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Embracing multilingualism

How might schools incorporate multilingualism effectively? Multilingual Learning Specialist, Valentina Spyropoulou explains the methods and techniques used in her school.

‘Language is the main way we express our identities, desires, culture… everything that makes us who we are.’

At Optimist International School (OIS), we believe that creating a nurturing and intellectually stimulating environment, where every child feels a sense of belonging, is essential for their holistic development.

However, when a child’s strongest language doesn’t align with the language of instruction, it can present severe challenges and lead to feelings of isolation and exclusion. According to Dr Jim Cummins’ research, developing basic communication skills, like social language, takes six months to two years, while cognitive academic language proficiency may require five years or longer. This can adversely affect a student’s motivation and overall development if we, as their educators, don’t offer them ample opportunities to express themselves.

Even though English serves as our primary language of instruction, we actively embrace and celebrate our students’ and teachers’ linguistic diversity. We integrate translanguaging techniques, allowing students to use their languages flexibly for both communication and academic purposes. Translanguaging, a concept delineated by García, creates a bridge between their prior life experiences and learning, capitalising on their existing knowledge. We are committed to reflection, updating policies, and incorporating translanguaging approaches to make language instruction more inclusive and visible. This ensures students develop a solid foundation in all their languages, enhancing their lifelong language skills.

Here are some of our key strategies:

1. Attitude

Our attitude is key to our approach. Can we communicate with children who speak no English? Of course we can. They can speak fluently in different languages, they have rich knowledge in a different language, all we need is to connect with them, and use some translation tools along the way. By acknowledging their language wealth as an asset, we make it our mission to effectively communicate with and support all children, irrespective of their English proficiency. We recognise that children possess a wealth of knowledge in their native languages, and it is our duty to tap into that knowledge and help them cultivate it.

2. Languages are visible everywhere

Language diversity is evident throughout our school, from classroom to corridors. We utilise bilingual and multilingual resources, integrating languages into all subjects; multilingual vocabulary walls, maths symbols in different languages and systems, differences between punctuation marks in different languages are just some of the examples. Moreover, every start of the year we create our Language Profiles to share how we are connected to our different languages in different circumstances and levels. One of our most valuable resources is our multilingual library, with a continuously expanding collection of multilingual books.

3. Technology and translation tools

Technology and translation tools come to the rescue, even if sometimes, the translation result is not exactly accurate. We train our students and teachers to use a variety of translation tools with confidence, to allow communication, access to the curriculum, and independence in learning.

4. Children use their chosen language in class

We collaborate with our Multilingual Specialists to support language development, assessing knowledge and skills irrespective of the language used. When a child knows how to write a description using figurative language and ambitious adjectives, it only needs to be translated for us to see their skill.

Students are encouraged to use their preferred language for their work and research, utilising various translation tools as needed. Our specialists also support children in comparing their languages by drawing similarities and differences, a technique which helps children gain a deeper understanding of how languages work. Additionally, students ‘buddy up’ with those speaking the same language, allowing for free knowledge exchange. This approach ensures a rich supportive environment where language is a bridge not a barrier to learning.

5. Multilingual projects

We design projects aligned with the curriculum that require students to create content in multiple languages. This approach deepens their appreciation of linguistic diversity and allows them to feel that their languages are not only welcome, but also an integral part of the learning process.

6. Teacher training

OIS invests in teacher training programs led by external experts and our Multilingual Learning Specialists, with the aim of deepening our colleagues’ understanding of multilingualism and how to effectively apply these principles in the classroom. We promote a culture of shared learning, fostering collaboration and idea exchange through platforms like Padlet.

7. Parental involvement

Parents play a vital role in our approach. We engage them in pre-teaching basic vocabulary and concepts, where children take home lists of words, phrases, and concepts to discuss in their preferred language. This preps the children for class discussions, making them feel at ease to participate and learn. Furthermore, parents are encouraged to provide materials in their languages, such as audiovisual resources and books, which are incorporated into our Online Multilingual Library.

Our Parent Volunteers committee is another valuable avenue, allowing parents to initiate or participate in a range of activities within the school, from reading support to celebrating languages and cultures. We recently celebrated our first Language Friendly School and Cultural Day, organised by parents and supported by teachers. This event featured activities in over 22 languages, including reading sessions and cultural activities, all performed by the students.

8. A certified language friendly school

OIS is proud to be part of the Language Friendly Schools community. Language Friendly Schools are schools that have developed a language plan involving all members of the school. It is a plan that is adapted to the school’s own needs and aims at creating an inclusive and language friendly learning environment. It also allows for many networking opportunities with schools around the world, Erasmus projects, and a Language Friendly School Academy with paid and free courses on how to be Language Friendly.

The results of our efforts are evident in the increased confidence, enhanced social skills, greater ability to take risks, academic excellence, and progress through English as an Additional Language (EAL) frameworks, such as The Bell Foundation EAL Framework, or others. Dr Jim Cummins’ research reminds us of our school’s mission: to empower our students to excel in their home and additional languages. It underscores the importance of nurturing strong proficiency in all languages, not just English. This goal is achieved through the regular practice of translanguaging both in the classroom and at home.

Optimist International School is a public international primary school based in The Netherlands. They have been a language Friendly School for over three years now. If you are curious to find out more about how you can incorporate multilingualism into your classroom, just get in touch.

Image courtesy of Edo van de Ven | COPPER DESIGN c
Valentina Spyropoulou
Valentina Spyropoulou
Valentina is an educator who is very passionate about understanding her students’ needs and talents, and supporting them to fulfil their true potential. She has worked in Greece, UK, and The Netherlands, within various roles and environments, where she has gained valuable knowledge and experience. Valentina is currently a group teacher and Multilingual Learning Specialist at Optimist International School.
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