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What role will English play in our multilingual reality?

We live in a richly diverse, multilingual world; multilingualism is the norm in most contexts around the world. English, which is spoken as an additional language by around 2 billion people, is one of the languages most commonly used in multilingual contexts. Today, notions such as “native-like” proficiency or adherence to the approved standards of British or American English seem less relevant than ever. Everyday communication today is navigated by individuals using their “plurilingual competence” – their full range of languages, not all necessarily at the same level of competence, used organically and fluidly to negotiate meaning. This lively, culturally rich and very contemporary use of languages is known as “translanguaging,” with the objective being successful communication in specific situations.

In basic (primary and secondary) education, and also to an extent in higher education, classrooms often mirror the multilingual social reality in which they are situated. Teachers and learners around the world are using the linguistic resources available to them to enable effective learning. This is even the case in some countries where this organic classroom based translanguaging is perhaps not aligned with national or institutional education policy – policy which may in fact mandate the use of one particular language.

There is increasing awareness, based on a solid and expanding evidence base, of the benefits of using translanguaging in education.

For the benefits of translanguaging to become more widespread in future, two major changes are needed:

  1. education policies will need to adapt to include multilingualism and translanguaging as integral components.
  2. teachers will need training and ongoing professional development to help them deliver a curriculum that supports the simultaneous use of multiple languages in the classroom to aid learning.

However, implementing language-in-education policies is complex, requiring social consensus, careful consideration and planning. It will become increasingly necessary for language policy makers to try to balance sometimes conflicting concerns.

In some cases, this will mean helping to preserve and empower indigenous languages by enabling their use in classrooms, while also supporting wider national economic and political needs; languages can support each other to bolster overall educational progress, but teachers and schools need clear guidance, support and training to allow this to happen.

It is important to stress, though, that the development of evidence-based policies on multilingualism and translanguaging in basic education classrooms does not mean that there is no place for the teaching and learning of EFL or for immersive English language learning experiences. Our research shows that many students, and their parents in the case of young learners, want access to immersive language learning. Many people around the world continue to regard immersive education as an effective method for learning English. However, the cognitive benefits of allowing students to use their full linguistic repertoire in the classroom have been well established by research, so the question of how EFL teaching adapts to allow for this will become of increasing importance. The fact that the IATEFL conference this year had both a plenary talk and a debate on translanguaging, with the latter describing it as a “fundamental paradigm shift” in ELT, is an indication that this is becoming a central issue.

It seems, then, that English will continue to play an important role in education in many parts of the world, both in basic education and in foreign language learning, increasingly doing so alongside other languages to provide opportunities for learners to participate more meaningfully in our linguistically rich world.

Image courtesy of Mat Wright
Steve Copeland
Steve Copeland
Steve Copeland is Research & Insight at the British Council. He is one of the authors of the Future of English: Global Perspectives.
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