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The Case for the Multilingual Classroom: Foreign Language Learning vs. Multilingual Learning

By ILA Staff
 | May 03, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-103582643_x300The ability to speak multiple languages is a coveted skill in today’s economy. The goal is to create a learning environment that promotes language acquisition while making the curriculum accessible to everyone. For policymakers and educators worldwide, the question is how to foster that environment in an era of tight budgets, diverse priorities, and political sensitivities.

Schools that truly embrace multilingualism report higher levels of community engagement and academic achievement across the board. If implemented poorly, though, such programs can further marginalize groups that aren’t proficient in the dominant language.

To stimulate fresh thinking on this critical topic, the International Literacy Association (ILA) recently convened a roundtable with a distinguished group of advocacy and policy experts in Washington, DC. In a wide-ranging conversation led by award-winning journalist Diane Brady, experts shared their thinking on the best practices and priorities for achieving true multilingual learning. In a three-part blog series, we’ll explore the key takeaways from the conversation.

In many schools, language instruction is limited to “foreign language”–specific classes that emphasize vocabulary and grammar. There is little opportunity to use the language outside of these classes or to experience the culture around the subject language. By contrast, dual language and tri-language programs are more likely to immerse students in multiple languages throughout the school day, incorporating foreign language instruction into core subjects such as history, science, and mathematics. The result: Greater fluency and literacy in those languages as well as higher academic scores in other subjects. 

To secure these gains, school leaders need to adapt material to the different language needs of students and their parents and make efforts to celebrate their cultures. Hector Montenegro, regional practice leader with Margarita Calderón & Associates, a consultancy on English language acquisition and dual language instruction, noted that the most effective programs are led by people who “value the language, make it the norm to speak multiple languages, and have structures in which the students become proficient and master the language.”

Montenegro cited the case of an international, dual language school in El Paso, TX, as evidence of the broad-based impact that multilingual learning can have. “At Alicia Chacon Elementary, where English and Spanish are the dominant languages used, each student is in one of four schools—Russian, German, Chinese, and Japanese. The students begin the third language in the second grade. By the time they reach the fifth grade, they travel to the country of the third language they’re learning. These students are going to high schools that are also dual language. They’re graduating with full scholarships to Ivy League colleges and universities. These kids are fluent in three languages.”

As Marcie Craig Post, executive director for ILA, explained, “Where multiple language takes hold, the school has embraced this. It doesn’t happen in a classroom with the French teacher or the Mandarin teacher. It becomes part of the embedded culture.”


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