicultural classroom as a richness.

You can watch this panel here (starts at 3:57:00)