Sunday, 1 March 2015

Encouraging students’ plurilingualism

It’s been one of my busiest school year so far. Since my last posting, there’s been so much progress in the language and studying skills of my students in the preparatory class. For my new readers: After nearly 20 years of teaching EFL in high schools, I am now teaching Finnish as a second language to 17 to 25-year-old immigrants preparing them for basic education, along with other school subjects such as, for example, English, Mathematics, introductory courses to societal studies and natural sciences. The students come from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and in September they started learning Finnish from the beginning.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out ways in which they could truly use their full potential and personality to help them in the face of the enormous challenge of learning Finnish and adjusting to their new home country. With this object in mind, I also took an online course on multicultural learning and teaching (arranged by Open University of Jyväskylä, which, by the way, I can highly recommend to anybody interested in the topic, the information is in Finnish).

In a truly multicultural and plurilingual school, the appreciation of different cultures and languages doesn’t limit just in theme weeks or projects, but instead multiculturalism is a natural and visible part of every school day. I'm now working on how to take this into account in my teaching and make multiculturalism a resource in learning and teaching. To remind the students that they already know many languages and have many skills, we started off by creating a poster in which each student wrote Hello and Thank you in all the languages they knew. They also asked me to add these words in Swedish since Swedish is the second official language in Finland. Later, they found flags of their own countries and glued them on the poster.

Hello! Thank you!
The following day we started with khmer which is spoken by some 16 million people and is the mother tongue of my student from Cambodia. She kindly taught us how to say hello, goodbye and thank you in khmer. The pronunciation was easy, but the writing was a huge challenge. This is how it looks like (copy pasted from Google translator, my handwriting wasn’t very presentable :) 

hello ជំរាបសួរ 
goodbye លា 
thank you សូមអរគុណអ្នក

What a great reminder of how difficult it is to learn to read and write with the alphabet you’re not familiar with! Just imagine the challenges for students who are not familiar with the Latin alphabet!

For the coming two weeks or so, we’ll be using these three words whenever possible making the effort to really learn them. After that we’ll take another language until all the languages in the classroom are covered. Three words doesn’t put too much strain on anybody nor does it take too much time from learning Finnish. What I am hoping it does, is to show appreciation of each student’s mother tongue and culture. It also reminds the students that they are the native speakers and experts of their own languages. It’s great that they can, in turn, be teachers and guides and show their expertise. I hope that this will further increase their motivation to attend the classes and carry on with their language studies. All the information the students give also integrates well with the introductory geography course we are about to start.

I've already tried out some other ways of taking the students’ plurilingualism into account in their learning processes and in my teaching. More about this in my next posting. I would be very glad to hear any experiences you might have on the theme. 

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