Serving Ireland's multilingual families
An interview with Dr. Francesca La Morgia, founder and director of Mother Tongues
November 23, 2020
Mother Tongues is a non-profit organization in Ireland, started in 2017, that raises awareness about the benefits and challenges associated with multilingualism. In three years' time, they have gone from running events for parents of multilingual children to organizing a range of activities for different groups, including children, parents, heritage language teachers, local Irish schools/teachers, health care professionals, and companies. Mother Tongues also now provides online lessons for children in seven languages. We contacted Francesca La Morgia, the director and founder, to find out more about her organization.
Francesca has a background in linguistics, child language development, and multilingualism. She lectures at Ulster University and at the Froebel Department of Primary and Early Childhood Education in Maynooth. She also works for Dublin's Intercultural Center, which helps immigrants integrate and participate fully in Irish society. She has more than ten years' experience running workshops for multilingual families, teachers, and other professionals. You can read more about Francesca and her team.
How did you end up in Ireland?
I came to Dublin for summer holidays as a teenager, to learn English. Then I decided when I finished university in Italy to do a masters at Trinity College in Applied Linguistics (English language teaching). Then I earned a PhD on bilingualism in young children. I'm now a teacher at a training college and am happy to be able to share my knowledge.
How did Mother Tongues get started?
It all started as support for parents raising bilingual children. At first, we just thought, let's do something every couple of months and see how it goes. For example, we gave talks for parents and ran a library event for speakers of other languages that was funded by the local city council.
Since then, we've grown a lot. We now have a board – and also an office. We no longer have to use my kitchen!
In 2017 when we started, we also decided to organize a multilingual arts festival. Since then it's getting bigger and bigger – we engage with 40 artists every year! We see that there is plenty of support for this festival and receive grants from the arts council to hire staff for the event organization.
What is the Language Explorers initiative?
For preschools and primary schools we have designed the award-winning Language Explorers initiative to help develop children's awareness of the different languages spoken by the school community. It encourages a multilingual approach to teaching and learning and allows children to use their home languages in the school environment.
We have created fun activities that stimulate the children's interest in other languages and cultures and develops language awareness and intercultural competence. All over Ireland, we either we deliver the program or we train teachers who want to deliver the program themselves.
And you also started running online mother tongue lessons. Was it because of the pandemic?
Before the lockdown, we had not entered the arena of language class delivery. What happened was that 15 years ago I started an Italian school here in Ireland and after some time I was no longer in charge of running the school. Last year, when the organizers of the Italian school could no longer volunteer time to keep it running, I used Mother Tongues as a platform to keep Italian lessons going.
We now offer Italian, French with African culture, European Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, and Arabic. We are currently the only school offering mother tongue Portuguese.
I think that if it were not for the pandemic, we would not have added the other languages as quickly. It was simplified because we did not need to find a space. In the future we would of course like to meet face-to-face.
How do you fund Mother Tongues?
We have non-profit status and receive grants for particular activities, but our core organization does not receive any government funding. Most of our activities are free, but we do charge money for our membership fees and for language classes. All income from memberships is invested in our projects.
What kind of memberships do you offer and what do members get?
We offer different types of membership:
Parents who join gain access to workshops and to our member's area, which is a virtual learning space with useful videos and resources. They are also eligible for one free consultation and a discount on courses and services.
For heritage language schools that operate in Ireland, it is possible to become a member. Member schools receive access to a member's page with recordings, links, and resources, as well as free attendance of professional development and networking sessions. Member schools also gain publicity through a dedicated page on the Mother Tongues website, a listing in our newsletter, promotion at our annual festival, and a dedicated blog post.
We also have memberships for Early Years Educators and for so-called "Home School Community Liaisons," who are school teachers seeking training for working with multilingual families. These are often teachers working at schools with disadvantaged students.
All members receive a discount on books published by Multilingual Matters, subscription to our monthly newsletter, and free entry to our webinars on multilingualism and to our annual conference.
In addition to all of this, you also run an annual conference?
Yes, we have organized a heritage language conference every year since we started. This year, for our third conference, we collaborated with the Icelandic organization Modurmal. We invited teachers in your network in Eindhoven to attend for free and HLSE gave a short presentation as well.
What kind of networking possibilities do you offer to the heritage language schools?
Once per month we have a virtual "Heritage Language Teach Meet" for teachers. There are about 10 to 15 people who join each month, and a core group of about 7 who always attend.
Is the list of HL schools on your website a comprehensive list of all of the heritage language schools in Dublin?
We used to have a list on our website of all of the heritage language schools here, but we found that it requires a lot of time to keep the list up to date. As you know, not all schools have websites.
Right now, the school list contains our members. It includes all of the lessons offered by Mother Tongues, plus several heritage language schools in Ireland who have joined Mother Tongues. If schools would like to be part of this group, then we ask that they make a small investment into what we do.
Do you have any advice for organizations such as yours that are just getting started?
I think it's important to build up a team and to become a proper organization. If you want to be sustainable, you need to create positions for people who can build upon what you have and take it further. If not, people who start out excited to volunteer will lose excitement because there is only so much you can give. My main idea from the beginning was that Mother Tongues would be an organization that would last after me.