Multilingual classrooms pose some identical challenges to monolingual ones. In both classrooms, the teacher aims to foster a positive, connective & social environment yet students may struggle with forces outside the classroom which make these goals hard to reach. In a multilingual classroom, teachers also require to recognise linguistic & cultural differences to make an inclusive space for all students.
The challenges of a multilingual classroom
Let’s break the challenges down.
If students can’t understand the teacher, the class is not going to be successful & in a multilingual classroom, some students may not have the English level that a teacher is used to teaching. It’s therefore essential for the teacher to grade their language. That means being clear & direct as much as possible and removing any unnecessary words from their sentences
At first, grading your language & being more direct can feel rude. However, it is more suitable to be understood than polite! Also, as always, teachers should keep a calm and friendly intonation.
For younger classrooms, a wonderful way of communicating is through Total Physical Response (TPR). This means using gestures to get students moving & responding to the teacher. The classic example is a teacher cupping their ear with their hand to produce a student’s response.
Different levels of English
Similar to communicating actually, teachers must grade their language up or down depending on students’ levels of English. Some students will speak fluently & confidently whilst others may struggle to respond in full sentences. In these cases, teachers may require to develop bonus activities for higher-level students, while providing enough attention & help encourage lower-level students.
If you are teaching younger students, they may initially not respond to you orally. This is what grammarians call ‘the silent period.’ It is totally normal & you should not panic. The young students are attempting to take in as much of the language as possible before using it. Remain patient. Use gestures a lot when describing & do not put too much pressure on the student to respond immediately.
Depending on the student’s first language, they may have an easier or more challenging time learning English skills & grammar. Generally, students whose L1 is more near related to English, like Dutch or German, will have a more relaxing time learning English than a student whose L1 is Mandarin or Arabic.
It may help to study how their languages vary in sound and grammar. For example, Russian, like many Slavic languages, doesn’t have articles. Therefore, Russian-speaking students might work with using pieces correctly. This also happens with particular sounds. Arabic doesn’t have other sounds for ‘p’ and ‘b’. As a result, students often say things like ‘probably’ rather than ‘probably.’
Making students feel accepted
In a multilingual classroom, it’s more critical than ever to be positive and make students comfortable. Smile & greet all the students. They should all feel seen & listened to.
Students may use their first language in the classroom. In this case, do not criticise them. Instead, find positive ways to encourage home language use. Sometimes a student might just need to check their understanding with a friend or they require a break from English. You can ask them to describe what they’re talking about, but don’t push it if you see they feel uncomfortable.
Whenever possible, let students share about their experiences & cultures. This will help not only their confidence but also their classmates’ cultural learning. It’s significant to remember that bilingual or multilingual students speak each language for other contexts and uses, and may even be uncomfortable at first using their L1 in a classroom setting rather of at home.