Processes of language learning and multilingualism

The multilingualism of pupils is not always seen as a positive factor. In many cases, the home languages of pupils are even ignored or seen as inferior. According to Auger (2009), teachers often get academic and linguistic skills mixed up, giving them a negative view on multilingualism in the classroom. For both the teacher and the pupil it is very useful to make use of what the pupil is already capable of: this way, the pupil feels valued and he/she can transfer elements that he/she is already familiar with in the home languages to the school language, which allows for further development.

For example, older pupils who have developed academic and cognitive skills in their first language(s), can develop academic and cognitive skills in their second language(s) more easily than younger pupils (Cummins, 1981). In addition, Cummins (1981) showed that pupils who move to a different country when they are six or older need at least 5 years to get to the same language level as native speaker pupils. This means that for at least five years, the observation and assessment of the pupil should focus on their development: these pupils have to develop more quickly than monolinguals and they need to be given the opportunity to do so.

Therefore, it is important that you do not formulate a diagnosis too soon. Instead, an approach based on multilingualism is preferred: proactive and strategic use of the learners’ home languages needs to be made. This allows the pupils to have access to higher conceptual and cognitive tasks. Kenner and Ruby (2012) conducted a study in which they showed the advantages of bringing the cultural and linguistic knowledge of the pupils and their communities into the classroom, creating new spaces for multilingual learning. The creation of a new syncretic curriculum enabled:

  • more collaborative learning;
  • a greater involvement of parents and communities in schools;
  • the construction of confident learner identities for the pupils;
  • and more openness to intercultural communication in the teachers.

One of the ways to improve multilingualism in class is translanguaging. This strategy involves the use of a speaker’s full linguistic repertoire without strictly ensuring that the child only speaks the target language. Translanguaging focuses on what the child is capable of and integrates the pupil’s first languages in education in a new target language. For further information on translanguaging, you can visit the Rutu foundation’s website, which provides a description of translanguaging as well as the ongoing pilot. Advice in this section.

The inclusion of the home/minority language in the school should not be restricted to oral communication but should also include written texts. Additional languages need to be taught and learned in age-appropriate manner, starting with oral comprehension and output so that transfer from the stronger language can begin.

Furthermore, the use of dual language books can boost literacy skills in bilingual children: in a study by Sneddon (2008), teachers were asked to actively support this approach by providing bilingual books to the pupils while the parents provided expertise to stimulate the transfer of reading skills from the school language to the family language. Result: pupils achieved a higher level of literacy than their peers in the school language while developing fluent reading in their home language.

The use of the first language in the classroom is further stressed by Vivian Cook (2001). This article focuses on the importance of recognising the different types of multilingual pupils in education and on how the multilingual brain is more than just a brain that has a first language and an additional language. Based on various theories and examples of multilingualism, Cook (2001) describes various issues for teachers, including moving away from the idea that the second language learner needs to achieve the same goals as the monolingual speaker. In addition, Cook argues that the home languages of the pupils should be used in class in addition to the school’s language, or at least to some extent, for example when explaining grammar.