This article has been published in Enabling Education Review 11
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Title: Multilingualism is a resource for learning and teaching
Author: Bowden, R
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2022

Rachel Bowden

In this article, Rachel builds on her experience as both an English teacher and a researcher of English medium instruction, to discuss the need for a shift in how we think about language in the classroom.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed educational inequalities while increasing the learning and achievement gap. Multilingual learners, who use languages other than the official language of instruction outside school, may have been additionally disadvantaged through periods of enforced self-study during lockdowns. Teachers often form a vital bridge between multilingual students and monolingual school textbooks. Without teachers’ support to understand monolingual textbooks, multilingual learners faced additional hurdles to continuing their education during lockdowns.

What does this mean for supporting multilingual learners in the classroom?

The old normal: multilingualism is ignored or seen as a problem
About 370 million learners in low- and middle-income countries attend schools where the official language of instruction is not their main language.1 This multilingual reality is mostly not reflected in initial teacher education, textbooks and examinations, which assume the education system is monolingual. As a result, teachers are left to develop their own strategies to help multilingual students participate and learn and achieve. These include:

  • explaining new language and new concepts in familiar language;
  • using simplified versions of the additional language;
  • mixing familiar and additional language;
  • using pictures and diagrams;
  • giving examples; and
  • giving demonstrations.

These strategies help students bridge between their out-of-school knowledge and experience and academic language, meanings and practices. Indeed, multilingual communication in the classroom is a sign that teachers are enabling students’ participation and learning. However, in the vast majority of schools, multilingual classroom communication is not encouraged, despite its proven benefits for learning. As a result, teachers and learners limit or hide the use of multilingual communication.

Many people believe that using learners’ familiar language limits their learning of the instructional language. They think that spending more time using the instructional language or using a greater amount of the instructional language matters the most. This is not the case. Research shows that using learners’ familiar languages alongside the instructional language, improves the quality of learners’ language use and comprehension more quickly.

The new normal: multilingualism is a right and a resource
There has been a change from seeing multilingual communication as a problem to recognising that it is both a right and a resource for learning and teaching.

The term ‘pedagogical translanguaging’ describes the ways in which teachers use learners’ familiar languages (and other strategies) to enable students to learn subject content and the official language of instruction. There are many possible approaches, such as combining familiar language with subject-specific language in the language of instruction. Often, this happens within a single sentence. For example, in a geometry lesson, a Rwandan mathematics teacher uses English for mathematical terms, and Kinyarwanda to help students understand:

“Urabona izi rectangle..” (Do you see these rectangles?)
“Hano ni midpoint of this rectangle. Sibyo? Muri kubireba?” (Here it is in the midpoint. Isn’t it? Do you see that?)

Translanguaging also includes moving between verbal and non-verbal forms of language. In the lesson, the teacher uses other strategies to help students understand. For example, he draws diagrams of rectangles and writes formula. He also demonstrates exercises and guides volunteer students to show their classmates on the board.

Translanguaging can also involve changing languages between activities. For example, the teacher might ask students to discuss a topic, or prepare an answer in their familiar language and then present to the class in English. Or they may read a text in English, and then answer comprehension questions in a familiar language. Find free ideas and examples online here:

Pedagogical translanguaging leads to better learning outcomes across subjects and in the official language of instruction. It also increases the active participation of learners in classroom activities, and their engagement with meanings.2 The term celebrates the multilingual reality of teachers and learners, and the value of multilingual classroom communication for teaching and learning. It helps us to see that the ‘language problem’ is not that students or teachers lack English. The problem is education systems which do not recognise, use and develop teachers’ and students’ multilingualism for teaching and learning.

To promote the use of pedagogical translanguaging, we can:

  • Talk to students, families, teachers and head teachers about the benefits of multilingual teaching and learning for subject and language learning.
  • Make space for learners’ out-of-school languages in school, for example through:
    • school displays and signage;
    • assemblies and official events;
    • classroom activities (e.g., group discussions, presentations);
    • dictionaries and glossaries;
    • parents’ meetings.
  • Publish multilingual and language supportive textbooks.
  • Educate teachers as multilingual educators, in initial teacher education and continuous professional development.

All academic learning includes language learning
It is helpful to see that all academic learning includes language learning. Even in supposedly monolingual classes, the technical language associated with particular subjects, such as geography or science, is very different from the language students use outside school. For example, the specific meaning of energy, force and power in physics is different to how we use these words every day. We can consider the teaching of every subject as an opportunity for language learning.

Actively teaching learners target words, phrases, and types of text (e.g., laboratory reports, academic essays, stories) helps all students and in particular multilingual and marginalised learners to participate and achieve in education.

We know that marginalised multilingual learners suffer further educational disadvantage when their multilingualism is not recognised or developed at school. To bridge the inequality gap, which has widened through the pandemic, we must support teachers to develop their pedagogical translanguaging strategies. In equipping learners for life in the new normal, multilingualism should be celebrated as a resource for learning and teaching and for individuals and communities.


Rachel is an honorary research associate at the University of Bristol and a research associate at the Technical University in Dresden, Germany. She works on multilingual education, education for sustainability and teacher professional development.