Academic language and the multilingual classroom

Many socio-cultural factors, such as the learning context within which a new language is offered, contribute to the way in which the linguistic repertoire of a multilingual pupil is built up. A study by Le Pichon (2012) focuses on the effect of formal/in-class language education on the acquisition of a new language. The results show that language education in a school context contributes more to conscious communication than to bilingualism itself. Similarly, Prasad (2013) published a study that looks at what happens when you get pupils involved in research into their own language development and, in doing so, create awareness of their linguistic knowledge and language use: so-called meta-linguistic knowledge. The results show that the development of meta-linguistic skills and the use of the home languages contribute to the process of learning the school language. Furthermore, getting the pupil involved in his/her own language development and evaluation has a positive impact on the process: a pupil who is more aware can use a transparent learning environment and his/her own language to work on the things that are important (Prasad 2013).

Another way to encourage students is via mentoring and peer support. Recent studies have shown a positive effect of mentoring in the Netherlands (Vos et al. 2012). This study demonstrated that a year of mentoring had positive impact on children’s soft skills like self-esteem, self-efficacy and social skills next to cognitive and social network outcomes.

Another example of mentoring and peer support can be found in the Junge Vorbilder (“Young Role Models”) in Hamburg. This program targets pupils in grades 8 to 11 (lower secondary school) with a migrant background. They are mentored by university pupils who come also from migrant backgrounds and often share with them a similar cultural background and school experience. Mentoring is held at the homes of the mentees to help the mentors to get to know the family environment of the mentees and to build a good relationship with their parents. Mentoring consists of tutoring, social-emotional support as well as educational and vocational orientation. In 2013, Junge Volbilder had 50 mentor-mentee pairs. Additionally, since 2011, the project has offered group mentoring in the form of tutoring courses in several secondary schools in Hamburg.

According to Nesse (2008) and Crul & Kraal (2004), the success of mentoring rests on the quality training of mentors, the cooperation of schools and the engagement of parents as well as children. Mentoring is culturally sensible: the frequently perceived similarity between mentors and mentees demonstrates a clearly positive effect on the identification between both. Pupils paired as mentor-mentee are able to use their mother tongue to communicate knowledge about the school and education system as well as help enhance linguistic skills of mentees, thus making the transition easier for them.

In a report from 2010, Rivera et al. compare several high scoring schools in the US that have a high percentage of multilingual pupils to see which factors contribute to having more high-achieving pupils. The comparison showed that what all schools had in common was that

  1. they tended to organise many social activities;
  2. they all offered tutoring to pupils who have lower proficiency that their peers;
  3. they all used the home languages of the pupils to explain things like difficult concepts;
  4. many schools indicated that parental involvement was something they wanted to improve on.
    (Rivera et al., 2010)

As discussed in the previous chapter on multilingualism, teaching in both the home language and the school language can ensure that a pupil develops in the best way possible with regard to academic and cognitive skills. In addition, the probability that a pupil drops out is reduced dramatically. Trammel (2016) defines three main factors that are necessary for this to succeed:

  1. the first language should be used in education for as long as possible in order for it to have maximum effect on the pupil’s academic skills;
  2. appreciation of the linguistic/cultural background of the pupils should be encouraged as much as possible;
  3. methods and materials should be available in pupils’ first languages.

Naturally, it is important that this policy is implemented within the school as a whole or on a municipal/national level (depending on what level it is organised in your country) in order for it to have a chance to succeed.