Using Multiple Languages to Support Bilingual Learners

Using Multiple Languages to Support Bilingual Learners
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Classrooms today are becoming increasingly diverse. Children from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds bring so much color and depth to the classroom. But a number of challenges can also emerge when working with students who speak different languages. How do you address the needs of multilingual learners when they are developing emergent literacy skills in not one, but sometimes two, or three languages? How could you use multiple languages to help language learners make sense of what they’re reading?

One effective strategy is called translanguaging. Translanguaging bridges the languages spoken at home with the linguistic demands of schools. More specifically, it allows students to use words from two linguistic repertoires to communicate effectively. One manifestation of this might be a student who uses Spanish in one sentence and English in another, or one who blends the two languages together within a single sentence. Blending languages together is, after all, what people from naturally bilingual households do. Thus, allowing children to draw from these natural linguistic resources has the opportunity to engage students in the learning process as they wrestle with new knowledge.

So what does this look like in the classroom? This article highlights three critical considerations drawn from the “Translanguaging: Guide for Educators” published by the City University of New York. These recommendations, used in part or in whole, are sure to benefit our bilingual learners as they make them feel both valued and included.

1) Use Multilingual Texts

An essential component of translanguaging is that students from linguistically diverse backgrounds have access to multilingual texts. These texts could be stories that come in multiple translations, texts with both languages on the same page, or books that are written by authors from culturally diverse backgrounds. Research shows that using multilingual texts help build language learners’ background knowledge, and simultaneously support home language literacy development. In addition, children feel more confident because these books validate their linguistic and cultural identity. Putting theory into practice, here are a few suggestions on how to use multilingual texts in your classroom.

  • Include multilingual texts in your classroom library (here are some resources)
  • Translate one of your students’ favorite stories and read it aloud on a special day
  • Have students read books in multiple languages side-by-side
  • Have a group of students translate an English story that they love, and place it in the library for others to learn about that language
  • Supplement class content with readings in students’ home languages about the same topic or theme, which can be read at home with parents
  • Make sure students have bilingual dictionaries (picture dictionaries help!) to enable problem-solving when they face linguistic challenges

2) Think About the Language Process

Break down the reading process for children. Take into account the linguistic demands of a reading task, and have students first read the text in their home language so they can become familiar with key vocabulary words and content. Then, ask students to read the passage in English at school to reinforce concepts and facilitate language transfer.

After reading, have students engage in conversations about the text, allowing them to speak in any language they choose. This allows students to share precisely about their favorite part of the story, about how the story relates to their own experience, or about what they would do differently if they were the main character. The purpose is for students to interact with and make meaning of the text. Finally, when students share ideas with the class, ask them to speak in English (telling them beforehand, of course!). Now that they have formulated their arguments, they will be able to focus on how to accurately express themselves in their second language.

3) Actively Promote Multilingualism

Allowing students to use the (often blended) languages that they speak at home in the classroom will, at first, feel strange to them. Shouldn’t the language of school be English only? While many teachers do not discourage students from using their home language in class, they also do not explicitly encourage it. Make the classroom an environment that embraces multilingualism. Let students know that their languages are welcome, and that they are important for learning a second language. To cultivate this, use multilingual posters, books, signs and student work on the walls. React positively to students who ask for help in a different language. Allow students to translate for each other. Discuss with the class why being multilingual is an asset in today’s society.

Here are a few questions you can ask the class to help get the conversation started:

  • Where do you hear people speaking different languages? Do you think it is useful to speak more than one language?
  • Do you know of any famous people who can speak more than one language? When do you think they use their languages? Why do you think being bilingual helps them?
  • In class, do you think it’s ok for your classmates to use the language they speak at home? Why or why not?

Engaging children in conversations that question the power and privilege ascribed to particular languages stops them from defining themselves (and their languages) as second class, and shows them what is truly powerful and truly a privilege — being bilingual.

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