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In the following post, Sarah Muller describes her research surrounding multilingualism amongst primary school pupils in the classroom. 

It is estimated that more than half of the world population use two or more languages in their everyday lives, and there exists a large body of research highlighting the benefits of multilingualism. However, in many classrooms today, the use of languages other than the medium of instruction is still a hot potato. Even schools in countries that are generally considered to be multilingual often have language policies insisting on the use of one language of instruction only. But what are some of the reasons behind reservations towards multilingualism in the classroom, such as students using their home languages? And more importantly, why and how can multilingualism be engaged with in the classroom?

Scepticism of multilingualism still exists today and can be traced back to the first half of the 20th century. During this time, research exploring the effects of multilingualism in children proliferated negative beliefs that such a “condition” led to emotional instability and confusion, cognitive delay, and in some cases even schizophrenia (for an overview of such claims, see e.g. Cummins 1983). Multilingual language practices, whereby speakers use and mix different languages in conversation, were seen as a sign of poor language skills and laziness. Today, these studies are considered to have been poorly designed and ill-founded, as more recent research has provided robust evidence that debunks such claims. New findings have provided greater insight into how multilingualism works and highlight its many benefits (for an overview, see e.g. Kroll and Dussias  2017). One of the major findings is that languages, contrary to popular belief, are not stored separately in the brain. Instead, one integrated and interactive language system is host to all of the languages that a speaker knows. When speaking, all of the languages are simultaneously active.

Understanding how multilingualism functions highlights why it can be detrimental to insist on the use of one language only in the classroom. Underlying such policies and practices is frequently a view of students’ home languages as obstacles to the acquisition of the language of instruction, especially in cases where the home language is a minority language. However, discouraging multilingualism in the classroom by excluding home languages means that students will block out part of the linguistic resources that would otherwise be available to them. This practice can impact on classroom engagement, as knowledge acquired in the home language may not be accessed, and students may hold back from engaging in classroom discussions if they are not able to transfer such knowledge into the language of instruction. It can also have negative ramifications for students’ social and emotional development, as part of their cultural identity is not acknowledged.

Supporting multilingualism in the classroom can be a valuable pedagogical practice with positive effects on students’ academic performance, as well as social and emotional well-being. Whether in a passive way by allowing students to use their home language, or a more active way by implementing teaching and learning practices that draw on more than one language (“translanguaging” is one such pedagogy, see e.g. CUNY-NYSIEB), it is important to view all students’ languages as resources rather than unwanted baggage on the way to “language of instruction only”. Small pedagogical practices such as showing interest in, and valuing, students’ linguistic and cultural resources can have many positive effects. Encouraging students to use their home languages to support group work, for example, means that students will be able to use already existing knowledge that would have remained invisible otherwise. Such practices can provide inclusive opportunities for deep learning and effective scaffolding towards building knowledge and developing language proficiencies.

To sum up, valuing students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds and encouraging the use of their languages in the classroom are valuable teaching and pedagogical practices. It can boost students’ confidence, help achieve learning goals, enhance academic performance and contribute to a greater awareness of other languages and cultures in the wider community by celebrating diversity and inclusion.

Sarah Muller, University of Sheffield

Sarah Muller is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her PhD research focuses on primary school students in Luxembourg and their lived experiences with the multilingual language regime and language education policies.


Cummins, J. (1983) Language Proficiency, Biliteracy and French Immersion. Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne De L’éducation, 8 (2)

Kroll, J. and Dussias, P. E. (2017) The Benefits of Multilingualism to the Personal and Professional Development of Residents of the US. Foreign Language Annals, Vol. 50, Iss. 2

CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals (NYSIEB)