Maintaining heritage languages in the plurilingual classroom

Mar Fernández and Clàudia Gavaldá, alumni of the Primary Education degree in English, FPCEE Blanquerna, class of 2021.

In Catalan schools, given the increasing diversity of the student body and evolving ideas about language learning, there is a growing commitment to fostering the presence of different languages. It is not unusual for Catalan primary school teachers to find native speakers of a number of different languages in their classrooms. Contemporary research has shown that this linguistic wealth can be an asset to language teachers. Learners flourish in plurilingual settings where linguistic diversity is valued. One strategy at the heart of plurilingual education is promoting the use and maintenance of students’ heritage languages. In our context, heritage languages are usually the languages of origin of immigrants and their children. Students may speak these languages with their families at home, but second and third generation immigrants are often in danger of losing them. This is unfortunate, as research has shown that maintaining home languages has a range of benefits, both for the heritage language speakers themselves and for the plurilingual classroom as a whole.
Our goal here is to outline why and how teachers should contribute to maintaining heritage languages. We will diagnose the current situation when it comes to home language maintenance in different kinds of Catalan schools and teacher training programs and we will discuss how these languages can play an important role in plurilingual education.

Plurilingualism and heritage languages in Catalan schools and teacher training

As teachers trained at Blanquerna, we are committed to plurilingualism. A central part of our identities as teachers is our belief in the preservation and promotion of the diverse pluricultural and plurilingual landscape in schools, and the conviction that plurilingual education is the best way to teach content through languages.

Learning several languages at the same time was once considered as something negative that could affect the academic performance of pupils. Nowadays, though, bilingualism and plurilingualism are present in schools around the world. The current Catalan Linguistic Model (2018) calls for a plurilingual approach to language education, stressing the importance of acquiring the ability to use a variety of languages with different degrees of knowledge and for different purposes.

We were interested in learning more about the current situation in this regard in schools. To accomplish this, we examined in-service Primary Education teachers’ perceptions and attitudes, and we studied the coverage of the topic in teacher training.

We found that great advances have been made in teacher training in the plurilingual teaching competence. For instance, pre-service teachers are highly aware of the psychological and social development benefits of plurilingualism. However, some of them still had a monolingual perspective on the use of their plurilingual teaching competences. That is to say that they would only apply them in one specific language class rather than in a transdisciplinary way. Additionally, it seems that the plurilingual teaching competence is still not fully present in the university courses on didactics of all languages (Catalan, Spanish and English) in Primary Education degrees. The plurilingual approach should be a more central part of teacher training programs. In this sense, there is still room for improvement regarding the current teaching practices in universities.

When it comes to active teachers, it is clear that in Catalan schools we can find many positive practices on a social and psychological level, but some more traditional, monolingual attitudes persist. Additional languages are sometimes still seen as a threat to the dominant language rather than as an asset. There also tend to be certain coercive dominant-subordinate power relationships between languages or a clear hierarchy of llanguages. It should be our goal to go beyond these antiquated notions of “more and less important languages” and to overcome the idea of a zero-sum game in language teaching in favor of the additive approach supported by research on plurilingualism. Giving equal weight to all languages will let us take fuller advantage of linguistic diversity.

Why maintain heritage languages?

Many studies have highlighted that students should preserve their heritage language, taking into account psychological, cognitive, linguistic, social and academic benefits. This not only has to do with academic achievement but also students’ identity, societal integration and the wider society.

On a psychological level, keeping home languages has lasting implications for children’s emotional well-being and academic development, as well as their access to higher education, healthy relationships, and meaningful employment.
Cognitively, plurilingual speakers can benefit from stronger skills, or other competences defined by Cummins as “thinking tools”. Linguists have shown that reasoning and thinking abilities are fostered when students are provided with a positive, additive language learning environment. This is true both of heritage language speakers and their classmates.

Finally, language, after all, is a social and cultural practice. In this sense, heritage language maintenance or loss can have serious consequences for family communication, connection with relatives and friends who also speak the language, and last but not least, the maintenance of heritage cultural and religious practices. Hence, as Cummins (2000) stated, using pupils’ home language inside the classroom is a very good opportunity, not only to promote the language itself, but also to reinforce the cultural background that accompanies it. This can be a tool to fight discrimination, to diminish the dominant-subordinate power relationships between cultures and languages embedded in our society. 

Some tips for home language maintenance

If you teach a majority language, for example Catalan or Spanish, you find it difficult to give a more relevant role to your students' language of origin, which is completely normal and understandable. You may even have to quickly accommodate asylum-seekers, children whose first language is different from the language spoken in the host community, or children from socio-economically disadvantaged families, or even the three challenges at once.
The question, then, is how schools and teachers can overcome these barriers so that heritage language speakers and their classmates can get all the advantages that come with maintaining these languages. How can teachers increase the presence of heritage languages in their classrooms and schools? Here are a few tips and ideas based on our research.

Provide an additive environment for plurilingualism.

The presence of additional languages should be viewed as an asset, not a threat. Working with home languages in the classroom and doing activities involving translation and comparison of languages contributes to students’ overall language skills. This transcends the barriers between languages, breaking with the concept of compartmentalizing knowledge and languages. Approaches such as the Integrated Approach for Languages (IPA) and CLIL can support this idea.

Make transdisciplinary use of plurilingual teaching strategies. Studies have confirmed the effectiveness of “content-based” approaches to teaching a target language. Such approaches help learners improve content understanding and develop language proficiency, and they offer a range of other benefits in primary and secondary schools where there is a high percentage of newly arrived students that speak different languages. It is important to focus more on developing the overall communication abilities of our students, rather than acquiring proficiency in numerous specific languages, which is an impossible and unrealistic task and not in keeping with the principles of plurilingualism.

● Include plurilingualism both in your everyday class planning and in special activities. An annual teaching plan that takes into account the mother tongue of each student could be implemented in order to work on different skills. It is interesting to apply these teaching proposals from the beginning of the school year to see if there are any noticeable improvements of the L2 skills of the students who follow this methodology. Furthermore, a plurilingual teacher should find new ways to motivate students to learn languages and/or to get to know more about them. Bearing in mind the festivities of the cultures of our students and including them in the school calendar would be a good way of respecting the cultural background and the personal identity of our pupils. Moreover, this would help to enhance their sense of belonging to the school.

Go beyond “multicultural day”. The function of heritage languages should not be reduced to only a “cultural thing;” that is, a cultural artefact to be showcased during specific cultural events or to work on specific values. Instead, we suggest taking advantage of every opportunity in the classroom to make room for every language, and developing meaningful projects that encourage skills and involve content and language integration.

Find out more about students’ heritage language literacy skills. Our research found that most in-service teachers knew little about the home language literacy skills of their primary school students. Abilities in one language can be transferred into another one, so you might want to get to know pupils’ literacy skills in their home languages as a valuable starting point to teach other languages.

Encourage home language maintenance Teachers can be important agents in home language maintenance as they can increase confidence, enjoyment and awareness of the use of various languages. We suggest talking to families to encourage them to keep speaking their language to their children, and providing them with resources such as local entities or language academies to reinforce their culture and heritage language.

Get interested in learning a little bit of their home languageFew teachers make an effort to learn a bit of their students’ home languages. However, learning some words can be useful not only to communicate with students and give them some specific instructions, but also to show that their heritage languages are valued.