How many languages do you think are spoken in New Zealand on a daily basis? Five, 10, 50?

The answer is more than 160 languages. That being the case, how do we make sure all our children are receiving the best possible education?

Dr Corinne Seals from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies is working on a possible solution: resources that use a linguistic teaching technique that allows multilingual pre-schoolers to learn in any language they feel comfortable in.

The technique, known as translanguaging, is a process that allows children to draw on whichever languages they need at the time to communicate.

“I first heard about translanguaging at a conference in 2015 and I realised it made sense from both a multilingual teaching and a social justice perspective,” says Seals.

Allowing children to communicate in whichever languages they need at the time helps build their confidence in the classroom and encourages them to participate more often, she says. Children can focus on the overall goal of their communication and on their learning, rather than on trying to find specific words and grammar and experiencing anxiety about getting it wrong. It will also give children the confidence to try new languages.

“Translanguaging applies the way multilingual people naturally learn and use language to teaching,” says Seals. “Individuals and societies have done this successfully for thousands of years, so we know this is a successful approach to communication.”

Translanguaging also normalises the use of all languages, rather than giving preference to one language over another, treating all languages and speakers as equally valid, she says.

Seals, Dr Vini Olsen-Reeder from the University’s Te Kawa a Māui—School of Māori Studies and other researchers on their team are using translanguaging principles to create teaching resources to apply translanguaging in the classroom.

They have created grammatical principles for translanguaging, as well as developed teacher resources for under-fives that use a mix of Samoan and English and te reo Māori and English. These represent the first teaching resources in a mix of languages using translanguaging principles and the first project to show that translanguaging works for under-fives – previous research has shown it works for older groups.

“These resources are different from other multilingual teaching resources because they apply neurolinguistic and syntactic principles that allow readers to learn while moving systemically between the two languages, much like they do at home,” says Seals.

The resources give teachers another option for educating multilingual students.

“English-only approaches to education have numerous negative outcomes for students who don’t speak English as their first language, so having translingual resources is important,” says Seals.

“These students usually don’t have the same opportunities to express themselves as others because they don’t get to draw on their full communicative repertoire. If students receive the message that their languages are not welcomed or valued in this classroom, they fall behind in educational achievement and often never catch up.”

Encouraging multilingual communication in the classroom has other benefits as well, she says.

“Enforcing English-only communication marks English-only as the norm and leads to a society less able to engage in the global sphere. It also affects cultural sustainability and family dynamics – we have numerous cases of people not being able to communicate with grandparents or even parents because they are encouraged to only focus on English once they start school.”

Seals and her team are currently developing more teacher resources and training for teachers on how to use translanguaging in the classroom.

“There are a few key principles on the teaching side of translanguaging,” she says. “It is more important that children engage in the classroom than they be perfectly understood, so the most important thing is to get them to speak and engage, with meaning worked out later.

“There are two ways meaning can be worked out if the teacher doesn’t speak the same language as the student. First, teachers and students can negotiate meaning by both drawing on their full linguistic repertoire – just like you would if you were travelling to a country where you only spoke a few words of the language and they only spoke some of yours. This is considered a normal part of the translanguaging process.

“The other way meaning can be understood is by involving other children. Children are naturally inclined to teach their languages to one another, so teachers using translanguaging should encourage this process. That way, even if the teacher doesn’t understand the exact meaning, the other children can help communicate the meaning to the teacher when the children have access to languages beyond what the teachers themselves have access to. Rather than this being a ‘problem’, translanguaging reframes this into an empowering learning opportunity.”

The team’s teaching resources are available online and so far people from more than 40 countries have visited the website.

With the help of a Marsden Fund grant, Seals will be looking further into what works and doesn’t work with translanguaging and when translanguaging works best in the classroom, as well as looking at creating resources for use across more languages.

“It’s an exploratory, community-centred endeavour and I’m excited to see what we find,” she says.

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