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

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, appreciated and as 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. So,there are three main 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.

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