07/15/2011 09:48 EDT | Updated 09/14/2011 05:12 EDT

Postcards From the Classroom: What's in a Language?


Multilingual education is a topic that elicits much discussion and attention. Some believe that growing up in a multilingual setting may temporarily delay speech for some children, while proponents attest to the fact that it encourages a whole new level of thinking.

Saying that I am biased in the midst of this linguistic tennis match is an understatement. I grew up speaking three languages: English and French at school, and Arabic at home. I live in Canada and I teach at a French school rooted in bilingualism whose mission it is to foster the love of learning languages. Just to reinforce where I stand on this subject, I am about to board a plane to Jerusalem for the summer where I plan on honing my Arabic skills, and spending time in schools and centres populated equally by Israeli and Palestinian children.

Needless to say, I am fascinated with how and why students learn new languages. After all, a language is part of one's identity. It is a reflection on both how we chose to express ourselves, as well as our cultural history and norms. Educational researchers, such as Ellen Bialystok, support this claim, as does my own personal experience.

As with most lessons in life, the most impactful are those that are the most challenging. Last September, a few students joined our school with no knowledge of English. They were classified as English as a Second Language (ESL) students, although they already spoke one or two other languages at home -- a characteristic not uncommon for the typical Toronto household where over 30 per cent of households report speaking a language other than French or English at home.

During the first month of the school year, I used all of my ammunition to engage my class in a dynamic and exciting manner. I initiated fun activities and games, took class outside, and integrated IT into the ESL curriculum. To my surprise, as the month progressed, I felt that the students were not connecting with the English language. I wanted them to learn the language in an authentic manner. I tried to demonstrate the importance of learning English in a world they could relate to: speaking English would mean more fun at recess. The reality I witnessed was that the incentive to learn English was simply not strong enough and my ESL students would naturally gravitate to their peers who speak the same language.

It then occurred to me: if language is indeed a major part of one's identity, then why am I suppressing their maternal language in my classroom? Instead, I decided to integrate their various maternal languages (Chinese, Persian, German, Spanish and Arabic) into my lessons. In journal writing, I would give the students the choice to write in their journals in either English or another language of their choice.

When studying verbs we would compare different tenses and conjugations, and when reading a book I always asked if there was a translation in their language. I also decided to add another language into the classroom! A language that was common to all of us: French. With the integration of familiar reflections of the ESL students' language and thus culture, the students' acquisition of the English language was the fastest that I have ever witnessed in my entire career.

As I am about to embark on my next adventure this summer, I am so grateful to my students who have inspired me and reminded me of the importance to connect to and cherish one's mother tongue!