By Kerryn Dixon

08 August 2018 - 11:30

Elderly man and young child holding hands
'Children often do lots of translation for parents. Respecting these abilities acknowledges the skills children have developed and recognises the valuable role they play in the family.' Photo ©

RitaE licensed under CC0 1.0 and adapted from the original.

Kerryn Dixon, Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, makes the case for integrating learners' home languages into the life of the school. 

A home language is the first language we learn to speak and is generally the language of our parents and community. Sometimes we can have multiple home languages. 

When we welcome home languages, we acknowledge that multilingualism is a global norm

Most of the world’s children grow up in multilingual communities and interact with speakers of different languages. Jocelyn Wyburd, the Director of the Language Centre at the University of Cambridge, maintains that the world is becoming increasingly multilingual. 

Learners learn more when they are able to use home languages

When learners use their home language to learn another language, their understanding and performance is likely to improve. Being able to move between two languages lessens the cognitive load (the brain having to do too many tasks at once) and lets learners explain what they know and can do. 

As one student teacher put it, ‘I can flow with my home language’.

Teachers can learn from learners

Humans are problem-solvers, and we use our resources to communicate with each other in lots of different ways. What counts as a mistake in the target language is often a creative attempt to solve a problem using language resources learners already have.

For example, Arabic doesn’t have /p/, /v/, /n/ and /r/ so learners may spell English words using other letters. Teachers who know that their learners’ home language is Arabic are more likely to understand why learners make certain spelling mistakes. Those teachers are also better able to predict the types of spelling mistakes learners will make.

Find out which languages learners speak by doing a class language profile at the beginning of a school year. This can be a whole-class activity. Make a class chart of the languages spoken, and add differences and similarities throughout the semester. Asking learners to talk about the similarities and differences between languages makes learners more conscious of language structures (this process is called contrastive elaboration).  This is also a good opportunity to learn from learners.

Welcoming home languages will involve learners 

Making space for only one language sends a message that ‘there is no space here for you’. But when children feel their home language is respected, they are more willing to participate in the classroom.

The researcher Jim Cummins and his colleagues have argued that ‘English language learners will engage academically to the extent that instruction affirms their identities and enables them to invest their identities in learning.’ They give examples of children in Canada whose teachers let them create positive statements about themselves. The statements can be written, spoken, visual, musical, dramatic, or a combination, and can be done collaboratively.

Using home languages can provide insight into other cultures

Our languages express certain feelings, concepts or ideas particularly well. For example, tjoepstil in Afrikaans describes being absolutely silent, chon in Korean is the bond between friends, and hüzün in Turkish is a form of deep sadness. If your class reads a book together that is full of surprises, knowing Mandarin could be helpful. Mandarin has several ways to express surprise. Surprise can describe the experience of reading a book that keeps you in suspense, but it can also describe shock or happiness.

Learning and using these words and phrases together as a class can create community and provide insight into cultures. Teachers can also encourage children to read books in their home languages. Families, aides and learners can help with readings and translation.

Seeing and hearing home languages can make school a safer place

Many refugee learners who have been interviewed about their school experiences tell stories about how speaking a different language makes them targets of linguistic prejudice, bullying and xenophobia.

Schools that create a culture where linguistic diversity and multilingualism are the standard can lessen prejudice against learners. 

Learners can create multilingual signs for their school. This means that they are included in decision making, and active in the life of the school. These signs in turn send a message that many languages are welcome. Multilingual signs in a school help parents to navigate the building, and also show that many languages are welcome and a normal part of school life.

Teachers can train learners’ ears to listen for the message beyond accents and dialects by choosing audio and video clips with non-standard accents and dialects. The Language and Life Project at the University of North Carolina has documentaries, audio-recordings and podcasts of many dialects and languages America. IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive) has samples of people speaking English across the world and links to other sites. Some sites let students record and submit their own voices.

Writing and speaking in home languages strengthens connections between school and home

Learners can write or audio-record messages from the school to home, like lists of essential items for field trips, in their home language. Children often do lots of translation for parents. Respecting these abilities acknowledges the skills children have developed and recognises the valuable role they play in the family.

Sign up for our free MOOC (massive open online course) Migrants and Refugees in Education: A Toolkit for Teachers from 4 August 2018. The course runs from 29 October to 21 December, and is available globally. 

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