Attitudes towards multilingualism in the classroom

Attitudes towards multilingualism in the classroom

“Economic studies have shown that fluency in a dominant language is important to economic success and increases economic efficiency,” writes Gilles Grenier on the value of language skills. “However, maintaining linguistic diversity also has value since language is also an expression of people’s culture.”

A recent research report produced by Clare Cunningham for the British Council looks into the attitudes of teachers toward “home” languages being spoken in their classrooms. It finds that there is a lot of fear associated with the use of home languages among the typically white, monolingual demographic of the teaching profession.

More than 20% of all primary school and 16% of secondary school children in the UK speak languages other than English. There are now more than 360 languages spoken in British classrooms.

Cunningham found that many teachers expressed very positive attitudes about working with multilingual children, but believed that classrooms should be exclusively English speaking.

One teacher compared the use of home languages to swearing, saying: “I would encourage what they have got but it’s about the inappropriateness of language. At my previous school we never told a child that swearing was wrong because actually you’re criticising what they hear at home all the time, and so what we would say is ‘We don’t swear in school’ and in a similar way her ‘We don’t speak Punjabi, we don’t speak Urdu’ or whatever in school.”

These confusing messages are likely to be a result of contradictions in teachers’ attitudes toward the use of home languages in schools, says Cunningham.

Losing control of aspects of the learning process can be challenging for teachers. It can take a significant investment of resources to gain enough confidence to allow for other languages in the classroom.

Myths prevail about how speaking home languages can delay the transition to English and about the supposed negative effects of combining or mixing languages.

Cunningham recommends that the terminology around the issues pertaining to bilingual children should be reconsidered and streamlined to avoid social stigma. A standard label such as “support” implies sympathy or pity, and is often a temporary state related to getting over an injury or illness.

She says that despite funding changes and cuts, some schools are taking great steps forward to provide opportunities for children to use languages other than English.

Read further articles about migration policy.