Micheline Chaia leads the Language Institute at GEMS World Academy – Dubai. She speaks five languages, with a sixth in the works, and is a big advocate of teaching children their mother tongue
Tell us about your role at GEMS World Academy – Dubai (GWA).
On a day-to-day basis, I do everything from meeting with parents and conducting language information sessions to observing teachers in classrooms and organising events. Another significant role that I play is to tie up the language programmes offered through the school’s Language Institute with embassies and consulates.
How does the Language Institute work?
At GWA we offer 13 languages across the school. Twelve of these are part of the mother tongue programme taught in Grades 1-6, while PreK-KG2 students can choose from four beginner and two mother tongue language classes. History, geography, literature and cultural studies about each country are integrated within the language lessons and exhibited through a variety of organised events that take place throughout the year, such as national day celebrations, movie nights and book weeks. This gives our students the opportunity to learn more about their country and its traditions, to preserve their identity and to belong to a community that speaks their language.
Every academic year, we hold elections for students of each language to select their ambassador, with whom I meet on a weekly basis. Together, we organise cultural events and brainstorm plans. Given such an opportunity, students feel more heard and that they belong. Being an IB school with students of different nationalities, GWA now offers language support for students who choose to take their mother tongue as a subject in Diploma Programme. This year, we are providing three languages and we aim to extend the programme across the 12 languages the Institute offers.
Why is learning languages important?
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart”. Unfortunately, some words don’t give the same meaning or amplitude if translated into English, and this can affect the understanding of a country’s famous sayings, quotes and colloquialisms. Children who learn a language as their mother tongue feel more connected to their roots and have a stronger sense of belonging, they find it easier to move back home and reintegrate in their schools or universities and won’t feel like strangers within their own community.
What advice can you offer parents and students?
Language practice is as important as language learning. We have merely
a few hours each week to teach students the necessary vocabulary, grammar and proper pronunciation as well as help with their oral development. On the other hand, parents have the advantage of always being with their kids, which gives them more time to practice and communicate in their native language. As such, I urge parents to continuously support and encourage their kids to use their mother tongue language at home as well as to refrain from mixing languages, as this might interfere with their language fluency.
Who teaches at the Language Institute?
All teachers at the Language Institute are native speakers, as we strongly believe that a mother tongue language should maintain its original accent and that can only be achieved through the correct pronunciation of words. Another important language learning aspect we take into consideration and keep a sharp eye on is vocabulary. Some languages have evolved over time, embracing new vocabulary that only mother tongue speakers are exposed to in their countries of origin, and that is another reason why we take teacher recruitment very seriously.
Is the Language Institute open to everyone?
The mother tongue language programme is only for native speakers. Despite the variance in language level among kids who have just arrived in the UAE and those who were born here, all students must be fluent speakers in order to enrol. For those who want to learn a language, we provide after-school language classes at beginner level.