Complementary schools as agents for language maintenance and identity management: a study of a Yemeni school in the UK

Gibson Ferguson

University of Sheffield, United Kingdom


Once rather neglected as research sites, complementary schools, teaching ethnic community languages outside the state school sector, have begun to attract increased attention from sociolinguists interested in how such schools function as agents of language maintenance and how the linguistic practices found in these educational settings serve to construct, support, or undermine the multicultural and ethnic identities of pupils (see Martin et al 2004).

In line with this trend, this paper reports on a study of a Yemeni complementary school in Sheffield that teaches Arabic to British-born pupils of Yemeni origin. The school is of particular interest not just because it teaches Arabic, a major world language with a significant presence in electronic and broadcast media, but because pupils attending the school find themselves navigating a path between various overlapping, sometimes competing identities - at once but also variably - British, Yemeni, Arab and Muslim. Charting how these various identities are constructed, negotiated and reflected in the language and literacy practices of the school, inclusive of codeswitching and the varieties of Arabic taught, encouraged and used, is a central aim of this paper. We also, however, address two supplementary and related questions: (i) the role of Arabic language satellite broadcast media in the lives of pupils and community members and (ii) the extent of the impact of the all too often negative public discourses around migrants, Islam and Arabic language speakers on the school and on the management of linguistic/ethnic identities. In keeping with these aims, the principal research instruments are observations combined with ethnographic interviews with teachers, pupils, and parents, an important purpose of which is to explore whether the linguistic and cultural identities the school and parents seek to project onto pupils are in fact taken up or resisted. In concluding the paper we briefly consider the extent to which the experiences of Yemeni pupils in Sheffield may or may not be similar to those of bilingual Arabic-speaking young people in other western European countries.

Martin, P., A. Butt, N. Bhojani, and A. Creese 2004 A Final Report on Complementary

Schools and their Communities in Leicester. University of Leicester/Birmingham.

(370 words)


Complementary school, Arabic, Yemeni, identity, language maintenance, language practices

Session: Paper session
Bilingual Education 2
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 08