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What are the most influential ideas on language learning at present?

By Susan Stewart 

What is a multilingual person?

A multilingual person can be defined as a regular user of two or more languages, although the manner in which multilingual students make use of their range of languages might differ greatly. Some languages might be used as a way to (informally) communicate with family members, whilst others might only be used outside the home, either socially or for academic purposes. In some cases, the school language might be new for many students and this same language might not be used at home or in the community. We can see the complexity in what it means to be multilingual, but what do we know about the experiences of multilingual students in schools?  And how might these experiences differ in international, local, private or public school settings?

Whilst school days are structured in a compartmentalised manner, with a timetable dictating when a student is socialising, when they are doing physical activity, when they are being creative, and when they are using a particular language, the reality is that multilingual students do not function in this fashion, turning their languages on and off as required. The main functions of language are to communicate and to develop cognitively. If a multilingual student were to restrict themselves to using only one of their languages at a time, they might not advance in their learning or be effective communicators. This is particularly true if the language of instruction is a language that the student is currently learning.

The importance of understanding language backgrounds

“The reality for many of our students is that their ‘first language’ might not longer be, or has never been their strongest language”

Why is understanding the complexity of language backgrounds and language use of our students an important step to understanding the most influential ideas on language learning at present? The myth of the ‘balanced bilingual’, the super-human who can function equally well in both languages in social and academic settings, and across all topics of conversation is now no longer recognised as a valid term or desirable goal. The outdated term ‘mother tongue’ has long been used to denote the first, and presumed strongest, language of a multilingual person. The reality for many of our students is that their ‘first language’ might no longer be, or has never been, their strongest language. Many of our students, whether they speak one or more languages at home, may only use these languages for limited functions, and they may not use it as their dominant language.

What has most certainly been observed informally, and is also recognised in applied linguistics research, is the hybrid and flexible manner in which multilingual people use their languages to communicate, to acquire new knowledge and concepts, as well as to index their identities. The choice of which language to use can be at times conscious, as well as subconscious. Just as we all adapt our speech style to suit the person we are talking to – be it a friend, colleague or grandmother – so a multilingual person will choose which language(s), or a combination thereof, to use in a particular situation.  There are numerous terms coined by researchers to describe the flexible manner in which multilingual people use their languages, such as ‘code-switching’, ‘crossing’ and ‘translanguaging’.

“We do not learn a new language in isolation but rather need to actively rely on our metalinguistic understanding to make and express meaning in the new language”

A multilingual person is said to draw on their language repertoire to express themselves, but also to build understanding. When learning a new language, we all make use of our understanding of vocabulary and grammatical structures in our other languages to make sense of new words and sentences. We benefit from recognising the similarities as well as the differences as our fluency in the new language develops. We do not learn a new language in isolation, but rather need to actively rely on our metalinguistic understanding to make and express meaning in the new language.  This transfer of understanding from language to language is not unidirectional, but rather bidirectional, as understanding the grammar of a new language can also clarify things in your other stronger languages.

How does this look in a classroom?

The language development course in the Career-related Programme (CP) is a well-designed example. By recognising a student’s full linguistic repertoire, we give recognition and respect to all languages, and take the focus away from the more traditional approach of only concentrating on a student developing proficiency in the school language. We acknowledge the important role that all languages play in our students’ development. Whilst we might not know these languages ourselves, we can explicitly encourage students to reflect on a certain word, expression, or concept in their other languages.

For example, having students compare an expression such as “the grass is always greener on the other side” across languages would develop an understanding of how idiomatic language works. Recently, a student explained that in their language they had the same expression, although the “other side” was translated into “at the neighbours”. Another student shared their observations of how English and other languages are used interchangeably in online gaming platforms, with expressions and metaphors being mixed across multiple languages. Short conversations of this type are enriching for all students and teachers, and they can also learn a thing or two from their multilingual students at the same time.

If you are interested in participating in the curriculum review of for language development, please email [email protected] for more information.

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Susan Stewart is part of the International School of London’s Middle School Research Institute and chair of the ECIS MLIE (Multilingual Learning in International Education) special interest group.  Susan has lived and worked in Thailand, the UAE, South Africa, Belgium, Oman and Sweden, and has raised two bilingual global-nomad children. Susan has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics and French and an MA in Applied Linguistics and Communication from Birkbeck College, University of London.  Susan speaks English, French, German, Afrikaans, Swedish and Arabic and is a lifelong learner of languages. Susan is active in the local community in promoting the use of home languages, delivering regular parent workshops around the challenges of raising bilingual children in monolingual environments.  Susan supports a group of heritage language schools in the local community and is interested in the interaction between (international) schools and local language communities.  

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