Recently, I did a presentation on Ofelia García’s (2008) encyclopedia entry on “Multilingual Language Awareness and Teacher Education.” A few of García’s points really stuck out to me as crucial not just to language education, but to education as a whole. With that in mind, I decided to share them along with some of my own thoughts.
The article begins with a review of the evolution of language awareness in teacher education. What is language awareness? According to the Association for Language Awareness, language awareness is “explicit knowledge about language, and conscious perception and sensitivity in language learning, language teaching and language use” (n.d.). García notes that this understanding is typically further divided into understandings related to knowledge about language (ie- knowledge about the forms and functions of grammar, phonology, vocabulary), knowledge of language (ie- knowledge of how to use language appropriately in different situations and within different social and pragmatic norms), and pedagogical practices (ie- the teaching of language).
Traditionally, language awareness training has been seen as relevant mainly for language teachers and has centred on the language being learned in the classroom, with students’ other languages being seen as interference (García, 2008). As it is typically understood, language awareness is very focused on understandings about the target language, and the diverse language practices and purposes and social realities of bi- and multilingual students are ignored. This is why García advocates for multilingual awareness (MLA).
I found two main take-away points in García’s discussion. First, it is not sufficient for teachers just to know the structures, functions, and teaching approaches related to the target language; it is necessary to have an understanding of the social, political, and economic realities that surround and influence language users’ linguistic choices and attitudes (García, 2008). This is called critical language awareness (García, 2008), and it overlaps with the importance of practices of critical self-reflection, as discussed in Overcoming the Myth of Neutrality.
As a language teacher, it is important to understand the attitudes of my students toward their home languages and English and the effects they perceive their learning of English will have. Especially for those of us who teach dominant languages that are associated with ideologies of supremacy and linguistic and cultural imposition, it is crucial that we maintain awareness of the ways our attitudes toward language teaching and learning may influence our students’ self-esteem, identity, and allegiance. I have talked a lot about language, identity, and dominant ideologies in previous posts, and I’ve found a good deal of literature that points to the fact that negative attitudes toward learners’ home languages, which constitute an integral part of their identity, are damaging to the learners’ confidence, self-perceptions, and ultimately, to their learning outcomes (see Corson, 1993 and my post, Overcoming the Monolingual Bias). Thus, an integral part of multilingual awareness is that we as teachers maintain sensitive approaches in teaching dominant languages, recognizing and celebrating linguistic and cultural diversity for the beautifully complex mosaic of layers and colours it presents rather than promoting conformity to one set of ideas about thinking and speaking.
The second take-away point that struck me in García’s article is her strong belief that training in multilingual awareness should form an integral part of all teacher education. Teachers of all subjects will likely have students who are learning the subject matter and the classroom language simultaneously. This can be a heavy burden when it is assumed that all students in, say, a history class are already fluent in the classroom language (García, 2008). Thus, it is important that teachers of all subjects become aware and supportive of students’ linguistic development.
According to García, multilingual awareness training for all teachers should integrate pedagogical content knowledge (in other words, theoretical understandings taught in university classes) with authentic situated practice in multilingual classrooms, critique and evaluation of current practices, and, as a result of these critiques, transformed practices that continuously evolve and improve at accommodating the modern reality of diverse multilingual classrooms. Schools with linguistically diverse student bodies are more and more commonplace, and so teachers of any subject should be trained to work with students’ available linguistic toolkits to scaffold their linguistic development alongside their understanding of content (García, 2008). In a future post, I hope to outline some ideas for how to do this.
While the reality is that the prospect of implementing the kind of in-depth training García imagines in existing teacher education programs seems difficult at best (although I will note that it has been implemented it in certain programs that García has been part of), I would like to suggest that we as teachers take what steps we can to develop our own multilingual awareness. Here are two suggestions as a starting point:
- Self-educate about the backgrounds of your students and the historic cultural relationships between their home languages and other language groups. Do any of the home languages have a history of being oppressed? How will that affect these students’ attitudes toward the dominant language and culture? How can you validate their identity and experience from within a dominant language classroom? In what ways will you need to show sensitivity to their histories?
- Spread this information to other language teachers and also to teachers of other subjects. If we want to bolster the process of developing practices that draw from (rather than ignoring) linguistic diversity, we will need to convince more teachers of the importance of multilingual awareness and the role they can take in empowering students for success.
Do you have any other ideas? Have I convinced you of the importance of multilingual awareness? I would love to hear from you!
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Corson, D. (1993). Language, minority education and gender: Linking social justice and power. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
García, O. (2008). Multilingual language awareness and teacher education. Encyclopedia of Language and Education (2nd ed.), Vol. 6, (pp. 2130-2145).
(n.d.). About. From Association for Language Awareness. Retrieved 5 March, 2017, from http://www.languageawareness.org/?page_id=48.
Helen Nock. (December 13, 2012). Fish and Dolphin. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/junkbird/8269573540/in/photolist-dAKJ79-s9qRa-dPRpud-aiXUse-93h6j6-9yF8w-6aL44C-4HYBVY-a4Qn2e-6gSG4z-avb78H-5RzLCc-9nrHLb-7BbDdT-dPKMaP-rf3gb8-4bXXws-8HruTy-6YuQDR-b4qtcZ-aHYKCM-akk7sK-btJ8Vn-gfKHYf-9vTsZT-bqj5jt-2R2zDJ-eSZY24-9YcD47-bn25Um-6tzrPJ-8Fijvv-4HYC1G-ip89tQ-cycpG9-mY7smT-79opLF-aSm3VP-qAt47S-9jargz-92fibd-ozsCQ7-952GXX-828yUF-e6DF1U-74eSzs-iCjab-nqUbcc-b9bvUe-asPmB8.