I met Farah* early in my teaching career, just after she arrived from Iran. Farah was a top student at her former school, already spoke two languages, and was learning English for the first time. As she settled into her new class and environment, Farah’s abilities quickly became apparent. She easily mastered math concepts. She also seemed to have an intuitive understanding of science topics, and nodded in recognition when she saw visuals and demonstrations. She began to pick up on English vocabulary quickly.
But every now and then there was a moment, just after she had understood a lesson or connected with a topic, where she grew quiet. She would lean forward, about to speak, and then stop. Sometimes she would frown slightly, searching for the words. Sometimes she just ended up shaking her head, as if the English she knew was insufficient to express her thoughts. In moments such as these, it seemed that no amount of sentence starters or alternative ways to demonstrate her knowledge would adequately replace her need to explain in Farsi.
As countless students, teachers, and scholars have noted, first language is an intrinsic aspect of our identities. It allows us to connect with culture, history, and the people we love. It is through our first language we express everything that matters to us, in ways unique and irreplaceable. Through our language, we make ourselves and our ideas heard in the world. And as many have also noted, in a way our first language isn’t just a part of us — it is us.
That sentiment was confirmed during one of Farah’s library visits.
A new shipment had arrived at the school that week, and when Farah walked into the library a few days later, I picked a book off the shelf and handed it to her. It was one of the stories we had been studying in class, but this version was in dual language, written in both Farsi and English. She held it in her hands a moment and then looked up at me, eyes wide, and gasped.
“I know this!”
Her face and her voice in that moment are as clear to me today as they were all those years ago. Recognition, surprise, joy, relief … it was a jumbled mix that I still struggle to describe. I will never forget her smile.
Moving from an English-only school environment to a framework of multilingualism is vitally important, and not just for students like Farah. When it is natural and common for all students to hear, see, use, and recognize the value of many different languages, all students benefit. As teachers, we strive to ensure that students see themselves reflected in curriculum and learning spaces, to ensure that everyone’s identity is affirmed and included — not as an afterthought, but embedded from the very beginning. Language is a fundamental part of that inclusion.
Over the years, I have encountered many different ways to embed multilingualism in learning, such as researching and writing class projects in first language, multilingual counting games in math and physical education, dual language books and multilingual collections, and subject-specific dual language dictionary sheets, with key curriculum vocabulary listed in home languages as well as English. The preceding is by no means an exhaustive list; recommendations from colleagues and researchers continue to expand options and opportunities for students. The multilingual framework continues to grow.
A few months ago I attended a conference given by U.S. educator and ESL specialist Cristina Sanchez-Lopez. During her presentation she described visiting a Canadian school; she recounted walking through the front doors to see, as she had many times before, all of the languages spoken by the students adorning the entrance way. But this mural, she noted, was different. She then produced a photo, and in it we could see a tree, its painted branches stretching across the walls. Set onto the leaves was the word “welcome”, each leaf bearing the greeting in a different language.
But then she pointed to a far branch, where we noticed a few leaves with nothing on them, their blank surfaces waiting. Waiting for the new students not yet present, waiting for the new languages yet to arrive, but that would one day become a part of their multilingual school. A space was ready for them.
As I begin teaching this September, I wonder what languages will colour our learning spaces throughout the year … what stories they will tell, the experiences and hopes they will express, the knowledge they will share.
This year, may the trees in your school grow bright.
*names have been changed