A new study in Hong Kong shows that ethnic minority students who have learned Cantonese as a second language often have difficulty getting into post-secondary schools of their choice due to interviews conducted in Cantonese. The study reveals that this difficulty is often due to their skills in Cantonese, the dominant language of Hong Kong. This study may corroborate Dr. Becky Chen’s research, noted in yesterday’s post found here, that highlights the advantages of first language development and first language literacy for strengthening second language development and second language literacy.

Minority language speakers around the world typically do not have access to school based first language development or first language literacy. Education systems in multilingual contexts often use immersion education as a means of teaching the second language. However, this becomes problematic when available resources are not the same as in contexts where immersion education has been highly successful, namely Canada. Typically teachers in southern contexts do not have access to training in bilingual education pedagogies. As such, they merely use vast amounts of the second language in order to facilitate second language acquisition rather than ensuring comprehensible input and scaffolding of output. Neither do teachers have access to a wide variety of materials in both languages that Canadian teachers in successful immersion programs  typically had. Additionally, parents in Canadian immersion programs were supportive of first language literacy development in their children’s second language immersion education. Parents in southern contexts often do not support home language development at school but prefer 2nd language immersion programs for their children. Preference of immersion education is a result of a lack of knowledge of what the research actually says. For example, OISE researchers Becky Chen and Jim Cummins, as well as many other scholars show the value of the first language in education for strong development of the second language. However, access to this body of literature is not common in many places.

The result of this lack of attention to minority language and literacy development actually produces tremendous inequality for speakers of minority languages.  As indicated by the Hong Kong study, the consequences often lead to inequitable access to further education and career choice. Thus there is a huge need for all of us to understand and value all languages for social and academic development rather than merely attending to the most dominant languages. Valuing and celebrating linguistic diversity contributes to a more equitable society.