Abstract Foreign language classes are becoming increasingly multilingual even in countries that until recently have been remarkably monocultural, such as Finland. Teachers may not be prepared for this new situation, and the needs of students with immigrant backgrounds may be overlooked. This article reports a study in which both students with immigrant backgrounds and teachers of English were asked how they experienced multilingualism in the language classroom and how the students’ multilingual background was taken into account in English classes. Both groups answered a questionnaire with closed and open questions. The results indicated that the children found English relatively easy to learn and they were able to use their L1s especially to benefit vocabulary learning. The majority of the teachers had not received any training in teaching students of immigrant background, but they reported having developed some strategies that utilized their students’ multilingualism for the benefit of teaching English. Introduction In recent years, many European countries have witnessed an unprecedented influx of immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. In Finland, the number of foreign citizens has doubled in the past ten years, i.e. from 120,000 to about 244,000 (Official Statistics of Finland 2017). This means that the country is becoming increasingly multilingual, which creates new challenges for society and not least for the country’s education system. Indeed, linguistic and cultural diversity are emphasized in the national core curriculum more than ever before (Finnish National Board of Education 2014), but it is not clear whether the multilingual backgrounds of school children are actually taken into consideration in classrooms. After all, teachers have not necessarily been prepared for this new situation. The need for more research on foreign language learning of immigrant children in Finland has been recently acknowledged. In the English language classroom, children with immigrant backgrounds usually face a situation in which they have to learn the target language (English) through another language (Finnish) which is not their L1 and which they may not master very well. It comes as no surprise, then, that their learning results have been found to be lower than those of native Finnish speakers (Airaksinen 2013). The study reported here set out to explore the current situation in English classes from the point of view of both children with immigrant backgrounds and teachers who teach them. We were interested in discovering whether children with immigrant backgrounds managed to use their multilingualism for their benefit in the classroom. Similarly, we wanted to see whether teachers took the children’s native languages into account in teaching, and how they thought the learning process of immigrant children could be supported. A holistic approach to language learning Multilingualism, understood here to mean the ability to use more than two languages at least to some extent, or in the words of Linck et al. (2015: 666), ‘having some degree of proficiency in more than two languages’, has not always been viewed positively. In fact, it used to be assumed that bilinguals, and certainly also multilinguals, were at a disadvantage compared to monolinguals. On the one hand, it was believed that their brain would have less room for other skills, such as mathematical or creative skills; and on the other hand, their languages were believed to be only partially developed compared to monolinguals’ one well-developed language (Baker 1988). This monolingual bias, i.e. the constant measuring of L2 competence against monolingual norms, has figured extremely strongly in L2 research (Ortega 2014). A more recent understanding of multilingualism recognizes the potential of an individual’s linguistic repertoire, instead of seeing it as a handicap. Linguistic diversity is seen as a resource, and raising learners’ awareness of languages, their differences and similarities, is understood to support language learning. New approaches to multilingualism have thus emerged with a strong emphasis on regarding an individual’s languages as mutually interacting and thereby supporting the language learning process. Two of the main proponents of this holistic approach to language learning,Cenoz and Gorter (2011a: 340), emphasize the fact that multilinguals and learners who are in the process of becoming multilingual should not be viewed as imitation monolinguals in a second language or additional language, but rather they should be seen as possessing unique forms of competence, or competencies, in their own right. The main idea, then, is to take into account all the languages a learner knows. Furthermore, rather than focusing on how a learner differs from a native speaker, the holistic approach concentrates on what multilingual leaners can do with their languages (Cenoz and Gorter ibid.: 342). This softening of boundaries between languages can be seen in the language classroom in various forms of translanguaging, i.e. activities involving more than one language (see the following section). The concept of multicompetence, or ‘the knowledge of more than one language in the same mind’ (Cook 2008: 11), also supports the idea of making use of all the languages an individual has in his or her linguistic repertoire. According to Cook, knowing more than one language makes an individual different from a monolingual in many ways—e.g. by affecting the way they use their L1, and by increasing their linguistic awareness, and even by modifying some of their cognitive processes—and therefore people who speak more than one language should never be compared to monolingual speakers of those languages. This means that language teaching should not aim at anything as unrealistic as native-like competence, but rather strive to produce proficient language users who are able to utilize all the languages they know. Focus on multilingualism (FM), another approach that looks at the whole language repertoire of a multilingual language user, also considers the relationships between languages and the way they affect each other. According to Cenoz and Gorter (2011b), FM aims at enhancing metalinguistic awareness of learners by creating classroom activities that involve translanguaging, again emphasizing the softening of boundaries between languages. The use of code-switching, i.e. switching from one language to another, in the classroom is strongly supported by FM, as multilingual students often have to switch between languages in their everyday lives outside school. A holistic approach to multilingualism and language learning is also represented by the dynamic model of multilingualism (DMM), introduced by Herdina and Jessner (2002). According to DMM, an individual’s language systems are separate but in constant interaction with each other, which means that a new language affects the whole multilingual system of an individual, e.g. by increasing the learner’s metalinguistic awareness. As multilingualism is more common than monolingualism, multilinguals should be considered the norm and, similarly to the views presented above, they should not be measured by monolingual standards (Herdina and Jessner 2002). Translanguaging, or using more than one language in a learning activity, is, not surprisingly, advocated by the different versions of the holistic approach. The following section gives a brief review of translanguaging. Translanguaging Translanguaging can refer to a pedagogical strategy that includes intentional use of different languages, or as defined by Cenoz and Gorter (2011b: 359): [Translanguaging is] the combination of two or more languages in a systematic way within the same learning activity. García (2009) views translanguaging as the discursive practices of bilinguals, thus including spontaneous ways in which bilingual and multilingual language users switch between their languages. However, it is noteworthy that translanguaging is understood to be a wider concept which contains not only code-switching but many other kinds of multilingual practices as well. Examples include activities in which the input and output are in different languages, e.g. reading a text in the L1 and preparing a presentation based on it in the target language (García ibid.: 301). The use of the learners’ own languages as a resource in the EFL classroom is also advocated by Corcoll López and Gonzáles-Davies (2016), who propose two strategies within the framework of translanguaging: pedagogically based code-switching (PBCS) and translation for other learning contexts (TOLC). According to the authors, both of these are teacher-initiated actions that foster efficient language learning by sensitizing students to similarities and differences between languages. An example of PBSC is an activity in which children replace words in an English chant with suitable words from their own languages and finally sing the different versions. A TOLC task might involve translation of false cognates, for example (Corcoll López and Gonzáles-Davies ibid.: 73–75). The present study arose from the research and rationale presented above. As stated in the Introduction, we wanted to examine the situation in Finnish schools to see what possibilities for language learning and teaching could be found in the multilingual backgrounds of immigrant children and how these possibilities are exploited in the EFL classroom. The study The research questions were the following: How much and in what ways do children of immigrant background take advantage of their multilingualism when learning English? How are immigrant children’s native languages taken into account in teaching? What are the teacher perceptions of how the learning process of immigrant children could be supported? The hypothesis related to research question 1 was that the students would actively use their native languages as a resource when learning foreign languages. This hypothesis was based on previous research, as Linderoos (2016), for example, found that learners’ L1s were often present in their minds in foreign language classes. The hypothesis in relation to research question 2 was that, due to the deep-rooted monolingual bias in English classes (as discussed above), teachers would still be unsure of the ways in which they could support the use of native languages in the learning process. In addition, previous research also suggests that teachers have not received enough training, and thus lack the tools to support immigrant children (Harju-Autti 2013; Pitkänen-Huhta and Mäntylä 2014). As for research question 3, there was no specific hypothesis, as the teachers were expected to draw on their varying experiences to suggest ways to support their immigrant learners. Participants and methodology The participants in the study consisted of 55 students (23 females and 32 males) and 38 teachers (35 females and 3 males). It should be noted that the student and teacher participants most probably did not come from the same school. As explained below, the students came from a school in southern Finland, whereas the teachers were recruited via Facebook and could, therefore, reside anywhere in Finland. The students’ ages ranged from 11 to 16. None of them had Finnish as their L1, although 43 of them had been born in Finland to immigrant parents. The rest (12) had moved to Finland as small children from Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Estonia, Iran, Russia, Serbia, and Somalia. The linguistic backgrounds of the students varied greatly, as they shared altogether 13 different L1s. Some of them reported some other language, often Finnish, as their strongest, and many used several languages at home and with friends on a daily basis. The 38 teacher participants had varying amounts of English teaching experience, from less than a year to 35 years. Most of them worked in primary and middle school, three in upper secondary school, and two in adult education. All of them had students of immigrant background in their classrooms. The data for the study were collected with two questionnaires, one designed for students and one for teachers. Both were administered online, with a survey tool called Webropol. The students answered the questionnaire during their English classes using their personal iPads which the school had provided them. The first author was present at the time of the data collection. The school in question was a large school in southern Finland, with a highly multicultural student population. In fact, 65 per cent of its students have an L1 other than Finnish. The teacher questionnaire was administered by providing a link to it on Facebook in two different groups where English teachers share ideas and teaching materials. Both groups have over 2,000 members, so it was possible to reach a large number of teachers from around the country. Two of the teacher respondents came from the area where the study was conducted, but it is not possible to know whether they were the teachers of the student participants. In addition to some demographic background questions, the student questionnaire focused on the respondents’ attitudes and experiences concerning their multilingualism. The questions in the teacher questionnaire asked about the challenges and possible advantages that students’ multilingual backgrounds may create in the classroom, in particular whether the teachers used the multilingual backgrounds as a resource in teaching. Only selected results of the questionnaires are presented in the next section. Results and discussion Only results pertaining to the three research questions will be discussed here, starting with the student questionnaires (research question 1) and ending with the teacher questionnaires (research questions 2 and 3). Students The questions concerning the learning of English revealed rather positive attitudes and experiences on the part of the students. When asked what aspects of learning English the students found easy and what difficult (question 12), a vast majority found studying all aspects of English (speaking, writing, reading, understanding speech) very easy or quite easy. As for using their L1 as an aid in learning English (question 16), 38 per cent of the students claimed not to have used it at all, but 46 per cent answered that they had used their L1 as a resource in learning English vocabulary. Somewhat fewer had found their L1 useful in learning pronunciation (24 per cent), grammar (22 per cent), and writing (18 per cent). Thirty-seven (67 per cent) of the respondents had told their English teacher what languages they knew (question 17), whereas 18 (33 per cent) had not. In question 18, they were asked whether their English teachers had asked them to perform tasks that included the use of their L1. Table 1 shows how the students answered that question. table 1 How often teachers ask students to perform tasks using their L1 Has your English teacher asked you to Often Sometimes Never translate English words or sentences to your L1? 5 14 36 explain how sentences are built in your L1? 3 13 39 present your L1 to others? 3 14 38 compare the pronunciation of your L1 and English? 4 12 39 Has your English teacher asked you to Often Sometimes Never translate English words or sentences to your L1? 5 14 36 explain how sentences are built in your L1? 3 13 39 present your L1 to others? 3 14 38 compare the pronunciation of your L1 and English? 4 12 39 View Large table 1 How often teachers ask students to perform tasks using their L1 Has your English teacher asked you to Often Sometimes Never translate English words or sentences to your L1? 5 14 36 explain how sentences are built in your L1? 3 13 39 present your L1 to others? 3 14 38 compare the pronunciation of your L1 and English? 4 12 39 Has your English teacher asked you to Often Sometimes Never translate English words or sentences to your L1? 5 14 36 explain how sentences are built in your L1? 3 13 39 present your L1 to others? 3 14 38 compare the pronunciation of your L1 and English? 4 12 39 View Large As Table 1 illustrates, the majority of students felt that their teachers had never asked them to perform these tasks using their L1s. This points to a virtual non-existence of translanguaging practices. The use of the majority language of the community, i.e. Finnish, seems to prevail in English classes. This became quite clear with question 19, ‘Do you use Finnish in your English classes?’: 37 (67 per cent) students answered ‘often’, 18 (33 per cent) ‘sometimes’, while none chose ‘never’. When asked whether they understood the Finnish words in their English textbooks (question 20), 27 per cent of all students and 58 per cent of those who had immigrated to Finland as young children replied ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’. This is an important finding, as the students’ weak Finnish skills were mentioned by the teachers as one of the biggest challenges in language classes. All in all, the students seem to have managed relatively well in their English studies even without their teacher engaging them in translanguaging activities. Their L1s offer them some help, especially in learning vocabulary. Teachers The teachers were asked whether they had been trained to teach children with multilingual backgrounds (question 7). The majority (66 per cent) had not received any training in view of this learner group, while 34 per cent had got some training either during their basic teacher education (graduated in 2010 or later) or in in-service training (earlier graduates). It is a positive sign that the need for this kind of training has been acknowledged in faculties of education around Finland. When asked whether they discussed teaching languages to students of immigrant background with their colleagues (question 10), most of the teachers (79 per cent) reported doing so. In question 11, the teachers were asked what challenges they had noticed in the language learning process of students of immigrant background. Almost all of the teachers (34 out of 38) felt that children of immigrant background, when learning English, struggled with writing. Structures, vocabulary, and reading comprehension were also chosen by quite a few. Seven teachers chose the ‘other’ option. When asked to specify what they meant, five of them mentioned that the students’ weak Finnish skills created challenges. As was revealed by the students’ answers discussed above, Finnish is used quite often in English classes. This is in accordance with curricular guidelines (Finnish National Board of Education 2014), which state that the language of the community can be used when dealing with demanding issues such as certain grammatical phenomena, even though the use of the target language is encouraged whenever possible. Clearly, this does not help the immigrant learner whose Finnish skills are weak. In addition to challenges, the teachers were asked whether they had noticed any advantages that multilingualism might bring to the English class (question 12). Pronunciation, vocabulary, and speaking were the three strongest areas where teachers felt multilingualism helped learning English. Writing, on the other hand, was selected by only three teachers, which supports the results of the previous question where writing proved to be the biggest challenge. One of the key questions in the present study was whether the teachers had utilized their students’ multilingual backgrounds as a resource in their teaching (question 14), i.e. whether they were familiar with translanguaging. As can be seen in Figure 1, comparing the vocabularies of English and the students’ L1s was, according to the teachers, a common strategy in the classroom. figure 1 View largeDownload slide Using students’ linguistic backgrounds in teaching English figure 1 View largeDownload slide Using students’ linguistic backgrounds in teaching English In addition to comparing vocabularies, some teachers had compared structures and pronunciation between the languages, presented the students’ L1s to other students, or used the languages to present different cultures. It is noteworthy that the student participants in this study had a different experience in this issue: most of them had not had a chance to use their L1 in English classes at all (see Table 1). This discrepancy can at least partly be explained by the fact that the students and teachers were not from the same school. Six teachers had not used their students’ L1s in any way. When asked whether they thought English textbooks and other learning materials took students from different linguistic backgrounds into account (question 15), the teachers were fairly unanimous: a vast majority (82 per cent) answered no. According to them, exercises, tests, and glossaries were usually in Finnish. This raises the question whether immigrant learners can be treated fairly in testing situations if tests that are provided in teachers’ materials require a good knowledge of Finnish. There was also an open question at the end of the teacher questionnaire (question 16) in which the teachers were asked to reflect on how the linguistic backgrounds of multilingual students could be taken into account in foreign language teaching if there were no real-life limitations. A variety of themes were suggested, but the most popular one was comparison of different languages. Finding differences and similarities between the target language and the student’s L1 was felt to be a good strategy (cf. the PBCS and TOLC activities discussed above). According to some teachers, this could be done as a student-led activity, similar to one in which students could search for L1 equivalents of English words discussed in class and compile an L1–English phrase list. Other common themes included raising awareness of languages and cultures and enhancing tolerance, or as one teacher put it (translated from Finnish by the authors): Getting to know a different language background and how this world is interpreted and observed through it would give many students epiphanies on the different ways that languages can be used. Teachers suggested that students could present their home countries and languages to others. However, some teachers pointed out that students may have had traumatic experiences and may prefer not to talk about their past. Several teachers also stated that children of immigrant background were a very heterogeneous group, which is why it was difficult to generalize about their English learning. Conclusion The main purpose of the present study was to gain an understanding of the current situation in Finnish schools concerning foreign language learning by multilingual children. One part of the study consisted of student perceptions of multilingualism and learning of English, while the other part examined teacher perceptions of working with immigrant children and supporting multilingual learners. The results showed that children of immigrant background valued their multilingualism and were able to use their L1s to benefit especially vocabulary learning. The teachers faced many challenges in their work, such as the lack of shared language and the students’ weak Finnish skills. They still seemed to teach foreign languages mostly through Finnish, which challenges multilingual children of immigrant background, as they have to learn a new foreign language through their L2, Finnish, in which they are not always fluent. However, teachers seemed to see multilingualism as an asset, and most of them had developed translanguaging strategies that utilize multilingual students’ linguistic backgrounds. Similarly to the children in the study, the teachers found vocabulary to benefit the most from the learners’ multilingualism. The most prominent ideas for classroom practices that arose from the teachers’ answers included comparison of languages (notably English and the students’ L1s) to find differences and similarities, raising awareness of different ways to express ideas and to see the world, and engaging students in presentations and other activities involving their own languages and cultures. In other words, translanguaging seems to have found its way into the English class, as reported by the teachers in the study. By engaging their students in translanguaging activities, they subscribe to the holistic approach to language learning in which linguistic diversity is seen as a richness and a resource. The use of the community language, Finnish, turned out to cause problems in the multilingual English classroom. Teachers would do well to maintain the presence of all the various languages in classroom activities, e.g. by having the students write words in three languages: English, the language of the community, and their native languages. This would enable the target words to be linked to the mother tongue and thus strengthen the students’ vocabulary skills in both English and the community language. All in all, the best solution would be not to rely exclusively on English (the ‘English only’ principle of much of ELT) or on the majority language, but to let the students utilize all the languages they know. It should be noted that the study reported in this article relied on only one data collection instrument, a questionnaire, and a more comprehensive picture of the situation in language classes in Finland would have been acquired by complementing the questionnaire data with interviews, for example. It is hoped that future studies on multilingual classrooms will investigate the issue with multiple instruments and larger populations. Veera Illman is a teacher of English and Swedish. She is currently working in a comprehensive school in Helsinki, Finland. Her MA degree, with English as her major subject, is from the University of Turku (2017). Her research interests include foreign language learning and multilingualism, as well as teaching and assessment of immigrant language learners. Päivi Pietilä is Professor of English at the University of Turku, Finland. She has published The English of Finnish Americans (1989), L2 Speech (1999), Lexical Issues in L2 Writing (2015, co-editor), in addition to a number of journal articles. Her research interests include L2 acquisition and attrition, vocabulary acquisition and use, and academic L2 writing and speaking. References Airaksinen, L. 2013. ‘Learning a foreign language in one’s second language: analysing English language learning results in Finnish secondary school among non-native Finnish-speakers’ . Unpublished MA thesis, University of Turku. Baker, C. 1988. Key Issues in Bilingualism and Bilingual Education . Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. Cenoz, J. and D. Gorter. 2015. ‘Towards a holistic approach’ in J. Cenoz and D. Gorter (eds.). Multilingual Education: Between Language Learning and Translanguaging . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cenoz, J. and D. Gorter. 2011a. ‘ A holistic approach to multilingual education: introduction’. Modern Language Journal 95/ 3: 339– 43. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Cenoz, J. and D. Gorter. 2011b. ‘ Focus on multilingualism: a study of trilingual writing’. Modern Language Journal 95/ 3: 356– 69. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Cook, V. 2008. Second Language Learning and Language Teaching ( Fourth edition). London: Hodder Education. Corcoll López, C. and M. González-Davies. 2016. ‘ Switching codes in the plurilingual classroom’. ELT Journal 70/ 1: 67– 77. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Finnish National Board of Education. 2014. Perusopetuksen opetussuunnitelman perusteet [The National Core Curriculum] . Available at www.oph.fi/download/163777_perusopetuksen_opetussuunnitelman_perusteet_2014.pdf ( accessed 31 May 2017). Harju-Autti, R. 2013. ‘Monikielinen luokka englannintunnilla’ [Multilingual students in an English class]. Tempus 6: 16– 18. Herdina, P. and U. Jessner. 2002 . A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism: Perspectives of Change in Psycholinguistics . Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. Linck, J., E. Michael, E. Golonka, A. Twist and J. W. Schwieter. 2015. ‘ Moving beyond two languages: the effects of multilingualism on language processing and language learning’ in J. W. Schwieter (ed.). The Cambridge Handbook of Bilingual Processing . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Linderoos, P. 2016. ‘Mehrsprachigkeit von Lernern mit Migrationshintergrund im finnischen Fremdsprachenunterricht—Perspektiven der Lerner, Lehrpersonen und Erziehungsberechtigten’ [Multilingualism of learners with a migrant background in Finnish foreign language teaching – perspectives of learners, teachers and legal guardians] . Dissertation, University of Jyväskylä. Available at jyx.jyu.fi/dspace/handle/123456789/48034 ( accessed 6 June 2017). Official Statistics of Finland. 2017. Available at: www.stat.fi/til/muutl/index_en.html ( accessed 9 October 2017). Ortega, L. 2014. ‘ Ways forward for a bi/multilingual turn in SLA’ in S. May (ed.). The Multilingual Turn. Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual Education . London: Routledge. Pitkänen-Huhta, A. and K. Mäntylä. 2014. ‘Maahanmuuttajat vieraan kielen oppijoina: monikielisen oppilaan kielirepertuaarin tunnistaminen ja hyödyntäminen vieraan kielen oppitunnilla’ [Migrants as learners of a foreign language: identification and utilization of the language repertoire of a multilingual student in a foreign language classroom] in M. Mutta, P. Lintunen, I. Ivaska and P. Peltonen (eds.). Tulevaisuuden kielenkäyttäjä—Language Users of Tomorrow . AFinLA Yearbook 2014. Jyväskylä: Finnish Association of Applied Linguistics. Appendix 1: extract from student questionnaire The original questionnaire had 22 questions; only the ones discussed in the article are included here. Appendix 2: extract from teacher questionnaire The original questionnaire had 17 questions; only the ones discussed in the article are included here. 16. If there were no real life limitations, how do you think the language backgrounds of immigrant children could be utilized in foreign language learning and teaching? 16. If there were no real life limitations, how do you think the language backgrounds of immigrant children could be utilized in foreign language learning and teaching? View Large 16. If there were no real life limitations, how do you think the language backgrounds of immigrant children could be utilized in foreign language learning and teaching? 16. If there were no real life limitations, how do you think the language backgrounds of immigrant children could be utilized in foreign language learning and teaching? View Large © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
ELT Journal – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 17, 2018
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