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UEL discusses bilingualism at Ramgarhia Panjabi School

Academic gives keynote speech on UEL study of complementary school pupils

University of East London (UEL) staff gathered with community members at Ramgarhia Panjabi School in Newham for a celebration of bilingualism and the power of complementary schools to foster and develop language skills and cultural identity in young people.

Dr Virginia Lam, of UEL’s School of Psychology, gave the keynote speech, outlining the results of a UEL study on the attitudes of young British Sikhs at Ramgarhia and the role of complementary schools. 

Professor John J. Joughin, UEL Vice-Chancellor, told attendees of the event, “This research project on bilingual education is a great example of how the University seeks to work in partnership with the local community.

“The benefits of a bilingual educational experience and complementary schooling are plain for all to see and underline the University’s continued commitment to community engagement and the celebration of diversity.”

Complementary schools are institutions where children can learn community languages – those spoken by members of minority groups or communities – outside normal school hours. There are currently more than 2,000 such schools in the UK.

Ramgarhia, in Forest Gate, celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. The school has educated more than 1,600 pupils during that time, and more than 800 of them have earned a GCSE in Panjabi. 

UEL psychology graduate student Dr Farkhanda Rafiq Chaudry carried out the study at Ramgarhia in 2016. 

She found that up to three-quarters of the children surveyed described their Panjabi as ‘quite good’ or ‘very good’ and all felt that learning the language was useful and important. Most enjoyed their complementary schooling. 

The young pupils said they used Panjabi mostly at home and when viewing broadcast media. They used it least on digital media and when talking to friends. 

Additionally, around 80 per cent of the youngsters felt most comfortable being identified as ‘British Sikh’. 

“The more British they feel, the more Sikh they also feel,” Dr Lam noted.

Tarlok Sura, the founder of Ramgarhia, said, "It is extremely important to entice the young children to learn the home language. This is the only way they can be empowered to become more interested in their religion, heritage and culture. 

“Awareness of the history enriches lives and makes children more confident, tolerant and well-adjusted citizens. It is the only way to ensure the well-being of the young members our congregation". 

Lyn Brown, MP for West Ham, also attended the event. She said, “It’s a real skill to be able to operate in more than one cultural space. Being able to operate, being able to socialise, being able to work across and in different cultural spaces is a truly wonderful gift."