Embracing the beauty of multilingualism

By Emma Cooper

Language, without it, where would we be? Cafés mixing up our coffee orders, giving us hot coffee when we asked for iced, not knowing when to address someone as “dude” or “mister,” even misunderstanding someone’s greeting from a farewell. The world would be a mess without communication. Of course, without language, there would be no civilization, let alone cafés. 

Being a K-12 Spanish education major, I am passionate about language and culture, and value the importance of understanding language in the classroom. As a sophomore in college, I frequently think about how language affects the classroom and, conversely, how the classroom have an impact on language development. In a country where a beautiful blend of English, Spanish and varieties of Chinese dialects can all be heard in a single grocery store line, it is imperative educators seek to recognize the unique language needs of their English language learners (ELLs) and multilingual students. 

From an ELL’s outlook, English may seem to be a confusing, disorganized language. Native English speakers are used to saying, “I think she is a nice girl,” while Spanish speakers would say, “pienso que ella es una chica amable” (“I think she is a girl nice.”) By understanding the ELL’s home language, teachers will have a better gauge on where the student is coming from grammatically. They can provide activities that both promote growth in the English language and recognize their home language to build even deeper lexical connections. 

This is especially easy to incorporate with the romance languages, such as Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, as these languages evolved from Latin. From this shared lingual derivation, we see common grammar structures and cognates between the languages. While the grammatical connections may be easy to make, the cross-cultural connections are particularly important.

The teacher can appreciate where an ELL’s joys, fears, anxieties, choices and everyday routines come from by researching the student’s culture. When the teacher is informed, the student can be better educated. To limit possible “culture shock” on the ELL, the teacher should focus on providing comfort. Getting to know the families of the students with whom you work and the communities in which your students live, will help you adjust your classroom environment so that it is a more comfortable and familiar place.

Moreover, a teacher’s own educational background can affect their classroom, just as mine did in my current fall observation hours. I come from a wealthy school district in Pennsylvania that consisted of a mostly white demographic. This was all I knew. I was fortunate to have great academic education, but I was oblivious to the diversity, languages, and programs other schools possessed. 

For my sophomore observation hours at Monmouth University, I was assigned to a Title 1 high school Spanish classroom where 50% of the student population was Hispanic. This, indeed, was something I had a great interest in as I had never been among so many students who spoke both Spanish and English. My K-12 education did not prepare me for this placement. But as a lover of language and culture, I took this as a valuable learning experience. Through my observations, I noted how the students communicated with one another and the teacher, which revealed how they could interact in both languages successfully. 

I intend to get my English as a second language (ESL) certification to increase my awareness of the ELL community. While not every educator will get an ESL certification, there are steps that can be taken to be an effective teacher with ESL students. 

There is a plethora of programs available to support ELLs in the classroom. As a second-language learner myself, I attest to the usefulness of translation apps such as SpanishDict and even a good physical copy of a translation dictionary. If the ELL is a visual learner, they can use the voice to text function on Microsoft Word to visualize the words they are speaking. This encourages the student’s use of the English language while still embracing their home language, allowing them to make meaningful linguistic connections. 

The ability to positively influence the classroom for ELLs will vary by teacher, but one small, individual step will have an impact on ELL students. Education is a remarkable career that allows us to engage students in the past, present and future. Understanding the beauty of a multilingual student’s approach to thinking through two cultures will allow an educator to create a more understanding, diverse and meaningful learning environment. Ignorance is not bliss in education; let us change this saying to “understanding is inclusivity.”  

Emma Cooper is a sophomore at Monmouth University, and a member of NJEA Preservice.