Celebrating Multilingualism

Celebrating Multilingualism

Photo credit: Naomi Barbour

Note from the editor: Naomi Barbour writes a guest blog post in honor of International Mother Language Day

“That doesn’t help me,” Yousef observed, having looked up a new term from his Biology class in the dictionary to check the meaning in his first language, Arabic. “I don’t know that word.”

“I wouldn’t be able to do this in Chinese anymore”, Kevin told me, with a slight note of anxiety in his voice.

“It’s easier for me to write my outline in Japanese. Is that ok?” asked Riko, hopefully.

Comments such as these from students are typical in my job as an English teacher at an international school. They speak to the tensions that students feel when learning in a language that is not their mother tongue. These tensions make up part of their identity and it is important for students to have the time and space to reflect on what it means to be multilingual. By discovering the benefits and challenges of multilingualism, they can gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit. For these reasons, I decided to dedicate some class time to exploring with my students what it means to be a multilingual learner. As always, I tried to include activities in all four language domains: speaking, listening, reading and writing.

First, I got them to focus on their first language with a simple activity called But, Because, So. I gave them a sentence stem, “My first language is important…” Students had to complete the sentence in three different ways, using but, because and so.

Next, we worked on a definition for multilingual. We did this as a Think, Pair, Share activity, maximising oral interaction in the classroom. Only after creating our own definition for multilingual did we consult the Cambridge Dictionary of English, where we found that a multilingual person is someone “able to use more than two languages for communication”. Important: nowhere in the definition does it say that you need to be fluent in those languages.

In later classes, we explored the benefits of multilingualism through a Market Stall activity. On individual numbered strips of card, I printed fifteen benefits of multilingualism, including developing improved critical thinking abilities and problem-solving skills, as well as being more efficient communicators in your first language. These were divided out randomly among the students, who also had a graphic organiser on which to note down all the benefits. First, they read their own benefit carefully to make sure they understood it, checking for any difficult vocabulary. Then they mingled round the room, “selling” their benefit to their classmates. They were not allowed to show their card; they had to communicate and explain it orally.

Students went on to do a reading comprehension looking at additive and subtractive bilingualism. They discovered that at the same time as learning a new language, they have to maintain and develop their first language. Otherwise, they are at risk of subtractive bilingualism, in which further languages are added at the expense of the first language and culture. Among others, James Cummins at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto has published widely on this and related topics. Students then used that material for a group activity in which they had to pretend they were the school leadership team and come up with ways in which to support and celebrate multilingual students at our school. They had some excellent ideas, such as providing first language support classes after school.

Finally, students wrote an essay on the prompt: What benefits can multilingual students experience and what are some ways to support these students at our school? They had to incorporate language from our unit language objectives and were assessed on the WIDA writing rubric.

What better way then to celebrate International Mother Language Day on February 21st by exploring with students the ways in which multilingualism not only benefits them personally, but also helps make the world a better place for us all? The United Nations cites multilingual education as a way to help achieve their Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and the theme for this year’s celebration is Linguistic diversity and multilingualism count for sustainable development.

Take some time to celebrate mother languages with your students and colleagues. How about a challenge on February 21st to teach someone your favourite expression in your mother language? For those who share the same mother language, there may well be local expressions that you could teach. If your students and colleagues like using social media, new expressions could be tweeted out using #motherlanguageday. Happy International Mother Language Day!

Naomi Barbour is a High School English teacher of multilingual learners at Asociación Escuelas Lincoln, an international school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has always loved learning languages and was delighted to add River Plate Spanish to the list when she moved to Argentina from her native UK.

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