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Classroom Activities for Building Critical Multilingual Awareness

by Naashia Mohamed |

“How can I encourage my students to use their full linguistic repertoires if I am monolingual and do not speak my students’ languages?”

“I am all for encouraging students to use their home languages for learning, but how will I even know if they are using their language correctly?”

As a TESOL teacher educator who works with teachers from all curriculum areas, these are some of the most common questions that I hear from teachers. Teachers understand the value of using the students’ home language as a resource. But given the increasingly linguistically and culturally diverse student populations in their care, they are challenged in how to best support the multilingual development of all their learners. Having each individual teacher teach every student’s home language, or having every learner magically acquire and shift to the dominant language — these are not realistic solutions.

We know from past experience that when schools require that learners leave their cultural and linguistic repertoires at the door, it results in poor educational outcomes, family language loss, and identity devaluation. Rather that framing the problem through the monolingual habitus of the school, experts suggest that the key to successfully approach linguistic diversity is to adopt translingual pedagogies that activate critical multilingual awareness.

Drawing on Multilingual and Translingual Pedagogies

How can teachers draw on multilingual and translingual pedagogies to design instruction in culturally sustaining ways? Here are some suggestions.

    • Invite parents, families, and students to contribute their language and cultural expertise. Use these funds of knowledge to inform the curriculum planning process to bridge the home-school gap.
    • Consider how the diverse linguistic ecology of the school community — including students’ home languages, local indigenous languages, and taught world languages — can be utilized to enrich content-based learning experiences.
    • Recognise that all students, regardless of their language background, need language- and literacy-rich learning opportunities where core content and academic practices are integrated with English language development without watering down the curriculum.
    • Plan to incorporate multiple opportunities for students of different language, cultural, and social backgrounds to work collaboratively. Make language an explicit focus of such projects to encourage the development of receptive and productive multilingual language development.
    • Actively engage students’ multilingual language awareness by setting up activities to compare functions and patterns across languages.

Comparing Languages

Through repeated exposure and opportunities to engage with languages, learners notice how language works. Noticing is a prerequisite for developing language awareness. As students build their awareness of language, they become more confident language users and autonomous learners.

Language awareness can be of three main types:

    • Metalinguistic awareness: This includes an awareness of the forms of the language and a recognition that language is a system with patterns and exceptions to rules. This level of awareness also includes understanding the properties of language and how it can be stretched for creative purposes.
    • Metacognitive awareness: This includes an awareness of how language is learned and developed as well as the strategies and processes involved in language learning and development.
    • Sociocultural awareness: This includes an awareness of the connection between language and culture as well as the close relationship between language and ideology.

Activities to Develop Critical Language Awareness

    • Explore shades of meaning through word clines. How do nuances of meaning translate across languages?
    • Consider word order in multiple languages. Take examples of simple and compound sentences in English and analyse the word order. How would you say the same sentences in another language? Does the word order change?
    • Study the position of adjectives. Take a sentence such as That really big ugly green sports car is always parked across the street, where multiple adjectives are used together. Get students to identify the adjectives and decide why they need to be in a certain order. How would that work in a different language? Does adjective position matter in other languages?
    • Create language portraits. Encourage students to reflect on the role of language in their lives.
    • Study headlines and advertisements for word play. Understanding that words and sentences can have more than one meaning improves comprehension by allowing readers to think flexibly about what the appropriate meaning may be.
    • Unpack idioms. Idioms are an integral part of a language’s cultural fabric, adding depth and emotion to interactions. They are culture specific and cannot be translated literally to convey the same meaning. Students can discuss nuances of meaning across languages.

There are, of course, innumerable ways of drawing attention to language. Your choice of activity will depend on the age and ability of your learners as well as the linguistic diversity of your classroom.

About the author

Naashia Mohamed

Naashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.

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