A Class in Becoming Multilingual?

You know you are a little bit too nerdy about your work and/or you need a real vacation without your kids when you are an educator and in your free time you find yourself inventing hypothetical curricula in response to your own children’s interests and learning profiles. For fun.

So I have a kid who deeply loves languages. He has grown up speaking Spanish and English at home, in elementary school years he went to a dual language school (Spanish & English) and also had classes in Mandarin and German, and now in high school has taken Spanish and Hebrew. On his own time he has taught himself a bunch of Japanese through martial arts and anime, (added a Ukrainian keyboard to his phone so he can search for more music after having) taught himself to sing a few songs in Ukrainian, and has begun teaching himself ASL. For fun.

So I was thinking about him. Thinking about his exuberance when it comes to languages, his affinity for all things communicative (especially music and visual arts), and his expansive curiosity about the world. Also thinking about his frustration at having room for only one language in his school schedule.

So I had a curriculum idea that would appeal to kids like him, but that I think could also be a worthy educative endeavor for any kid. I started to run it by him and two sentences in he stopped me to declare his love for me and the idea (whut? my teenager likes me and thinks I’m smart?!?). So I thought I’d talk it out here and see what takes shape…

What if there was a class in schools that was called “Becoming Multilingual” (or something like that?)?

What if our pursuits in language learning at school were not all compartmentalized by discrete languages, but we instead created courses where the objective was simply to become more multilingual?

This might take the form of a class or an interdisciplinary series in elementary schools, or maybe an elective course in departmentalized settings. (Before any misunderstanding arises, I am not suggesting doing away with world language classes or the practice of staying in one language of instruction in some spaces. The idea to also have a multilingual class is not an either/or. It’s a both+and type of thing.) So what if this kind of class was not hypothetical? What if we imagined it into existence in all of our elementary and high schools?

Let’s ignore the fact that this might be really hard to grade (how do you truly measure multilingualism?) and maybe hard to staff (it would require preparing language teachers to be super skilled at differentiating, super innovative curricular thinkers, and super flexible in their instruction), and likely hard for other reasons (for example, I’m pretty sure there is no textbook for this). Let’s ignore, just for now, our society’s habit of endorsing and normalizing educational practices based on how easy they are for adults to assess and manage rather than how worthy they are for kids to experience. That’s a rant for another day.

Today I am only imagining…

A “Becoming Multilingual” class that invites kids to experience many languages of the world and guides them through an exploration of language and human communication. In my mind such a class would be:

  • Rooted in a culturally and linguistically responsive approach. The specific content would depend on who is teaching and who is taking the course. Maybe one or two world languages could be featured for more focused study (which one would depend on the teacher’s experience, expertise, and interest) but beyond that, there would be ample opportunities to learn in multiple other languages (depending the experience, expertise, and interest of the students).
  • Aimed at helping students progress toward meeting existing standards for world language learning, but more largely framed by the expectations in my Learning In-between Language And Cultures (LILAC) schema. Students would expand their linguistic repertoire to include an additional language (as in any world language course), but the exploration of multiple languages together would additionally inform their understandings within, across, and in-between each named language. A multilingual class would present students with an opportunity to develop some new language skills, and through exposure to many languages, to also understand their options about which language or realm of language learning they may want to study more deeply. Beyond that it has the potential to awaken students to the larger contexts, functions, purposes, and implications of language–to develop the understandings that live in the “in-betweens” of languages and cultures.
  • Designed flexibly using lots of inquiry and project based learning, arts integration, and seizing opportunities to make thematic or interdisciplinary connections. It would be grounded in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, offering multiple means and modalities for students to make meaning and demonstrate learning. Basically, everyone would have access to learning languages in a way that is both challenging and joyful. (This actually describes how I would want to design any class, but my point in including it here is that you couldn’t pull off the Becoming Multilingual class I’m proposing using what may be thought of as more traditional pedagogies.)

I’m picturing a class where students share words, phrases, sayings, jokes, songs, games from all the languages in their lives. Where kids’ own language practices are a primary text for the class and become windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (thank you, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop) for each other. Where multilingual learning becomes an entryway for kids to develop awareness about representation, difference, and connection within and across communities, as well as about the curtains (thank you Dr. Debbie Reese) that are sometimes necessary to put on the windows. Where kids in multilingual communities see their home languages and their own language practices affirmed as worthy of curricular attention and uplifted in the school space.

I’m envisioning a class where teachers share their expertise in world languages, but also foreground students’ expertise. I’m seeing teachers ever expanding their expertise, engaging transparently in their own continued learning, learning new languages alongside and from their students, and supporting students in leading learning for each other. I’m seeing community partnerships and field trips and creative use of technology to support learning in multiple languages. I’m seeing interactive bulletin boards, enormous cognate webs, and multilingual mindmaps. I’m seeing a medley of music and movies with subtitles. I’m seeing teachers invite and support kids through multilingual projects, perhaps to translate their writing into as many languages as they can inspired by Philipp Winterberg’s Am I Small?, or to collectively author multilingual books modeled after Karen Katz’s Can You Say Peace?, or to examine texts that reflect translanguaging practices (like the lessons CUNY-NYSIEB has documented in Gladys Aponte’s classroom) and put student work into the world that makes their own translanguaging visible and audible, as Jacinto Jesus Cardona did in his poem Tumbling Through My Tumbaburro, in Lori Marie Carlson’s Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young and Latino in the United States.

What if we actually created a dedicated space for kids exchange language expertise, grow their own multilingual awareness and repertoire, and (if they’re like mine) nerd out with lots of languages?

What if a class like this was a common, normal part of a larger, healthy, thriving multilingual ecology in our schools?

What if we thought that opportunities to become multilingual and the development of multilingual perspectives were essential in our definition of success in schools?

This is what I think about. For fun.

Getting back to other work now…


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