VUB will be part of the new efforts to support multilingualism in Brussels thanks to the cooperative e-platform project which has a goal to promote teaching of minority languages.
VUB is the only university to receive a grant as part of the BeTalky 2021-2022 project call. Led by Sven Gatz, minister responsible for the promotion of multilingualism, the Brussels government has approved the proposal for an e-platform, promoted by Rik Vosters and Jianwei Xu of the Linguistics and Literary Studies department. The aim of the interactive and multilingual platform is to map out best practices in home language education – often referred to as heritage language education – and share them between communities.
“We collect the latest scientific insights from the literature and translate them into practice using concrete examples from some communities that we include as case studies,” explains Jianwei Xu. “This will allow for an exchange of ideas, methods and teaching practices, and raise the profile of home language education. Smaller communities that do not yet have any offerings can also find inspiration for their own initiatives, learning from the many good examples in Brussels.”
Home language teaching is available for many of the more than 100 languages spoken on a daily basis in Brussels, usually outside school or in weekend classes. “Sometimes official bodies take the initiative, as in the case of the Spanish lessons set up by the Consejería de Educación or the secular home language teaching in Arabic offered by VUB with Scholengroep Brussel in the ALEF project,” explains Rik Vosters. “But at least as often it concerns grassroots initiatives that originate from the communities themselves. In the Chinese community, for example, weekend schools were set up by a first generation of Chinese residents of Brussels to pass on the Chinese language and culture to their children and grandchildren in a structured way.” An interactive and multilingual e-platform will be developed to support these often small-scale and local initiatives.
VUB expertise on multilingualism
The project fits in with VUB’s expertise on multilingualism. Thanks to the Taalbarometer research by VUB professor Rudi Janssens there is a good overview of Brussels’ multilingual landscape. Within the Brussels Institute for Applied Linguistics and the Centre for Linguistics at the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy, a lot is happening on urban multilingualism, including two current PhDs on Chinese as a minority language in Brussels and Antwerp. “We have a great deal of expertise on multilingualism in house, from very different angles. From neuroscience to sociology of language, from translation and interpretating studies to educational science: multilingualism is relevant to many disciplines,” says Wim Vandenbussche, director of the Centre for Linguistics and president of the Academic Centre for Language Education (ACTO). “VUB is a pioneer in that field, and the expertise built up over many years around multilingualism has not gone unnoticed politically.”
The importance of home language education
Unlike countries such as the United Kingdom, Belgium does not have a strong tradition of promoting heritage language education. Yet its importance should not be underestimated. A good command of the heritage language is important for the development of children’s identity, but also because a good knowledge of the home language is the best stepping stone to a strong command of other languages, such as Dutch or French. “By speaking the language of your parents or grandparents and getting to know their culture better, you also get to know yourself better, and can more easily find your place in contemporary multilingual society. And it is precisely this potential, with multilingualism as an asset rather than a handicap, that a hyper-diverse city like Brussels should take advantage of,” says Vosters.