Honoring and Leveraging Students’ Home Languages in the Classroom

This is the first blog in the mini-series “Honoring and Leveraging Students’ Home Languages in the Classroom.” In this blog, I introduce some core concepts underscoring the importance of cultivating multilingual classroom spaces.

I Am My Language

"So, if you really want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. I am my language." -Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La frontera

In the summer of 2014, I had the opportunity to study Portuguese in the beautiful Brazilian seaside city of Salvador. As a fluent Spanish speaker, I was confident that I would be able to pick up the language quickly, as the two romance languages have many lexical (vocabulary) and grammatical similarities. In the months leading up to that summer, I also enlisted the assistance of a local Portuguese tutor and completed daily language lessons on Duolingo. I couldn’t wait to get to Brazil to practice what I had learned.

Upon arriving in Salvador, I was introduced to my host family, a kind couple with adult children who had “adopted” many foreign students over the years. During our first meal together, I bumbled through Portuguese as I attempted to introduce myself:

“Sou Laura. Eu sou uma professora…uma professora de professeres.” 

(I am…a teacher of teachers? That sounds a bit funny…did I translate ‘teacher educator’ correctly?).

“Eu investigo como estudantes aprendem uma lenguajem.” 

(I study how students learn languages. Students is estudantes, right? Or is it alumnos? Alunos? And is ‘lenguajem’ the right word for language? Ugh, I’m pretty sure I’m mixing Spanish and Portuguese…). 

As I finished my introduction, my host family politely smiled and nodded, although it was clear that much of what I was sharing was lost in translation. Then they briefly introduced themselves, slowly and simply, and we spent the rest of the meal eating in silence. 

As I climbed into bed that night, I felt a wave of frustration. During the conversation with my host family, I had wanted to shout, “I’m intelligent, I swear! And I’m extremely social. No one has ever called me quiet or shy.” And yet, there I was, a 30-year-old Ph.D. student who could barely string together a few introductory sentences in Portuguese. I’m happy to report that, over the course of the next few months, my Portuguese did (somewhat) improve, but the frustration and embarrassment of this first interaction stuck with me.

I share this brief example of my foray into learning Portuguese because it points to one of the challenges commonly experienced by students learning a new language—the inability to fully express oneself and the frustration that accompanies not being able to be fully “you” in a new language. In English, I am a competent speaker and writer who teaches university courses, writes research articles, and frequently delivers professional development workshops. Yet, speaking Portuguese, I felt as if my intelligence and personality had been stripped, unable to have a simple discussion about a topic I knew well or engage in casual conversation. 

Bilingual and multilingual learners, too, enter our classrooms with rich funds of knowledge and multifaceted identities that are too often made invisible in English-only learning spaces. A large body of research has shown that bi/multilingual students benefit from the ability to draw upon all of their language resources in the classroom, not only because it supports positive identity construction—which is reason enough to cultivate multilingual classrooms—but also because it can support student learning and academic achievement. For example, classroom translanguaging (when bi/multilingual students leverage what they know across all the languages in their repertoire) has been shown to scaffold student understanding of word meanings and academic concepts, build sophisticated metalinguistic understandings, and foster connections between the social, cultural, and linguistic domains of students’ lives.

Additionally, research on the relationship between ESL/bilingual program models and the academic success of English learners (ELs) has demonstrated, again and again, that ELs who spend more time learning in their home language (and, thus, less time learning in English), outperform their peers—and many native English speakers—on assessments of English reading proficiency by the time the students reach middle school. While it may seem counterintuitive that less time in English leads to greater academic outcomes in English, the reason undergirding this fact is quite simple: languages, no matter how different they appear on the surface, have much in common—what Cummins (1981) termed common underlying proficiency. Put another way, what a student knows in one language can transfer to their second language. 

For example, if a student understands in their home language that sentences are written and read from one direction to another (print directionality) or that letters can represent sounds (graphophonemic awareness), these concepts can transfer to a new language. Transfer also occurs at the lexical level through cognates (words that share a root and have the same meaning such as biology/biología and evaporation/evaporación) and at the discourse or genre level (e.g., if a student understands the linguistic and organizational features of persuasive writing in their home language, they can apply those understandings to write a persuasive letter in English).

Yet, despite everything that we know about the benefits of learning in one’s home language, most bi/multilingual learners still attend school in mainstream (English-only) classrooms, learning contexts that generally offer limited opportunities for students to leverage their full linguistic repertoires. However, even in such classrooms, teachers can create spaces for students to draw upon their home languages in ways that validate students’ linguistic and cultural identities and deepen their learning.

In following blog posts of this mini-series, we will explore some specific strategies for cultivating more culturally and linguistically sustaining classrooms by making space for students’ home languages, guided by the following questions:

  • What do you know about your students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds? How can you learn more about them?
  • How might you incorporate students’ holistic linguistic and cultural identities into the literacy classroom?
  • How can you create spaces for translanguaging that support student learning in the mainstream classroom? 

In closing, it is important to recognize that facilitating bi/multilingual spaces in the classroom is more than a way to promote student learning—it is a humanizing pedagogy, one that centers students and validates their rich cultural and linguistic identities. No child should be forced to leave any part of themselves at the classroom door. While learning a new language is often challenging and inevitably limits the extent to which students can fully “be themselves” (at least initially), by creating classroom spaces that embrace bi/multilingual pedagogies and practices, we can foster more inclusive classrooms that enable our students to bring their whole selves to school. After all, as Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldua reminds us, we are our language(s).