Luke Holmes

Silence in the postgraduate multilingual classroom

This paper is based on my 2015 MA dissertation research project on silence in the multicultural classroom. The paper is a response to certain tensions relating to classroom interaction, which were perceived to be present in multilingual and multicultural postgraduate classrooms in a UK university.

Previous studies on silence in multicultural and multilingual contexts have generally sought to explain student silence with essentialist descriptions, presenting a student’s cultural and /or linguistic background as something that determines their behaviour and/or interpretations of others’ behaviour. Through the use of interviews and surveys, I sought to investigate the extent to which such essentialist explanations correspond to the beliefs and attitudes of the students and teachers who practice in such classrooms.

The resulting data suggests that the students and teachers in my study were nearly all in favour of dialogic classrooms and see student oral engagement as beneficial to learning. Silence was generally discussed as something to be overcome by both students and teachers. In the UK context, at least, essentialist descriptions of students from other cultures, speaking other first languages are not supported by my data – there was no significant correlation between participant background and preferred approach to teaching and learning.

My data also reveals a significant difference between the student and teacher participants’ perceptions of how silence can negatively affect student learning. The difference suggests that teachers may not be aware of the learning needs and preferences of a multicultural and multilingual student body. Furthermore, there was a conflict of opinion between the ‘silent’ and ‘speaking’ students in regards to the cause of student silence, indicating that a certain understanding of culture and the way it impacts on student practices may be exacerbating student silence.

The paper goes on to suggest that, with the view to widening student participation, there is a need to reformulate current approaches to teaching and learning in HE. Student learning, it argues, will be better served by teaching methods that nurture a certain respect for linguistic and cultural diversity in the classroom.


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