3 ways to activate your multilingual students’ superpowers

The population of multilingual learners is growing in our schools, yet we have not fully tapped into the assets these children bring. Instead, these students are often defined only by the languages they speak—or don’t speak—and not by the myriad assets they bring. The ability to speak more than one language reaps so many benefits, however, that I like to think of these assets as superpowers.

When multilingual people use language, their languages all combine into one whole resource they draw upon when they communicate. This often results in mixing and going back and forth between the languages and their related gestures and cultural behaviors during a speech or written act. Arguably, conversational and social contexts provide a much lower-stakes environment for multilinguals to rely on their assets to make meaning. In school, however, understanding and being understood may be the difference between advancing or not advancing.

The cognitive and linguistic benefits of speaking more than one language

Multilingualism is often considered a deficit, and many still fear that children can become confused or have learning delays if they learn more than one language at a young age. Modern research, however, highlights the assets that multilingual individuals carry across their lifespan: better performance on switching between tasks, better cognitive reserve and control, and greater ability to focus and adapt to their environment. They also learn subsequent languages more easily than their monolingual peers learning a second language.

[S]tudents are often defined only by the languages they speak—or don’t speak—and not by the myriad assets they bring.

In schools, there is much research on positive educational outcomes of dual language programs. The Office of English Language Acquisition outlines just a few: greater high school graduation rates, higher academic and learning outcomes, greater potential for additional language learning, and increased flexibility, creativity, and higher-level thinking. These attributes help pave the way toward long-term school success and subsequent college and career success.

Social and cultural benefits    

Kids who speak more than one language often have stronger social emotional learning (SEL) skills, according to work from The Century Foundation, and one of the main social benefits of being multilingual is the ability to “fit in” and function within the cultural context of a spoken language. Knowledge of cultural norms, intonations, and formality—things like how close to stand when communicating and whether to greet with a handshake or a kiss on both cheeks—all form the cultural and communicative competence that we use every day in every single interaction that we have.

Some social and emotional benefits of multilingualism include the development and appreciation of ethnic and cultural identity. Promoting the Education Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures notes that multilingual learners fare better than their monolingual peers on social and emotional learning measures.

Leveraging the benefits in your classroom

How can you create multilingual, language-rich environments for your students so that they, too, can reap the educational benefits of a classroom environment to which they can bring their entire social, cultural, and linguistic identity? Here are a few strategies that can get you started.

1. Create a multilingual classroom space

Set up your physical space for multilingualism. Decorate your room with multilingual materials, posters, art, and artifacts from students’ home cultures, as well as student work. Encourage conversations in English and home languages about all of these things.

For younger students, seek out multilingual books and posters in the languages appropriate for your classroom. There’s a digital library in Spanish by the Mexican government that can help, for example, and the Chinese Ministry of Culture has one available in Chinese, too.

For older students, stock your bookshelves with works in their original languages, alongside the translations that are typically part of the curriculum. For example, having Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad alongside One Hundred Years of Solitude not only raises awareness that the work was originally written in Spanish and that students of English language arts read translations of the work, but it also honors the work in its original form. Offering books in multiple languages also lets your students access them in the language that suits them best. Would you rather have a student be knowledgeable about The Odyssey and able to express that knowledge in their home language, or would you rather they have high levels of English proficiency and know little to nothing about Homer or The Odyssey?

We all have ways we learn best. Get to know your multilingual learners’ preferences.

You don’t need to speak all the languages of the materials you select, but you can leverage them to spark interest and drive concept knowledge forward in the home language. Once a concept is learned in the first language, it will not need to be learned in the second language. So, for example, your students who read The Odyssey in Mandarin won’t need to reread it in English to be able to write the literary analysis you’ve assigned them. You can leverage this with younger kids, too. Consider how the concept of time differs across languages and cultures. Have students explore the concept of time in their home literatures and cultures through home language materials. Then discuss what they’ve learned as a group to develop emerging English language proficiency while also sharing cultural nuances and building additional background knowledge around the concept of time.

2. Encourage and engage in translanguaging

Translanguaging can be incredibly beneficial for students, as I explained in an earlier post. Translanguaging is not only a behavior, but also a pedagogical strategy.

Using translanguaging in your classroom may mean letting the languages flow into the activities of your day. This may vary, depending on what students need at the time. This may mean allowing a child to read in one language while writing and speaking in another, for example. This may also mean permitting mixing in informal communication acts.

Translanguaging does not mean that you must be proficient in the languages of your classroom, however. Facilitating a translanguaging classroom may look like using a translation website to understand and be understood, using the Internet to search for examples of concepts in a student’s home language, and leveraging classmates’ language skills and experiences to negotiate meaning.

3. Activate funds of knowledge in content pursuits

Multilingual students come to your classroom with rich intercultural capital—cultural and linguistic background knowledge—that you can maximize to support their learning. Take some time to learn about their funds of knowledge, family, and cultural practices, and help make connections between English and their home language and culture. Empowering your students to use the individual and collective knowledge they carry within them affirms their identity and increases equity in your classroom. Here are a few strategies to activate funds of knowledge in language-rich ways:

  • Build vocabulary, concept knowledge, and communication skills at the same time. Put language at the center of your classroom, regardless of your content area. Authentic language use often occurs outside the classroom, which means the language of the home is usually richer with conversation and context-dependent meaning. Incorporating both formal and informal language and communication in your classroom will strengthen language development. See “2 simple ways to build equity in your classroom for emergent bilingual students” by my colleague Adam Withycombe for more ideas.
  • Use translation tools. Try using online translation tools for two-way communication and not just for multilingual students to learn English. Have discussions when there is no direct translation of a word. You can further support your multilingual learners’ developing language by permitting them to make presentations in their home language with English subtitles activated. You can also do your own presentations in English, with subtitles in a second language.
  • Provide opportunities for creative wordplay. There are many ways to incorporate language games and wordplay into your lessons. These activities can incorporate translanguaging and can be done across all modes: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. For listening, one fun thing to do is to poll students on their favorite songs. Pull the lyrics for a common favorite and select vocabulary words to omit. Listen to the song while your students read along with the lyrics, looking for the missing words to fill in. For speaking wordplay, try alphabet games and playing telephone. For reading, encourage reading for pleasure and allow all types of texts, from graphic novels to text messages. Remember that reading for fun helps connect kids to texts that are not related to reading for school. For writing, remember that students are already spending a lot of time writing, whether private texts to each other, posts on social media, or chats in gaming. Create class messaging spaces and use internal instant messaging platforms to reenact scenes from a reading. For example, one student is Romeo, and the other is Juliet. Have students send instant messages to each other in those roles and share them with the class.

An image of a fake text message exchange between Romeo and Juliet on a cell phone. Juliet: Ugh. Why do you have to be Romeo? Our dads are seriously hating on each other right now. Romeo: SMH Vamos. Juliet: Get out of here. If they see you... Romeo: No importa. It's pitch black out here. No one is gonna see me. Juliet: How the heck did you find this place, anyway? Romeo: GPS of love led me here, cariño. Red heart emoji.

Keep making connections

We all have ways we learn best. Get to know your multilingual learners’ preferences. Helping students make connections between English and their home language will help them value their home culture and language, understand that they already have the tools for new language development, and empower them to use their whole linguistic repertoire when communicating.

To learn more strategies for your classroom, visit us at Fusion, the NWEA educator conference, June 28–30 in Phoenix. My colleagues and I will have a session called “Multilingualism is a superpower” that will give you even more ideas for how to collaborate with your students.

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