Modern Multilingualism: Teaching and Learning

During our in-service day in February, faculty and staff of Silicon Valley International School (INTL) were given an opportunity to reflect on the benefits and challenges of teaching and learning in a multilingual environment.

In recent years, research about bilingual education has produced a lot of new results, particularly in the field of neuroscience. We know now better than ever how a bilingual brain works and, contrary to long-held beliefs, bilingualism appears to be more than just two parallel monolingualisms.

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Ofelia Garcia, a most prominent scholar in that field, uses the following metaphor: speaking two languages is not like having access to two different cars and choosing which one to drive for a particular need. Instead, being bilingual is similar to operating a unique, all-terrain vehicle,and constantly navigating and adapting to the“uneven topographies of communication.”

If you are a bilingual person yourself, this might resonate with situations you may have encountered. I personally have noticed that even in a conversation in English, if I need
to calculate a number (for example a tip at a restaurant) my brain always switches to French to do the math.

This new understanding of the inner workings of a bilingual brain has important implications on the foundation of which a bilingual program should be built, from the way teachers design their lesson plans to the general design of the school spaces, schedules, or communications.

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One important concept stemming from this new perspective is called “translanguaging.” Simply explained, this is a pedagogical approach where all languages spoken by students in a classroom are viewed as an asset rather than a hindrance to the objectives of the lesson. A typical illustration would be when students conduct research, for example, on a science topic, to let them consult resources in any language they want, and then ask them to make a presentation or write a summary of their findings in the specific target language.

This methodology has the advantage of separating the acquisition of the science concepts, which occurs in the language chosen by the student, from the development of language skills, which occurs in the target language.

One of the first steps for teachers to implement such an approach is to know the actual linguistic make-up of their class. What are the different languages spoken by the students? Which student is most comfortable in one or the other?

To answer these questions, an activity called “My Language Biography” can be implemented by teachers with their class. This simply takes the form of an artifact created by each student (poster, booklet, recording, etc.) representing all the languages they speak or have been exposed to, and their personal relationship to them.

During our February in-service day, Every person working at INTL, faculty and staff, created their own Language Biography and shared it with colleagues in small groups. It was a very powerful and personal moment, highlighting the richness of our multilingual and multicultural community. People learned about each other in a different way, even those that had been colleagues for many years.

But more than just being some sort of a team building activity, it was meant to be a starter point of a larger discussion about how we could use this richness of languages and cultures as an asset to better work together. This mirrors the approach teachers could adopt in their class: once they know the linguistic profile of their students, they could adapt their lessons to strategically include all those languages as a lever for learning.

When more than 40% of the population of the world is bilingual, and when embracing diversity and respecting everybody’s identity seems to be such an important value to defend, Translanguaging as a philosophy of education is an innovative approach worth exploring.