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'Migrants close to roots better citizen'

The study rebutted Blunkett's comment that Asians should speak more English at home to overcome generational schizophrenia.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2003 21:41 IST

Children of immigrant parents who study the language and culture of their parents may achieve more and become more involved citizens, according to a study.

A pilot study of 5,000 children attending community classes in Leicester suggests the ad hoc system strengthens communities and reinforces the importance of education in the minds of the young. Complementary schools organised by immigrant communities try to ensure British-born children retain a sense of their heritage. Children learning their mother tongue also helps them deal with bilingualism.

In India it is quite a normal practice for many children to cope with more than one language at a very early age. For instance, apart from speaking in their mother tongue, an average middle-class child learns Hindi and English.

An initial study by Birmingham and Leicester universities into Asian, Polish and Irish communities suggested the value to wider society could be greater than appreciated.

In Leicester, known to be one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the UK, the research team looked at the experiences of children and adults attending some 70 community-led classes in the city. The activities ranged from religious teaching for Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, to after-school homework groups emphasising languages such as Gujarati. The team found that, in Leicester, which has a large Gujarati population,keeping up the language, spoken mostly at home could improve a student's performance. It gave them a greater understanding and more subtle use of language and communication.

One of the authors of the report, Arvind Bhatt, said they found benefits for the student and the community which remained invisible to the majority of society. "When a student properly learns and uses their mother tongue, they are also learning how to manage bilingualism," said Bhatt. "This means being able to manage language in different contexts to their benefit."

It contradicts Home Secretary David Blunkett's controversial comments on language when he suggested that British Asians should speak more English at home to "overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships". But Bhatt said: "David Blunkett's view was based on the false premise that children can only learn one language at a time and learning a mother tongue interferes with English.

"We found bilingualism in children was an asset in the long term, though there is evidence it can cause some short-term difficulties." Looking at how class participants saw themselves, the team found students had a more settled sense of their own identity. Today's children want a flexible identity," said Bhatt. "They don't want to be pinned down as either Asian or British.

"They want to be able to negotiate these identities depending on the context they find themselves in. This works to the benefit of their own position as citizens and the cohesion of the community."

Realising their identity, the study found also helped close the generational gap. "What we tend to see is that the first generation keep their heads down and try to survive and the second want to consolidate on what their parents achieved (in having a stake in society). "We found evidence that the third generation uses complementary learning to reclaim identity and heritage which brings the age groups together. We are now seeing members of the second generation - parents in their 30s - going to the same complementary schooling as their children because they want to learn more," Bhatt said on BBC.

First Published: Dec 26, 2003 21:41 IST