UN: Dutch schools must welcome mother tongues

Geneva – On the 25th of August 2021, the UN Committee Against Racial Discrimination urged the Netherlands to ensure that multilingual pupils are not restricted or punished when using their mother tongue at school. The Committee expressed its concern about discrimination experienced by pupils with a migration or minority background in Dutch education. Based on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the use of the home language may not be prohibited in the school environment.

Prohibiting mother tongues common practice at Dutch schools
In the Netherlands, it is still common to prohibit speaking other languages at school than Dutch. For example, a teacher recently explained in a national newspaper (Volkskrant 18/2/21) that when she catches her students speaking their own language in class, they are forced to copy pages from a Dutch dictionary during lunch break. This was presented as a good practice. Parents are also frequently asked to speak only Dutch with their children when picking them up or taking them to school. The Rutu Foundation recognizes these practices. Ellen-Rose Kambel, director: “Unfortunately we have been receiving and collecting these signals for years. It is still widely believed that restricting the home language will help students to learn the Dutch language.”

However well-intentioned, research shows that discouraging or punishing by condemning home languages has exactly the opposite effect. When school rejects part of the child’s identity, it restricts the child’s social-emotional and cognitive development. For example, at schools where students are punished for using their home language, these students were found to perform worse in comprehensive reading than at schools where their languages are welcomed. The students feel greater shame for who they are and have less confidence in their future.

A form of racial or ethnic discrimination
With these conclusions and recommendations, the Committee has confirmed that restricting or punishing the use of the mother tongue at school by multilingual pupils with a migration or minority background constitutes a form of discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnicity. The Committee recommended that the Netherlands expands its teacher training to include multilingual education. Within one year, the Netherlands must report back to the Committee on the measures it has taken to implement the recommendations contained in paragraph 20 (a), (b) and (c).

Discrimination in education
19. The Committee is concerned by reports of discrimination of students with ethnic minority and immigrant backgrounds, including that they are more likely to receive a lower assessment from their teachers for secondary school admissions than what they could receive on the basis of their school results. The Committee is further concerned that:
(a) Students with ethnic minority or immigrant backgrounds continue to face discrimination with respect to obtaining internships, which negatively impacts their future prospects on the labour market;
(b) Multilingual students with an ethnic minority or immigrant background are allegedly restricted from or punished for speaking their home languages in the school environment;
(c) The COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on the education of children from ethnic minority groups and with lower socio-economic status (art. 5).

20. The Committee recommends that the State party take measures to increase equal opportunities for all children in education, regardless of their background, and monitor the effectiveness thereof. The Committee also recommends that the State party:
(a) Ensure that all children receive an adequate assessment from their teachers for secondary schools, without discrimination including implicit bias, based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin;
(b) Take measures to combat and prevent discrimination in accessing internships, develop protocols or guidelines that teachers can follow when students report such discrimination, and ensure that teachers are aware of these protocols;
(c) Take measures to ensure that multilingual students from ethnic minority groups are not restricted from or punished for speaking their home languages at school and expand teacher training on multilingual education;

The UN Committee on Racial Discrimination is the supervisory body of the International Convention Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The members are independent experts who base their conclusions and recommendations on reports received from the State, the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights and NGOs. As a Member State, the Netherlands is obligated to report on its compliance with the Convention every five years.

Language Friendly Schools

In a special report to the Committee, the Rutu Foundation presented its findings based on interviews, newspaper and research articles. An estimated 25 per cent of the Dutch population speaks an additional language at home. In the larger cities, more than half of the school children are multilingual, speaking dozens of different languages. Instead of restricting the use of these languages, schools should welcome them as a rich source for learning and communication to the benefit of all students.

The recommendations of the Committee should not be interpreted to mean that schools are required to offer instruction in all the languages spoken by their pupils. Students should be allowed to use their home languages with their friends or their families at the school grounds or in the hallways. In addition, teachers can use the student’s languages as part of the learning process. For example by allowing small groups of students who speak the same language to solve a problem among themselves and report back in Dutch. More good practices of using students’ language diversity as a learning resource, can be found at Language Friendly Schools. This is a global network of primary and secondary schools who welcome and value all the languages present in the school. There are currently 12 schools certified as Language Friendly Schools in the Netherlands.

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