It’s time to change the way we teach English
As we move into 2019, the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, it’s time to consider not only how we think about Canada’s linguistic identity but also how we might develop best practices for learning and teaching languages.
Since 1969, Canada has recognized two official languages, English and French, but many people who live in the country are in fact multilingual. There are approximately 60 Indigenous languages and 140 immigrant languages in Canada besides English and French.
For example, in my own case I use five languages: Portuguese, Spanish, English and a little Italian and French. I was born in Brazil in a family with Italian and Spanish heritage, and learned Portuguese, the country’s official language, at school. Later, I learned English, followed by French after I moved to Montréal. In Canada, stories like mine are more common than we think.
To teach English in a way that acknowledges multiple languages in Canada, we need an approach that values and advances students’ existing language and cultural identities.
Plurilingual instruction is an approach that doesn’t discourage or shy away from using the learner’s primary language(s) when the new language is introduced. Plurilingual approaches seek to move beyond monolingual approaches, focused on the target language only.
A plurilingual approach can be taken to teach any new language. But in particular, my research has led me to focus on how plurilingual approaches to teaching English could change students’ experiences of language learning.
English is often a second or third language
In Canada, 7.7 million residents speak a non-official language as a mother tongue, an increase of 13.3 per cent between 2011 to 2016, and the number of people speaking more than one language at home is on the rise.
Using more than one language is not uncommon in Canada, particularly in metropolitan areas such as Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver where switching and mixing languages for different purposes is part of everyday life.
Canada is multicultural in addition to being multilingual. Cultural diversity is not only represented by immigrant cultures but also by diversity within Indigenous, anglophone and francophone groups. After all, these groups are both linguistically and culturally diverse in the sense that not everyone who speaks the same language and is part of the same cultural background speaks or behaves the same way.
While Canada recognizes English and French as official languages, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has called for the revitalization, promotion and preservation of the country’s Indigenous languages. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act also mandates that we “preserve and enhance the use of languages other than English and French, while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada.”
But the way English language programs have presented teaching English to students doesn’t acknowledge the diversity of multiple linguistic backgrounds. The category “English as a second language” — so common now it is frequently shorthanded to ESL — ignores the fact that many students find themselves in my situation: they are, in fact, studying English as a third, fourth or fifth language.
Further, ESL programs often undervalue the use of more than one language to access information, communicate and use cultural knowledge in interactions with people from diverse backgrounds.
Benefits to students
In plurilingual language instruction, teachers focus on developing what linguists call a linguistic repertoire rather than the mastery of one language only.
Plurilingual instruction values the use of languages, dialects (or varieties of language) as well as cultural knowledge that students have developed throughout their lives; they build on this knowledge to further develop proficiency in the new target language.
For example, students learn strategies such as translanguating: when learning words in the target languages, they reflect on similarities and differences in other languages.
And, as the language learner’s confidence grows with switching between languages, this also develops the person’s ability and confidence to make language choices and manage language risks in socially and linguistically diverse social settings.
Thus, researchers believe that embedded with plurilingual competence is also pluricultural competence: learners experience greater comfort with, and enjoyment in, the fluid linguistic and cultural demands and opportunities of communicating in diverse societies.
While plurilingual instruction is relatively new in Canada, many countries including Uganda, Spain and Mexico have introduced plurilingual instruction and reported benefits of linking linguistic and cultural diversity in language education.
Studies based in Canada alone suggest that when teachers use a plurilingual approach language students gain opportunities to personally identify with multiple languages and value multiple strategies for language learning. Students also become confident and skilled in using different languages or a language mix depending on their location.
In my most recent study, I examined plurilingual instruction in comparison to regular instruction that emphasized one language only (monolingual) in a university English language program in Toronto.
I recruited seven teachers who taught the same program to 129 students but used different approaches.
After four months, students who received plurilingual instruction reported it was beneficial for the development of cognition, linguistic and cultural empathy, relatability, critical thinking and willingness to learn more languages, among other benefits.
All of the teachers in my study showed preference for plurilingual instruction and reported that it challenges cultural stereotypes and encourages students to be active, engaged learners who are empowered and confident with their own language use.
While more research is needed to confirm these results, future research could also be done in classrooms where French is taught as the official language, or where any languages are taught to help our understanding of benefits of plurilingual instruction.