Linguistic diversity at the heart of everything you do

I met this language teacher a few years back. Duo has no problem using one’s native language – or a language one is learning – as a springboard to another new language.

I tuck myself into a seat near the window. SGIS Conference, Lausanne, Switzerland. The fresh Swiss air blows in. One of my favorite speakers about multilingualism is jumping right into her session. “I can talk to you about this in English,” she says, “ou je peux vous en parler en français. Of als jullie er in het Nederlands over willen praten, dat kan ik ook.” 

Her point? Languages in our brain are not a zero sum game. We can hold more than one in there. And each of them will reinforce the others, while all of them can contribute to learning content. Students are better off linguistically when they access education through their first language. They are also better off academically and their wellbeing is better

We also have to fight, particularly in international schools, a very real phenomenon pointed out by Jim Cummins. “We are faced with the bizarre scenario of schools successfully transforming fluent speakers of foreign languages into monolingual English speakers, at the same time as they struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to transform monolingual English speakers into foreign language speakers.” We can do better than that.

I’ve been following Eowyn’s work on multilingual pedagogies since a conference in Copenhagen in 2016. She used to refer to multilingual pedagogies as translanguaging, but translanguaging has suffered from a bit of concept creep. The term has started to mean any time you use a language other than English (in our Anglophone centric schools). But she reminds us that the original Welsh idea was to use both languages (Welsh and English in that context) intentionally in order to best access course content.

In just under two hours I’m going to need to duck out of the conference to teach an online graduate course to teachers in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea. We’re studying language instruction in international schools.Today will only be the second time we’ve met, but I’ve already heard a few of their stories. There’s a native Chinese speaker who says she spends 90% of her time in English, that she is more comfortable in English than Chinese. Her daughter speaks English fluently, but has an English class in her Malaysian school. She is glad for this, it lets her daughter be an expert for part of the school day. A Chinese teacher, teaching in English, wonders how to reach all of his students, at all their various levels of English. An American teaching in Chinese is learning Chinese as his students learn English. Hats off, or as Eowyn might say, “Chapeau, Gefeliciteerd!

We will discuss multilingual pedagogy – translanguaging – today. They will most likely tell me that their schools have an English Only policy. They’ll have to put parentheses around their learning, because using both the mother tongue and English to access course content is not allowed in their school. Even if it is intentional. Even if it is good practice. 

On the surface, the reasoning behind a monolingual immersion approach might seem good. We get better at what we practice, so make sure students are practicing English all the time. But Eowyn told us today that students are linguistically and academically better off when doing part of their learning in their mother tongue. Plus their well being is better. What is going on?

Most obviously, if students understand what they are being asked to learn, their learning outcomes will tend to be better. So use their mother tongue (intentionally, pedagogically) along with the language the school is promising parents. 

A little less obviously, Language learning isn’t a zero sum game, there is plenty of linguistic bootstrapping going on. One language pulls up the other. I like to tell students that there is BIG L Language and little l language. When we are learning multiple languages, we get, say Chinese, English, Kinyarwanda, Welsh. But we are also learning BIG L Language, the big part of the iceberg hidden under the surface. And BIG L awareness and practice helps us learn any language we set our minds to.

And perhaps forgotten entirely, but very important, a mother tongue is a big part of our identity. Our well being is tied into our self worth, our inner being, and our inclusion as a member in a particular group of language speakers, our inclusion in our own families. There is a reason it is called a mother tongue! To ignore it, to prohibit it, seems likely to affect one’s well being. And if our well being is not nurtured and cared for, our readiness to learn is compromised. 

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