Multilingualism

Sophia

Growing up with a mother who can readily speak three languages, is not easy, especially when you struggled learning just one. Learning languages was never easy for me. In order to learn English I lost my mother tongue, because I fully immersed myself in the English language. Then trying to learn French on top of that never worked. Over the years, I’ve come to retain bits and pieces of my mother tongue and learn some French. However, it has been a struggle the whole time.

In hindsight, I think the issues stemmed from the way languages are taught. When I was in English class in kindergarten, I was told to only speak English, and so I did. In French class, in high school, I was taught to only speak French, and so I did. The majority of the time I remained quiet in the classroom because I did not feel confident enough to speak up, especially in French. When I didn’t understand something and wanted to ask a question, I couldn’t because I didn’t know enough French to properly ask the question, which left me permanently in the dark. I think this is where my views of language teaching derive from.

I can understand why many classrooms follow the monolingual model, but after having experienced it, I feel that there must be a better way.

Recently, I have started to relearn my mother tongue. It is a slow process, some concepts came very easily, due to the years of only speaking Danish, but others were more difficult. What helped me the most was being able to ask my mother in English why particular grammar rules are the way they are. For example, in Danish you wouldn’t say the boy, instead, you would just add a suffix to the end of the word to symbolize the.

Boy = Dreng

The boy= Drengen

This also applies to plurals and ‘s. I found that being able to ask why in English helped me understand and once I had understood why I then knew when to use the proper endings. If I hadn’t been able to ask in English and had to do it in Danish, I would have gone weeks without understanding why.

I understand that we shouldn’t constantly be speaking different languages in a specific language class, and this would be very hard to accomplish if the class is full of students with different L1s. However, how can we help students learn languages, when we know the monolingual model does not work, and we should be promoting the bilingual model? I have read the articles on bilingualism but how do we actually implement a curriculum that can help all students? Especially, with the amount of diversity in our classrooms.

What are your thoughts? Is it possible?

Thank you

Sophia

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3 thoughts on “Multilingualism”

  1. Geraldine Gras (comment 4):

    Hi Sophia,
    Thank you for sharing a bit of your language learning process with us. Your post hits home, not from the language learning perspective but from the teaching perspective. I always ask my students to speak French (exclusively) when in my class. I even give a “red point” on Class Dojo if a student speak in English more than 5 times throughout the week… I will never give a child a “red point” for asking about the content in English… however, I will if he or she has been speaking to Bobby in English all morning after 2-3 reminders.

    I’m a strong believer in the use of the L1 to gain understanding of the L2 and its’ language features. I usually explain a concept in French first, as they are french immersion students. However, if a student then comes to see me to tell me he/she does not understand, I follow two steps:
    – “Est-ce que tu peux me dire ce que tu as compris, en Anglais?”
    – “Bien, alors voici le reste: (speak English)”

    McGill professors had always told me: never use the student’s L1 in your L2 classroom, or else their language learning is doomed. I remember the first time I heard a professor say it was alright to use the L1 once in a while (not all the time) to support the acquisition of an L2. Two teaching years later I have to say, I agree. French immersion programs provide students with the opportunity to acquire the academic content through the L2. But what happens if they do not understand the language? How are they suppose to acquire the linguistic features explained and apply them… if they do not understand you when you explain it?
    I think every case is different and every teacher has his/her preconceived ideas about how best to teach an L2. My philosophy is that I want my students to acquire the content through French however, I will not leave them in the dark because I am too stubborn to use their L1 (if it’s a language I can speak) or another language they speak (such as English). As teachers, we are here to support our students in their learning. Their L1s are a resource, not a handicap.

    Held og lykke with learning Danish!

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  2. Hi Sophia,
    I’m going to respond to your question “how do we actually implement a curriculum that can help all students?” with a short story.

    A number of years ago, I was teaching ESL to a group of adult learners in Quebec, who were part of a government program to re-train for a new trade. One of my students was a woman who had recently moved to Quebec from Mexico. She was taking the “francisation” program (free French courses for new immigrants to Quebec) at the same time as she was taking this training program and my course. On the first day of class, I could see that she was highly anxious and nervous about speaking English in front of the whole group, even just to introduce herself. So, I put the students in pairs and had them introduce themselves to each other. This gave me a chance to walk around the class and visit with the pairs. When I came to her, she started to tell me about her partner. Her words came out in Spanish and French. She slapped herself in the face. This told me a lot. This told me that she had such a deep-rooted belief that these other languages were ‘bad’ in English class that she was physically hurting herself when that was what came out of her mouth. I spoke to her in Spanish and told her that was she had said was okay and that she must have a lot going on in her head right now, as she was trying to keep all these languages separate. She nodded in agreement and her whole body relaxed. Just that moment of acknowledgement made a huge difference. Over time, she stopped hitting herself when she’d say a word in French or Spanish instead of English. Instead, she’d pause and smile at me. She was a highly motivated learner and developed a lot of confidence in her English during the course.

    So for me, the question about monolingual vs. multilingual approaches is not always about big level curricular decisions, and certainly not about a one-size-fits-all prescription of how best to be a teacher, but most importantly about local, individual human interactions. As teachers, we need to reflect on how our own attitudes help shape a learning space for our students.

    Back to your question, I think Ted Aoki’s distinction between curriculum-as-planned (that is, curriculum writ large) and curriculum-as-lived (that is, the moment to moment interactions we engage in) is really useful. What do you think?

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  3. Ethan:
    Hi Sophia,
    Thank you for sharing your own language learning story. According to my teaching expeirence, you have to be aware of each student’s learning objective in your class in order to choose the most appropriate teaching method. Students may vary in their background and language proficiency, however, I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to meet their learning needs. For instance, you can somehow discuss the class objective at the very beginning with your students and have them agreed on it. For each individua students, you can also have a personal talk with them for a detailed learning strategy. Sorry I don’t have much of theoretical knowledge to back my point but I think it will help with your teaching in some ways.

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