Education Talks: Multilingual classrooms: the new reality of urban schools

Functional multilingual learning is a new approach that the University of Ghent has been developing for classrooms where children speak several languages. Nell Foster from that university’s Centre for Diversity and Learning briefly explains this approach, as well as describing the circumstances of multilingual classrooms.

Is a multilingual classroom more of an opportunity or a challenge?

Before we think about whether it’s a problem or an opportunity, it’s simply the reality of many of our urban classrooms. What we really should be asking ourselves is whether our education system is adapting itself to the reality in front of it. So, it can be an opportunity when the teachers and the schools feel positive about these pupils and their schools, and when they are confident and knowledgeable about how to approach multilingualism. But it can also be a problem when teachers are not equipped to deal with these children. So, they need resources, they need time, they need training, they need pedagogical strategies.

Does migrant children’s use of their home language in class hinder their social integration?

This is an interesting question, because school is the first major social place that a child has to integrate into. Research indicates that the use of home languages in the classroom actually helps children to make better progress and contributes to feelings of well-being in school, and it helps children to engage with the curriculum in a more meaningful way and to be positioned as competent learners. When we allow children to use their home languages in the classroom, it allows them to become confident, to have positive participation, and it means they can be valued for who they are now rather than who they will become when they have learned the language of instruction.

And, of course, learning the language of school is important, but this goes hand in hand with integration. It’s important to remember that the school language is not the only way that children build their social world and integrate. When we look at what’s happening in classrooms and playgrounds, the reality is that children are engaging with multiple languages every day and including and building bridges – so, things like language brokering, jokes, translations and games. And these are not only happening in one language. So, we don’t have to have a paradigm of just a majority or a minority language; we can include both. And if we forbid home languages, we make it so much more difficult for a newly arrived migrant child to participate meaningfully in the school community. Language learning is much more likely to occur when a child feels integrated and appreciated and a meaningful member of the school community.

How does the functional multilingual learning approach benefit children?

Functional multilingual learning is an approach we’ve been developing at the University of Ghent. What this is trying to do is to move away from the binaries of monolingual submersion education, which is what is happening a lot at the moment, and bilingual education, where children are able to become literate in two languages. In our very linguistically diverse urban classrooms, where we sometimes have ten languages in a classroom, it just isn’t possible to make sure that all children can learn to read and write in both languages. So, functional multilingual learning sits somewhere on the spectrum between these two positions.

There are three pillars to functional multilingual learning: The first one is the creation of a safe classroom environment, where the children feel happy and welcome. The second pillar is the possibility for children to interact in other languages, maybe between each other, maybe with other members of staff in the school. And the third pillar is the creation of meaningful multilingual activities to achieve a real-life goal.

In terms of the benefits, really what this approach does is it takes the language reality as its start point, and it enables children to draw from a wider range of learning resources. And we see a lot of evidence for children helping each other, working together, using other languages to construct understanding and to help them with the learning processes in the classroom. And in general, this increases well-being in the classroom because it values the children’s home knowledge and includes them in classroom practice every day.