‘No one took any notice of my linguistic journey’: one small step to acknowledge the value of language plurality

This comment was made by an undergraduate student studying at a university in London. The student in question was a first-generation Somali who’d come to the UK in his late teens. Like many students, he arrived at university with a multilingual repertoire, which in his case spanned 7 languages. Unfortunately, his university didn’t pay attention to this impressive knowledge. Sadly this experience is all too commonplace in universities in Anglophone settings. When universities do pay attention to the linguistic diversity of their students, it’s usually because they believe there are language ‘problems’ that need fixing. Very often, writing and/ or English for Academic Purposes tutors are tasked with ‘sorting out’ students’ English . This state of affairs is often enshrined in a university’s teaching and learning policy. It’s instructive to see how the linguistic diversity of the student population is described in these policies. We can see whether the the policy follows a broadly language as resource approach by seeing whether it:

  • acknowledges and celebrates the language plurality of its student (and staff) population
  • describes students as multilingual, bilingual and/or plurilingual
  • aims to utilise students’ linguistic repertoires as part of the curriculum and to develop plurilingual competence
  • provides academic language programmes for any student who wishes to develop their expertise in academic communication
  • supports staff to teach multilingual groups and to supervise/ conduct research in multilingual settings.

Or we can see if the policy follows a language as problem approach by seeing whether it:

  • portrays the university and the university population as operating in one language only: English
  • frames languages other than English as a problem to be addressed rather than a resource to be valued
  • categorises students in a ‘non native/ native ‘ speaker of English binary
  • provides academic language programmes as support for ‘non native’ English speakers described as using English as a second/ foreign language whose English is assumed to need ‘fixing’
  • provides little, if any, support for staff to teach multilingual groups and to supervise/ conduct research in multilingual settings

Getting universities to notice their students’ linguistic journeys and recognise their importance requires an alternative narrative to ‘language problems’ and ‘language fixing’. While language as ‘resource’ is not perfect, it’s a more hopeful script. It allows staff and students to ask questions like ‘what languages do we know?’, ‘how can we make use of them in our studies on this programme’ and ‘how can we develop our knowledge of these languages while at university’? These sort of conversations make linguistic diversity visible in institutional space and encourage reflection on linguistic repertoires as assets rather than obstacles.

We can make a small step in this direction by including some statements about the value of linguistic diversity in module guides. Here are 3 examples that I’ve used. I’ve found these helpful for shifting the conversation with students from language problems to language assets for them as individuals and the collective in which they study. I have included some reflective commentary with each statement. Please feel free to use or adapt these if you wish.

3 example statements for module guides

The teaching on the module is based on student-centred and active approaches to teaching and learning in higher education. The module tutors approach to pedagogy is informed by Sociocultural Theory and multilingual, plurilingual and multimodal perspectives to education

The idea of this statement was to inform students about the theories and ideas shaping their tutors’ thinking about curriculum design and pedagogy. In particular we wanted to draw attention to linguistic diversity and let students know from the outset that we were critical of monoglot views of education, teaching and learning. We wanted to encourage an atmosphere where students were not inhibited about mobilising multilingual resources and could reflect on ways in which these could be brought to bear on their studies and be developed during their studies.

It’s fine to use more than one language during group work as long as you ensure that all group members are included in the discussion and understand what is being said (this means translating if necessary)

We included this statement as we wanted students to know that it’s OK to use languages other than English in teaching spaces. Experience and research suggests that students think they are ‘breaking the rules’ when they depart from ‘one language only’ norms. However, we also know from experience that some students get very concerned when they hear other languages in the classroom so we wanted to acknowledge this by drawing attention to the need to be inclusive.

We encourage you to read texts in other languages alongside texts published in English, particularly if the medium of instruction in your schooling/ first degree was not in English.

Given the importance of reading in the academic domain, we wanted to emphasise the value of reading in more than one language and for students to see university as a place where they could engage critically with a wide range of sources and views – not just those that are published in English.  

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The quote used in the blog title comes from an article by the late Peter Martin in a Special Edition of Language and Education on linguistic diversity in higher education. You can read the articles in Language and Education (2010), 24, 1.

Peter Martin was Professor of Education and Linguistics at the University of East London and an inspirational and dear colleague who touched the lives of many of us.

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