Digital literacies and language-friendly pedagogies: where are we now?


Emmanuelle Le Pichon, University of Toronto, outlines the challenges that are still standing in the way of adopting multilingual online learning platforms in the classroom, although many are, in fact, available and ready to be integrated.

In 2019, I conducted a study with Professor Jim Cummins on the possible effect of a multilingual Web-based platform on the learning of mathematics in 76 eleven-year-old young multilingual students. This study was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it already opened my eyes to the challenges of introducing a translanguaging pedagogy – or (as my colleague and I called it) a “language-friendly pedagogy” This is most commonly defined as the active use of all linguistic resources students may have to support their learning.

The questions that emerged from this study were very relevant prior to the pandemic, but arguably even more relevant now: how is it that the Internet has existed for more than twenty years already but it is only modestly, if at all, exploited in the classroom? The most common answer to this question invariably evokes the low socio-economic levels of some students, which would preclude them from accessing the Internet at home. But the main challenges lie elsewhere.

Challenge 1: Integrating digital technologies

During our study, students and teachers shared their thoughts regarding the Web-based platform we proposed. It was clear that the students loved it: both the game-like format and the option to choose the course and quiz languages. Teachers, on the other hand, while recognising the value of the platform, decided to return to their classic course format and relegate the online platform to a weekly optional “club” session after one semester. We understood that despite initial enthusiasm, teachers were hampered by the fact that they had never been taught how to integrate Web-based learning into their teaching.

Challenge 2: Language-friendly pedagogies

Digital technology allows us to translate the curriculum content into an infinite number of languages. So why don’t we use it more? This second challenge is banal, but as we learned from our study, it is anything but trivial: teachers simply lack basic training in language-friendly pedagogies. As a result, some teachers even reported feeling threatened by having to give room in their classroom to the different languages included in the platform.

Challenge 3: Stepping out of our comfort zone

Almost all children we interviewed appreciated the possibility the platform offered them to learn in the language they understood best. What, then, is preventing us teachers from adopting the same perspective? Even though we believe in the value of maintaining mother tongues, more often than not we also seem to adhere to an implicit notion that maintenance and development of home languages and cultures should happen outside of the classroom. The classrooms are our classrooms, where our language is used.

Yet the concept of translanguaging has allowed us to understand how porous the relationship between languages within the individual is, and how crucial it is to bridge the home context to the school context. By opening classrooms to the Internet and its infinite resources, we have the unprecedented opportunity to create an open third space in which contexts may converge. However, to do so, teachers need to step out of their comfort zone and accept the use of languages, even if they themselves do not know them.

Conclusion: In fact, who wants to be language-unfriendly?

A language-friendly pedagogy should lead students to negotiate flexibly between their home and school languages and cultures so as to become professional diplomats: not uprooted individuals but, on the contrary, rooted in history, namely their own. Online technology offers us infinite possibilities to exploit the linguistic capital of each individual student. It all depends on our willingness and ability to fully value the different linguistic skills brought to the table by each individual student, even if that may expose our linguistic and cultural limitations as teachers. Our schools need to make the most of online multilingual technologies to become language-friendly – and by doing so, they will shift from coercive to collaborative power. All my research is directed towards this goal.

Emmanuelle LePichon

Dr Emmanuelle Le Pichon is currently Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, OISE, head of the Centre de Recherches en Éducation Franco-Ontarienne (CRÉFO), after working for several years at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics at Utrecht University. Since 2009, she has led several projects on the inclusion of minority students in education.