One Voice? Many Languages! The value of multilingualism in our modern world (Part 2)

Part 2 of Bernardette's two-part blog. Read Part 1 here

By Bernardette Holmes MBE
Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques
Vice-President of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL)
Co-Chair of the Research in Primary Languages Network (RiPL)

Deconstructing the term multilingualism, we have a further conundrum to solve in how our education and political systems describe the different languages we speak. We encounter various terms: home languages, heritage languages, community languages, second languages, migrant languages, minority languages, additional languages, and, of course, modern and ancient ‘foreign’ languages. 

All of these terms can be confusing and unhelpful, and can carry with them perceptions of status, or lack of status. Languages that are majority languages may be seen as more powerful, more influential, and in the eyes of our young learners, more important. This can result in young people who speak more than one language in the home rejecting their ‘home languages’ and seeking to assimilate into the dominant language and culture by losing their bi- or multilingualism and opting for elective monolingualism. This is a loss for individuals, for families, for communities and for society as a whole. It also encourages those young people who speak the dominant language, in our case, English, to retreat into a false perception that everyone speaks their language, ergo, there is no need to learn other languages, as they are irrelevant.

The classroom as a transformative space
Challenging individual and public perceptions, converting negative attitudes into positive behaviours, affecting cultural change and policy reform - all of these may seem to present intractable problems that we cannot hope to solve within the context of our classrooms. 

Yet, there are inspiring examples of the extent to which the classroom has become a transformative space, where multiple languages and diverse cultures are accepted, acknowledged and valued. It begins with willingness to adapt to a changing world, where notions of identity, nationality and citizenship are redefined and evolving, as the tectonic plates of our geopolitical systems shift and realign. Communities are on the move, and within the classroom, we have the opportunity to create new communities and third spaces, where children from different backgrounds, geographies and histories can explore their world and create new conceptual frameworks which take account of each other’s languages and cultures.

Among the pioneers of fresh thinking about intercultural dialogue and multilingual approaches, the Language Friendly School is an outstanding example of making significant change by taking very practical steps that can be realistically accomplished. Supported by leading experts in the field of mother tongue and multilingual education such as Professor Jim Cummins, University of Toronto, Canada, the Language Friendly School has articulated a vision where: 

All children have access to a language friendly-learning environment where they feel accepted and valued for who they are. 

The school aims to become linguistically and culturally inclusive and that means recognising all of the languages that children speak, and finding space for these languages with the school community. Research shows that children who speak more than one language benefit if they can use all of their linguistic repertoire in their learning. It may mean children talking together in a language that the teacher doesn’t understand for some of their learning; it may mean children working from source material in different languages and working in a shared language. 

To be successful in this multilingual approach requires cooperation and the development of a language plan involving all members of the school: pupils, school leaders, teachers and teaching assistants. It will certainly mean engaging with parents from diverse cultural backgrounds and developing a shared sense of a learning community where all languages and cultures are held in equal esteem.

Many benefits
There are many benefits to the multilingual approach. Research shows that learners who use their first language alongside the dominant language strengthen their cognitive skills. Working bilingually supports executive functioning and strengthens selective attention to particular aspects of problem-solving. Bilingual learners tend to have greater empathy and cultural awareness, recognising that individuals have multiple perspectives and may share a variety of points of view.

For the child who comes into the multilingual classroom only speaking one language and perhaps having quite limited experience of other cultures, the opportunity to learn about other ways of seeing the world and to hear a range of other languages, stories, songs and traditions, is enriching and inspiring. It enables learners to develop a sense of their own identity and to recognise that identity is not fixed but can be flexible and dynamic, growing richer with every language and culture that they encounter. When it comes to learning a new language (and I reject the term ‘foreign’) as part of the national curriculum, children who have been nurtured in the environment of a language friendly school are more prepared and excited to explore the new language and culture and extend their own repertoire. This cultural and linguistic curiosity should be sustained as they move into the secondary phase.

To conclude, I would like to turn to the insights of a great Lebanese-born French author, Amin Maalouf, who seems to capture the essence of what it is to be human and the role of languages and cultures in defining our unique identity within a shared sense of humanity:

 “What it is that makes me myself rather than anyone else is the very fact that I am poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. It is precisely this that defines my identity. Would I exist more authentically if I cut off a part of myself?” Amin Maalouf

So, we have one voice, but with that voice we can learn, use and love many languages. Our identity is shaped and transformed by our languages: our languages reflect our cultural experiences and our intercultural journey; they define us. There can be no greater wisdom to prepare us for life in our modern world than to recognise and promote the value of multilingualism.

Bernardette Holmes MBE is an education policy expert, and Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques. Bernardette is also Vice-President of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) and Co-Chair of the Research in Primary Languages Network (RiPL).

Posted: 20/06/2022 10:16:16