No matter who, what, when, or where you’re teaching English, you are guaranteed to have multilingual (or almost multilingual) students! It’s one of my favorite parts of teaching ESL, but it can take some adjustment to get used to and figure out how to balance all of the languages at play in your classroom.
Many students may be learning English as a second language, but many may be learning it as a third, fourth, or even fifth language! Multilingualism can be a tricky topic to discuss in the language acquisition world because there are so many different facets to the conversation.
Today we’re going to look more closely at what it means to be multilingual, what it means to be fluent or proficient, and how your students use their multilingualism in daily life (and possibly in your classroom!).
What is Multilingualism?
In order to truly understand fluency and the interplay between native and secondary languages in the classroom, we first have to break down what multilingualism really is. At the most basic level, an individual who speaks more than one language is considered to be multilingual.
For many people who only speak one language and who have grown up in a society that primarily speaks one language, multilingualism seems to be in the minority. However, three quarters of the human race speaks two or more language, according to How Language Works by David Crystal (not an affiliate link). Many countries and societies embrace and encourage second language acquisition among their citizens. After all, take a look at the statistics below!
There are many reasons why an individual may know multiple languages, and it can be well worth your time, as a language teacher, to find out why your students are multilingual. Some students become multilingual because politically they need to as a result of immigration. Others are multilingual in order to have access to knowledge (such as to attend university or read scientific journals and whatnot). Have a discussion about multilingualism with your class. Ask them to share their reasons, their journey, their struggles, etc.
What is Fluency?
Understanding multilingualism and the science behind it is a great tool to help you, as the teacher, guide your students in their language acquisition. One of the biggest struggles that second language learners have is the pressure that they put on themselves to have native-like fluency.
When discussing fluency, it gets a little tricky to identify when an individual goes from being monolingual to multilingual. When is language considered fluent? Many would say that when a speaker has native-like fluency, then they are fluent.
However, while this level of fluency is possible, the vast majority of those who speak a second language don’t hold this level of fluency in both of their languages. In fact, scholars now, according to David Crystal (in How Language Works) consider bilingualism to be on a continuum of sorts.
The idea of a perfect balanced scale when it comes to language is often not very realistic. Many people prefer one language to another for specific topics, situations, relationships, etc. For instance, there are a lot of people who speak one language at home and another in the workplace, or who use their native language in their personal lives and English to read scientific or medical materials.
So, what does this mean for you, as an ESL teacher? Well, it’s important to remember that native-like or perfect fluency shouldn’t necessarily be a goal that you hold for your students. We teach English (and our students learn English) so that they are able to communicate with others in their personal lives, professional lives, academic lives, etc.
Again, this is where it becomes important to know what your students goals are. We can’t teach English very well or help our students achieve their goals very well if we aren’t aware of how they’ll be using it.
What is Code Switching?
Being aware of the way that multilingualism works can help you to be more understanding of the struggles your students face with language and the tools that they may use in order to succeed. Since many multilingual students don’t have the same level of proficiency in both (or all) of their languages, they may participate in code (or language) switching.
Everyone code switches. Children code switch. Professionals code switch. ELLs code switch. This term refers to changing language (either the way we speak or the language we speak) depending upon circumstances. For instance, I speak one way as a teacher and another way as a student. I use certain lingo in religious settings and other lingo with my friends.
Multilingual students code switch often and in many different ways, but the way we’re focusing on today is code switching between the native language and the target language.
Code switching can be used because your students don’t feel that they can express themselves adequately, in order to relate to a social group, to signal an attitude, etc. Some students may switch language sentence-by-sentence, situation-by-situation, or simply substitute a few words in a sentence with those from their native language.
The use of the L1 (or native language) in the classroom is very divisive in the ESL community, but for many students it can be a necessary tool for communication. While I don’t want to delve into the discussion around using the L1 in the ESL classroom, I wanted to highlight that language switching can be a great tool for communication. Whether you decide to allow or encourage it in your classroom is up to you, but know that language switching can be used as a tool.
Multilingualism is more than simply speaking multiple languages. There are so many different aspects to speaking and teaching those who speak a second or third language. Engaging in the discussion surrounding multi- or bilingualism is a great tool to better understand your students’ language struggles, to build relationships, and to create a learning environment that is beneficial to all.
Whether you recognize it or not, multilingualism has a huge impact on your language classroom!
I Want to Hear From You!
Do you speak a second language? How do you use code switching for communication?
How do you handle L1 (native language) use in your classroom?