Politicians consider dual-language curriculum to help Romany children overcome language barrier

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

Overcoming the language barrier is one of the main hurdles Romany children face on starting school and is one of the oft-cited reasons for putting them in “special schools” for children with learning disabilities. Deputies in the lower house are now engaged in a debate on whether to introduce a special dual-language curriculum for Romany children.

Anna Putnová,  photo: archive of TOP 09
The proposal for a dual-language curriculum in 1st and 2nd grade was tabled by TOP 09 deputy Anna Putnová who said that communicating in their native language in the classroom would help Romany children make a better start in school and perceive it as a friendly environment.

“Children starting school are drawn into the learning process and expected to develop but many Roma children are blocked or slowed down by the language barrier. So what I am suggesting is a dual curriculum for them where some classes could be taught in their native language in first and second grade. I realize this means segregated classes, but I have to point out that in many cases Roma children are segregated anyway. “

The proposal has evoked a mixed response in the lower house. Jiří Zlatuška from the ANO party of the ruling coalition pointed out that while he was not against more Romany being spoken in the classroom, such a plan would currently be impossible to realize due to the lack of Romany teachers. He also argued against the idea of special classes for the Roma. This sentiment was echoed by the head of the Social Democrats’ deputies group in the lower house Roman Sklenák. Mr. Sklenák said that while essentially he was ready to back any plan that helped Roma children overcome language and cultural differences in the classroom he would prefer to see them given special care and language assistance in pre-school.

I asked the head of the Vzájemné soužití NGO Kumar Vishwanathan, who has been actively assisting the process of Romany integration for years, what he thinks of the idea of a dual-language curriculum for Romany children.

“I welcome the fact that Parliament is discussing the education of Roma children. It is high time that happened. Number two - I think it would be good to involve as many people from the Roma community as possible in this debate –the intellectuals, the people fighting at the grassroots for a just and fair education for Romany children. They will really appreciate being drawn into the discussion in Parliament. Number three –and that is a fundamental question – if you want to help integrate Romany children into the mainstream school system can segregation be the means to achieve it? In other words does the end justify the means? I personally think that it is not a very good idea. There is a very important verdict passed by the European Court of Human Rights from 2007 – the famous case from Ostrava when the parents of 18 Romany children filed a court case against the Czech Republic for segregation in education and low-quality education. They won the court case and the verdict was that in meeting the specific needs of a child you should not segregate the child.”

Stanislav Daniel,  photo: Jana Šustová
Stanislav Daniel from the National Association of Romanies told Czech Radio that the idea to introduce Romany classes has evoked mixed reactions among Romanies themselves.

“Some Romany parents like the idea of bringing more Roma language into the classroom. Personally I think that Roma as an optional second language works well, but quite frankly I cannot really see how schools could introduce regular subjects taught in Romany. I do not see how that would work.”

Christian Democrat deputies in the lower house say Romany should remain an optional second language where there is demand for it and that children with a language barrier should be given special assistance to overcome this hurdle at mainstream schools. This is a line that the Education Ministry itself has been following. Deputy Education Minister Jindřich Fryč says that the emphasis is on helping Romany children to enter the mainstream.

“I just want to emphasize that the present legislation already enables schools to teach Romany as a second language where there is interest in such classes. However our goal is actually to assist Romany school goers to strengthen their Czech language skills. This is in line with the ruling of the Strasbourg court of Human Rights which was mentioned and the extra help given to children should be given in pre-school facilities and first grade with the help of Romany assistants at mainstream schools.”

Kumar Vishwanathan also thinks that a dual-language curriculum is unnecessary and says that all Roma children need is a bit of extra help. He says Romany children whose parents emigrated to Great Britain have presented ample proof of this.

“Children pick up languages very quickly, you do not have to create a curriculum in Romany for the children to pick up the language. When Roma children go to Britain they do not have lessons in Romany. They learn all the subjects in English, they are quick to catch on and they perform quite well in Britain. So I do not think that we have to bend over backwards and create an extremely sophisticated curriculum in Romany. I don’t think we should do that. I think it should be done in a gentle kind of way and above all the child should feel accepted. There could be Romany-speaking assistants in the classroom who could help the child overcome the problematic first year or two at school. So I would place the accent on having Romany assistants in schools from the given community. Creating a curriculum in Romany is not the right way to approach this problem. “

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
While the issue of discrimination of Romany children in the Czech education system has been at the forefront of media attention for close to two decades and a series of governments have unveiled various measures to address the issue there are not many tangible results to be seen and the Czech Republic has repeatedly come under fire from the European Commission for failing to deal with the problem. I asked Kumar what progress –if any –had been made over that time.

“I think many important changes are happening at the grassroots level. Recently we monitored admissions into first grade –in good schools, not Roma segregated schools -and we were pleasantly surprised to find that in Ostrava of some eight schools almost all were prepared to accept a Roma child …and in fact they did accept Roma children. Only one school failed. It tried to push out the Roma children or some of the Roma children citing reasons like capacity etc. Out of the ten children they refused nine were Roma children. So that is happening. On the other hand seven out of eight schools were open to admitting a Roma child. So now we have moved forward - schools have taken the initiative – but the question is: can they keep the Roma child in the classroom? Because when this Roma child is in the classroom, the Roma child will face the difficulties that MPs are speaking about – they wouldn’t be able to sufficiently follow the teachers explanations, might not get sufficient acceptance from teachers and classmates etc. That is something we should concentrate on. So I think it would really help if there were trained Roma teaching assistants in the classroom. It would help if the Education Ministry created a budget for this purpose because to this day – 17 years after the institution of Roma teaching assistants was created – these teachers are not part of the regular staff of schools. They only get funding for 12 months, so every year in the autumn nobody knows if they are going to get another year’s salary or not. So what would really help is to anchor their positions as teaching assistants, so they are treated as any other teacher in the classroom and to open up more such positions in mainstream schools. That would really help the Roma child and fulfill the intentions of our MPs. As for the element of Roma language, these things can be woven into this structure once the fundamental pillar – the Roma teaching assistant - has been secured. We can secure it by strengthening language and cultural elements within the curriculum but it need not be as far-fetched as teaching some or all subjects in the Romany language. And also you don’t have to segregate Roma children in the first two years of school. Bringing in Roma teaching assistants into schools from the first year – that would really help the Roma child.”

In addition to the need to educate and finance more Romany assistants the authorities face a much harder and more long-term task – that of fighting anti-Romany prejudice among the white majority and trying to prevent it being passed on from one generation to the next. Kumar says that while the young generation of Romanies has found a new sense of pride in their identity latent racism remains a problem both in and outside the classroom.

Kumar Vishwanathan,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“The Roma community is coming up in this country –as a community with a growing sense of pride and self-awareness. You see that watching children in summer camps when they start drawing Roma symbols or flags to mark out their identity in the play groups they form. There is increased dedication to singing Roma songs and play theater performances in the Romany language. So many things are happening at the grassroots level which indicates a kind of Renaissance of the Romany identity. On the other hand there is a problem with the white majority. This society and the children who grow up in it have a very negative attitude towards the Roma. So I think the debate today should be about creating an inclusive classroom where the Roma children and the children of the white majority go to class together and have a curriculum that may not be so overloaded with specific subjects –or teaching in Romany, I think the time is not right for that – but would include optional courses or clubs or whatever that would encourage and aid the self-identity of the Roma and increase the capacity of the white majority children to accept the Roma as an equal, as any other child, classes that would promote tolerance and recognition of the Roma child. That is very important. That is the kind of classroom that I think should happen. “