“Language influences thought and action. The words we use to describe things—to ourselves and others—affect how we and they think and act.”
Learners can be empowered or suppressed by the language(s) used in our classrooms and other learning spaces. Given the increasingly divisive rhetoric stemming from the caustic nature of the U.S. presidential election, ill-informed statements such as “this is a country where we speak English, not Spanish,” or “while we’re in this nation, we should be speaking English . . . whether people like it or not, that’s how we assimilate” (Waldman, 2016), cannot be taken lightly. Many of our students may feel that their “own language” and, by extension, their identity, is under threat. The term “own language” is defined as “a language which the students already know and through which (if allowed), they can approach [learning]” (cited in Hall, 2015, n.p.). It’s a term now preferred by scholars and researchers to minimize inaccurate or imprecise usages, such as “native language,” “first language,” or “mother tongue.”
Additionally, educational institutions must confront the reality of a changing demographic stemming from increased international student enrollment, growing numbers of immigrants, generation 1.5 students, and, in Canada, the participation of First Nations communities. For students who speak English as an additional language (EAL), the sense of exclusion is not just a feeling, but a reality with consequences for learning and outcomes.
In this article, I’d like to focus specifically on learners’ use of their own language. For those readers whose professional work involves teaching or supporting EAL students, regardless of field or discipline, have you considered the role your students’ own language plays in the learning process?
As Jim Cummins, one of the world’s leading authorities on bilingual education and second languages, urged in a 2015 plenary address on integrating a learner’s own language into instruction, “We need to look at the evidence and close the gaps where policies and practices ignore the research.” In English-language teaching, although the English-only approach or the so-called “English-only zone” still dominates, the instructional efficacy of taking a monolingual approach has been coming under increasing critical scrutiny in research across fields such as second language education, linguistics, applied linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience, and on multiple grounds, including cognitive, sociolinguistic, pedagogical, and ethical (e.g., Hall & Cook, 2012, 2013; Huang, 2017).
Cognitively, prohibiting learners from using their own language during learning tasks can cause cognitive overload when the input is too complex. Sociolinguistically, using the learners’ own language helps build rapport and social relationships, both among learners and between learners and teachers. Pedagogically, judicious use of the learners’ own language can make it easier to manage tasks or classes in establishing a framework for classroom work. On ethical grounds, denying learners the use of their own language works against affirming their cultural and linguistic identities and inhibits the development of bilingual and bicultural identities and communication skills. Finally, recognizing learners as individuals and perceiving differences as a resource rather than a deficit can be motivating and empowering.
The theoretical framework that strongly supports integrating own-language use is based on Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978). From this perspective, mediation is important in constructing learning activity and generating higher mental processes, such as problem solving, planning, and evaluation. Moreover, the sociocultural theory of learning postulates that learning is most effective when scaffolded by existing knowledge. A review of empirical studies also supports using a learner’s own language in the classroom. Though too quickly ignored in the past, own-language use is now being recognized as natural, automatic, and thus inevitable, as based on the most recent studies on bilingual brain processes (e.g., Cho, Zarolia, Gazzaley, & Morsella, 2016; Zhang, Van Beuven, & Conklin, 2011). Also worth noting are recent studies suggesting that “human consciousness is less in control than previously believed . . . even complex concepts, such as translating a word . . . can enter your consciousness automatically, even when someone tells you to avoid thinking about it” (Cho et al., 2016). Ample evidence also points to education in a student’s own language as a powerful predictor of success in higher education settings where English is the target language (Leki et al., 2009).
With these pedagogical, theoretical, and empirical considerations in mind, let’s consider here a few interrelated points faculty should keep in mind:
- Clarifying and being aware of our own assumptions and biases. Becoming aware of assumptions is the first step to clarifying our potential biases. The process of reflecting on our own thinking and practices—as an integrated part of our daily professional practice—may prompt us to wait longer before jumping to a conclusion and may change our actions or reactions to events. Equally important for learners, incorporating such a practice in the regular “questions for consideration” component of a lesson is an opportunity for them to also engage in reflection in a way that it becomes part of our community of practice, with the goal of extending such an important practice beyond the classroom.
- Shifting our perspective regarding differences. The steps made slowly over the past decades in EAL instruction, moving from treating difference as deficit to difference as accommodation, to the intensified call to view difference as resource in recent years, still challenges EAL researchers and practitioners alike, especially now with the current erosion of public discourse, which seems to run counter to the difference-as-resource stance. It is important that we consider adjusting our perspectives toward a view that values culturolinguistic differences as resources that mediate and enrich thinking and learning. As Cummins (2015) further observed, “incorporating students’ languages into the classroom shows that knowing another language is an intellectual achievement”—a view echoed during the AERA 2016 Presidential Session moderated by Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Wasserman Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, when one participant noted: “With an immigrant student, note her assets—resilience, bilingual capability—not her deficits.” Questioning our assumptions and critically examining biases, as noted in Point 1, is critical to this transformation of perspective.
- Beginning instruction where learners are. A learner’s identity, needs, and preferences are not static and may change over time. Meeting learners where they are enables instructors to enter the learners’ versions of “reality” when guiding them toward their goals, which do not exist in isolation or reside only within the boundaries of the classroom. The students’ own language is integral to who they are, and the multifaceted role that languages play—socially, pedagogically, cognitively, and affectively—requires that we approach them thoughtfully and sensitively. Denying or restricting learners from using their own language may have great implications that go beyond the use of the target language.
- Being aware of students’ speaking/writing preferences first. Recognizing that the learners’ own language can play a role in their communication style is the first step to helping them make informed choices about their linguistic choices and rhetorical strategies. It may also lead to a deeper understanding of potential cross-linguistic interferences that may be linguistically or culturally related, which in turn may better inform our teaching. For example, a learner whose own language may have a modified element that always follows the modifier (e.g., the unmarked form in Chinese) may find it challenging to produce sentences with modifiers after the modified element in speaking (e.g., the unmarked form in English). The challenge may delay their initiation of input (owing to their preference for thinking of all modifying elements as coming before the noun or noun phrase). Thus, recognizing this potential difference would enable the instructor to provide longer inter-turn pauses before raising another question because of the lack of a response and unknowingly starting the speech-planning clock again. Different cultures also have varying orientations toward the length of inter-turn pauses (e.g., Nakane, 2012), and such culture-specific usage of silence can further intertwine with the linguistic and rhetorical features of languages. Whether one favors or opposes the notion that ways of communicating are culturally specific, few would argue against considering and appreciating the variation among discourse types across culturolinguistic groups and the need to recognize their equal validity for effective communication in learning.
- Observing how and when learners use their own language. On the multiple grounds for allowing learners to use their own language mentioned previously, it is important to suspend judgment and consider those contexts where they do so through observation. Is the function of own-language use heuristic? Is it to manage tasks in the classroom? Is it mainly to maintain social relationships or manage affect (e.g., expressing concerns)? In other words, does the use of a learner’s own language serve a regulatory function and mainly mediate learning, as also suggested by research (e.g., Harun & Massari, & Behak, 2014)?
- Considering ways or tasks in which the learners’ own language can be honored in their learning process or output. Such tasks can not only contribute to learning but also serve as vehicles for both the instructor and learners to learn to value the diverse languages that form our learners’ repertoires. This practice can help balance the power relations between languages in the classroom and give voice to those that are heard less. Incorporating such tasks need not be onerous, and they can be devised and implemented in ways that are sensitive to disciplinary modes of learning.
What’s your personal perception of and practice regarding your students’ use of their own language in your teaching? What is the institutional stance or guideline regarding their own-language use? What do you think these perceptions and practices potentially convey to our students? And what can be done to effect positive changes in how languages are used to shape thinking, learning, and action?
Ultimately, each instructor must navigate own-language use on his/her own terms in light of his/her own personal experiences, teaching contexts, and/or research findings. But I do hope that this short piece will prompt us to reevaluate our practices and (re-)consider opening up a supportive learning space from fostering an “English-only zone” to creating a multilingual zone that can, as Cummins pointed out, “enable scaffolding, connect with students’ lives, affirm identities, and expand students’ awareness and knowledge of how language works.” As psychologist and cognitive learning theorist David Ausubel once said, “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him (sic) accordingly.” And this knowledge includes, first and foremost, the learner’s own language, which should never be denied or separated from who our learners are.
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. Keynote presented at the 2015 TESOL Conference, Toronto, Ontario.
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Dr. Li-Shih Huang is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics, Learning and Teaching and a Scholar-in-Residence at the Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Victoria, BC, Canada. She is also the recipient of the 2014 Humanities Teaching Excellence Award.