Bilingual Greek/English children in state elementary schools in Cyprus: a question of language and identity.
Fincham-Louis, Katherine Jane
Louis, Katherine Jane Fincham
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Though only a small island, Cyprus experiences particularly high rates of mixed marriages, and has one of the highest per capita ratios of immigrants in Europe. Consequently, there are a growing number of bilingual and bicultural children now entering the state elementary school system. The aim of this study is to examine the school experiences, language and identity of a select group of Greek English speaking children who have one Cypriot and one non-Cypriot parent. The sub-questions of the study focus on how the children manage languages at school, their perceptions of their peers and teachers and their opinions about the responsiveness of the school and teachers to their bilingualism. Additionally, while recognizing the fluidity and multiplicity of identity, questions about the expressions of the children’s dual national identities within school are considered. Finally, concerns over integration at school are also explored. The study claims social justice for this group, and develops a qualitative case study to engage with the manner in which the children employ their Greek and English language abilities at school, accompanied by their perceptions of the representations of their dual national identities. Multiple, individual, in-depth interviews were conducted with eight children, aged ten to twelve. Interviews with parents were also conducted as a means of strengthening the depth of the data. Additional artifacts such as language use charts, sentence completion exercises and brochures were also collected and analyzed. Using a thematic approach data was examined with the aim of understanding how the children experience their bilingualism and biculturalism within the school. The study constitutes the first of its kind in the Cypriot context and its findings are valuable for researchers, practitioners and policy makers alike. The results suggest that languages are ‘kept separate’ at school, there is a lack of recognition of this group’s bilingualism and there are possible issues of some children’s Cognitive-Academic Language proficiency (Cummins, 1979). Additionally, teachers and schools presented as ill prepared and nonresponsive to the linguistic needs of this group of children. Further findings indicate that the children experience incidents of teasing and exclusion influenced by the highly hellenocentric ethos of Cypriot schools. The study concludes that the limited definition of a bilingual student used by the Ministry of Education and Culture in Cyprus, combined with an ineffectual multiculturalism, result in this group being overlooked. The thesis suggests a broadening of the current definition of a bilingual student and a further exploration of children’s linguistic profiles. The study concludes that the children’s school experience is characterized by difference blindness to their dual cultural backgrounds and linguistic blindness to their bilingualism, broken only by regulated incidents of performance. Importantly the study also reveals that though impacted by a weak policy and difference blindness, these children engage in active agency in constructing social roles and understandings of language and identity at school. They demonstrate resilience and flexibility and are aware of the nuances of the school, the global value of their bilingualism, the access and opportunities provided by their knowledge of English and the prospects and experiences available to them through their dual cultural identities.