Highlighting the central role of language in education and learning seems like stating the obvious. After all, language provides the key tool through which we humans are able to share knowledge across generations. Yet, the full implications of language for teaching and learning are often insufficiently acknowledged and incorporated in educational practice. In particular, despite living in a highly multilingual world, monolingualism is still the norm in the majority of schools. As a result, education systems around the world continue to fail learners from minority language and migration backgrounds, these in fact now making up the majority of learners in schools in many parts of the world. So, what would be the effect of adopting multilingualism as the norm in education? Time to ‘restate’ what has long been ‘obvious’ in educational practice, now from a multilingual perspective.
I think most people would accept as obvious that being able to understand what you hear and read is crucial to learning. Although this may be a taken-for-granted notion for parents whose children grow up with the language used in schools, it is not for the many parents whose children go through education in a language other than their mother tongue. When rephrasing this statement to academic achievement and later chances on the labour market largely depend on understanding the language of school instruction, the full significance of this basic principle for minority-language learners becomes apparent. The ‘language of school instruction’ is a complex phenomenon: it does not simple refer to the language (e.g. English, Spanish, Welsh etc.) in which knowledge is encoded, but schooling also reflects a specific sociocultural practice that requires the acquisition of highly specific ‘academic’ language skills to be able to participate. Parents and teachers will know that the multiple transition from home to school, from play-based to formal learning, from oral to literacy skills is a huge challenge for even the best of children. Minority language and migrant background students face the added challenge of transitioning across languages, and having to learn second language oracy and literacy skills simultaneously. Monolingual approaches to education thus provides a simply unfair challenge to these learners, an ethical issue that schools have a responsibility to address.
A second widely-accepted principle in education is that learning is most effective when building on what a person already knows. For children where the language of the home is the same as that of schooling, the mother tongue functions as a stable link and a rich resource for school-based learning. Minority-language learners are often asked to leave this resource by the classroom door. This happens despite the fact that using the mother tongue is known to help the learning of additional languages (second and third). Specifically, second language learning naturally occurs by linking new knowledge in the unknown language to existing knowledge in the first (and strongest) language, the mother tongue thus providing access to the language of school instruction and education. Moreover, as Vygotsky reminds us, language is intrinsically linked to thinking: although we sometimes find ourselves ‘lost for words’ when trying to describe our feelings, a large part of our thinking – higher-order thinking in particular – occurs in and through language. By side-lining a child’s mother tongue, we might inadvertently be silencing their inner voice and deny them this crucial tool for learning.
In ‘restating the obvious’ from a multilingual perspective, new light was shed on the inherently close relationship between language and learning. Using language-supportive teaching methodologies and including all of the student’s languages in educational practice provide a powerful means to break down the language barrier that is currently preventing equal access to education for many children around the world. Multilingualism as the norm in education – let’s embrace it!
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