Languages Without Borders – Building an inclusive Canada

More than 200 different languages are spoken in Canada in addition to English and French, yet the linguistic and cultural diversity of immigrants, refugees, international students, Indigenous peoples, and other minority groups has often been ignored in our mainstream school systems.

Languages Without Borders, the biannual national professional development conference for second language educators, features several speakers who argue that incorporating students’ first languages and cultures into the classroom not only enhances learning, but also creates a more inclusive and tolerant Canadian society.

In step with social change

“We live in a world where people are (re)claiming their place in society, and many social movements have been key in making social change, from Black and Indigenous Lives Matter to the decolonization of education,” says Angelica Galante, assistant professor in Second Language Education and director of the Plurilingual Lab at McGill University. “It’s time that we change the way languages are taught in the classroom to be in line with our social realities of inclusion, respect, and acknowledgement.”

To Gail Prasad, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, combatting linguistic exclusion in the classroom can also combat racism, because so many issues between cultures are often worked out through language. “We have a responsibility to learn from others,” she says. “’If we start this process early, in the classroom, working to understand cultures other than our own becomes normalized.”

Exclusion affects learning

“Imagine going to school and receiving instruction that is not in your language, and [the learning] material and the school setting does not reflect your cultural background,” asks Galante. “Many students who face this situation go through a period of silence, disengagement, and negative emotions, which have a detrimental effect on language learning.”

Angelica Galante, assistant professor in Second Language Education and director of the Plurilingual Lab at McGill University.
| Photo courtesy of CASLT

Prasad finds that there is often a stigma to being labelled as an English learner. “We need to make connections between [students’] home language and the language of instruction because it allows them to develop their identity as multilingual, but still belong – instead of being seen as having a deficit,” she says. “We need to treat multilingualism as a resource instead of an impediment.”

Galante argues that it is easier to learn English if the student’s own background is brought into the classroom. “Language pedagogy that fails to recognize the languages that students bring to class is inadequate and unproductive,” she adds.

And research shows that validating students’ languages and cultures in any language classroom has several benefits, including enhancing student engagement.

“Literacy engagement,” says Prasad, “is one of the strongest indicators of literacy attainment.”

Naturalizing indigenous knowledge

Maria del Carmen Rodriguez de France educates future teachers in her role as assistant professor of Indigenous Education at the University of Victoria. She sees embracing language diversity in the classroom as an ethical and moral responsibility, and stresses the need for teachers to explicitly address different cultural traditions, including those of Indigenous people.

With 98 per cent of the students in her program non-Indigenous, Rodriguez de France observes that they often exhibit anxiety when learning to teach the Indigenous portions of the BC curriculum.

“Students ask me, ‘what right do I have to tell these stories, when this knowledge is not mine?’” she says. “Instead of asking ‘what right do I have to teach this knowledge and these stories,’ ask yourself instead, as a Canadian, ‘what is my responsibility to do this work?’ Because when we think ‘what right do I have,’ this stops us, it gives us a way out, a justification, and a limit.”

“We have a responsibility to the people whose land we live on, and we have a responsibility to heed the Calls to Action,” she adds.

Creating linguistic and cultural collaboration

So how can teachers work with student populations that are linguistically diverse, and give Canadian students the ability to collaborate across languages and with different communities?

“When teaching a new language, teachers can ask students to compare the target language (let’s say English) to the languages they already know,” suggests Galante. “We can encourage students in the class to learn a few words in languages of their peers, and create tasks and assignments that allow students to be proud of their repertoire.”

Maria del Carmen Rodriguez de France, assistant professor of Indigenous Education at the University of Victoria.| Photo courtesy of CASLT

In turn, Rodriguez de France sees opportunities for creating understanding by inviting guests from various cultures to the classroom, translating school newsletters for parents in their home language, and bringing parents into the classroom to share their stories (perhaps translated by their child). Teachers can also ask students to interview members in their community about a particular topic that is being learned at school.

Prasad also suggests creating or using multilingual texts to allow parents to share the knowledge they have about the curriculum topics. “Asking parents to be the language experts in their home language is an empowering shift for parents,” she says. “Students then become proud of their language because they then translate what their parents have taught them into English and share that with their peers.”

Equally important are discussions about customs, behaviours, and beliefs that may be accepted as the norm in Canada but may not be the norm elsewhere. “Any cultural learning that happens in the classroom needs to be challenged as being the norm because many students may have a different norm,” Galante explains.

Shifting perspectives

To Galante, teachers need to be prepared to learn with their students, and break down hierarchies commonly seen in the classroom – including the relationship between teacher and students ­– to co-construct knowledge together. “Teachers,” she says, “will not know all of the languages and cultures in their classroom, so instead of trying to teach about a language or a culture that is not their own, they need to listen to their students.”

For Prasad, tapping into the resources of language-rich students is critical. “We’re at a moment where we need all hands on deck,” she says.

The Languages Without Borders conference will be held onlinethis year on October 23 and 24.
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