George Lucas Educational Foundation
English Language Learners

Incorporating Students’ Native Languages to Enhance Their Learning

Teachers don’t have to speak students’ first languages to make room for these languages in middle and high school classrooms.

February 9, 2022
FatCamera / iStock

I loved my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Phillips. I will always remember how safe and welcomed she made me feel. I would watch her give instructions in English, not understanding a word of it, and I would copy what my classmates did. When Mrs. Phillips came over, I would speak unabashedly to her in Vietnamese. She would pay careful attention to my gestures to decipher my message and praise me with a smile in celebration of my work.

You do not need to speak the same language to feel someone’s love. I also don’t remember her yelling at me to speak English. What would be the use of finger waving and saying, “Speak English!” when Vietnamese was the only language I knew at the time?

As we embrace culturally responsive and culturally sustaining pedagogies, we are abandoning destructive English-only policies. Unfortunately, English-first policies often place other languages last—and, by extension, the cultures represented by non-English languages.

What messages are multilingual learners (MLs) internalizing when the only sanctioned language they hear in schools is English? With an additive approach to language, MLs can learn another language without having to subtract their existing ones.

3 Ways Multilingualism Helps Students Learn

1. Mastering content. I used to think that students had to learn content in English. However, a concept like tectonic plates remains the same regardless of the language. Now when I have my students complete a research project, I make sure to tell them that using an article or video in another language is absolutely appropriate.

When my 10th graders were learning about how Covid-19 impacted the Thai economy, many of them used articles written in Thai, as they provided more nuanced and relevant details. In this way, we celebrated the students’ multilingualism and dissolved the language hierarchy myth by showing students that content does not have to be learned in only one language.

2. Collaborating. Learning content by reading articles in students’ languages works for students who are literate in other languages. For students who can only speak and understand their heritage language, learning content is still possible while collaborating with classmates who speak the same languages.

For example, when I had my students read an article in English about land subsidence, I had them pause at the end of each paragraph to talk about and process what they had just read. For many of my students, it was easier to understand the article when they talked about it in their Chinese, Thai, or Korean peer groups. Since learning is a social experience, let’s have students learn using all of their languages.

3. Communicating ideas. Often, MLs have ideas swirling in their minds but struggle to formulate them in English. To support these students, we can have them first brainstorm, organize, and outline in their heritage languages. Forcing students to write or speak only in English is like putting speed bumps in their way. The goal is to have idea generation and to connect concepts at this stage, not English output. Once they have all of their ideas organized using their languages, we can support students to transfer these ideas into English.

With these three approaches to heritage language integration, we see that teachers do not have to know all of the languages their students speak. All teachers need to do is see students’ multilingualism as an asset that extends learning and sustains students’ connections to their communities. As MLs engage more through their languages, our eyes are opened to their potential.

Yes, many of us work in places that require English output on summatives, and state assessments are also in English. However, this does not mean that everything we do as teachers has to be monolingual. Think of languages as tools. If we only have a hammer, there’s a limit to what we can construct. When we are free to use all of the linguistic tools from our toolbox, imagine all of the things that we can create.

Lastly, even if we cannot speak our students’ languages, by welcoming them to use those languages we create a space where assets and cultures are recognized and honored. Years from now, when MLs may have forgotten what we’ve taught, they will still recall with affection how we made them feel. Start with embracing all languages in class.

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Filed Under

  • English Language Learners
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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