15 August, 2022
A conversation with Dr. Olenka Bilash
Our conversations with leading experts in the field of multilingualism continue with Dr. Olenka Bilash: Award-winning educator, researcher & practitioner. Dr. Bilash is a recipient of the prestigious 3M Teaching Fellow award and has won numerous other awards & grants for research and professional development curricula.
I am delighted to have been invited by Polylino to support their efforts at promoting plurilingualism around the globe. Building on their proven success in Europe, Polylino books offer families, pre-schools and early education programs opportunities to support the growth and development of children’s mother tongues while they transition to bi- or multilingualism. Let me tell you a bit about my professional and personal background so that you understand the potential I see in the Polylino books.
After studying French, German, sociology, geography and education at University, I worked as a teacher, consultant, administrator and established three bilingual-immersion language programs in a K-12 school district. Eventually I completed a Ph.D. and gained an academic position as a professor in the area of languages and literacy. As the author of a language development series in Ukrainian, I was able to share my expertise in learning resource development with five different indigenous language groups and heritage language instructors of over 40 additional languages. I have also offered hundreds of workshops on early literacy locally, regionally and internationally - on every continent except Antarctica (the penguins were happy with their linguistic skills!). The professional development program I designed for English teachers in Japan and taught for over 20 years has also earned recognition.
"In my parents’ generation many did not pass on their mother tongue to their children because they feared that it would reduce their children’s ability to learn English and act as a barrier to their children’s future education, employment, and societal advancement. As those children matured many regretted that they did not have knowledge of another language, especially when they knew that their parents were bi- or multi-lingual."
Along this exciting multi-decade trek I have picked up words and phrases from many language families and enjoyed the delightful sparkle of people’s eyes when they hear their home languages spoken by a tourist or stranger. I have also been inspired by being present to second language learners of all ages as they understand and engage in their first conversation with a ‘stranger’ (me), utter their own self-initiated phrases, or read a passage and actually understand its meaning!
I have raised two Canadian-born children in Ukrainian, a language that I reclaimed as an adult, and have three grandchildren who speak, read and write the language… and are studying in a French immersion milieu. Yes, we enjoy multilingual sing-songs and family gatherings, especially birthday parties!
In my parents’ generation many did not pass on their mother tongue to their children because they feared that it would reduce their children’s ability to learn English and act as a barrier to their children’s future education, employment, and societal advancement. As those children matured many regretted that they did not have knowledge of another language, especially when they knew that their parents were bi- or multi-lingual.
This phenomenon continues today. Many families in North America want their children to learn English first and foremost. They often cannot imagine that by living in a milieu in which they are immersed in English - schools, shops, playgrounds, media, music, sports, public services - their children will grow up to be able to communicate in English. Instead, they are willing to sacrifice the development and maintenance of their home language for English. This unfortunate scenario often leads to children and grandparents being unable to communicate with one another and less cultural and ecological knowledge and wisdom being passed down.
"Building on their proven success in Europe, Polylino books offer families, pre-schools and early education programs opportunities to support the growth and development of children’s mother tongues while they transition to bi- or multilingualism."
Learning a mother tongue or a new language is a natural, personal and relational process. It is also deeply rooted in and driven by oral and written storytelling. However, when you are more removed from the milieu in which a language is dominantly used, you have to work a little harder to make sure that these stories are passed on to the next generation. In such minority language settings, Polylino books can bring culture and language together for intimate sharing within families and create a more inclusive classroom environment in schools.
As a literacy researcher and practitioner, I have always been a fan of Donald Holdaway’s emergent literacy, shared reading, and predictable stories. Holdaway worked with children from various backgrounds in New Zealand and Australia to demonstrate the importance of literacy experiences before they started school. For him this meant teaching rhymes, poems and songs with repetitive refrains, and reading aloud stories, especially bedtime stories. In his research he discovered that children develop an interest in favourite stories and want them to be read to them over and over again; it is common for children to have heard their favourite stories well over 200 times! In the 21st century, the age of technology, Polylino brings children and parents together to be able to share storytime and help children discover their favourite stories in their home languages.
Thank you, Olenka! Be sure to join our webinar series to learn more about supporting multilingual learners and see Olenka's full bio. Register here.