The Pros and Pros of Plurilingualism


Having gleefully boasted about the wonderful winter sunshine I’ve been enjoying in Lebanon, I got my comeuppance the other day when I was stuck at the supermarket in torrential rain which turned the streets to fast flowing rivers. Seeing that a crowd of people were waiting, I decided to follow their example and wait too. I assumed they knew best and were expecting the rain to ease. Unfortunately it became clear they were actually waiting to be picked up, and concern started to grow about me. Taking a punt on Arabic, an interested couple started trying to ascertain what exactly I was doing. When Arabic didn’t work they appealed to someone who spoke French to see if that was more effective. French, with the odd English word thrown in helped, and by using mime and English I managed to communicate I was waiting for the rain to stop so I could walk home. This did not please the crowd, who then all wanted to drive me home. I live only about a 10 minute walk from the supermarket, but I stupidly don’t have my address written down and only know how to get there on foot. A solution was thought of and they communicated I should call someone who knew my address so I could be driven home. My phone doesn’t work here, so it was then decided someone else’s phone would be used since I did have a number. By this time the rain had stopped and after thanking everyone in as many languages as I could think of I walked home.

Arabic, French and English proliferate everywhere in this city. Any interaction with a new person involves quickly ascertaining which language is most fit for purpose. Even after the language is chosen there is no necessity to stick to it, with speakers switching seamlessly from one language to another. In my office I constantly hear colleagues speaking English, French and Arabic in one utterance without hesitation. The linguistic acrobatics don’t end there. Levantine Arabic is spoken in Lebanon, however for the written form it’s usual to use Standard Arabic instead. Since many TV series here come from the Gulf region, I’m told Lebanese understand spoken Gulf Arabic and would manage well in this part of the world, however people from the Gulf region may struggle to understand Levantine Arabic due to lack of exposure. Everyone here has different competencies in each language in terms of what they can write, speak, and understand, as well as their own personal preferences.

blog-2While many people in Lebanon are truly multilingual, everyone here is plurilingual. Broadly speaking multilingualism refers to the knowledge of a number of languages. Plurilingualism, on the other hand, is concerned with the use all the linguistic resources available to a person in order to communicate. Therefore we are all unavoidably plurilinguals. In a multilingual society, different languages coexist. In a plurilingual society different languages interact and interrelate with each other, with users drawing on their whole linguistic repertoire to communicate. My drama at the supermarket took place in English, French and Arabic and while all the participants didn’t share a common language, we effectively solved my problem of how to get home. In a true pluricultural environment no one language is given precedence over another, and since language is so closely linked to culture it is one which promotes multiculturalism, understanding, respect and acceptance.

The Council of Europe has been promoting plurilingualism in it’s approach to language learning for some time. A plurilingual approach encourages learners to look for and use any clues which will help effective communication, and advocates using words, phrases and whole utterances from any language not just the target language. It values comparisons, non-verbal clues and reformulation. Some of this is very familiar in an TEFL context. Non-verbal clues are used by language teachers, particularly in the primary classroom all the time in the form of mime, gesture, facial expression, images and music to name but a few. Less easily assimilated is the L1 vs L2 issue.

CELTA advocates limiting the amount of L1 used in the classroom and there is sound reasoning. Classes are increasingly multilingual so using lots of L1 would put minorities at a disadvantage, and if the teacher does not speak the students’ L1 then there is no way of them monitoring what the students are saying or even knowing if they are on task. One of the options for ‘experimental practice’ on Delta is to investigate the use of L1 in the classroom. It is acknowledged that L1 has a place in the English language classroom, but it is not fully addressed and is included only as something to experiment with. Schools tend to advocate an L2 only policy in lessons, and one pacifier often given to parents who desire a native speaker teacher for their children is to assure them that whilst the teacher may share the same L1 as the students, they will never use it in the classroom. Teachers regularly penalise children for using L1, and I even observed a teacher who started every lesson by entreating each student to ‘give me your Polish’, which was promptly swallowed by the class puppet. Needless to say there was zero rapport between teacher and the students who basically knew absolutely nothing about each other and were never able to express anything about themselves, their lives or their feelings.

There is a lot of research into the value of using L1 in the classroom and a quick search will throw up lots of interesting research papers, articles and blogs in favour of using it, so I’m not going to go into great detail here. I will say, however, that L1 does have a place in my primary classroom. What I would like to do instead is make a few observations and suggestions as to what we can be doing. I feel it’s particularly pertinent at a time when increased migration, be it through choice or disaster, will definitely impact language learning and teaching requirements across Europe and the rest of the world.


I recently observed a teacher instructing her students in their L1 to open their books and to complete a matching task while listening to a recording. I was reliably informed that the instructions were short, concise and clear, however, very few children actually did the task and most just lolloped about looking bored. Clearly the language used to give the instructions was not a problem, it was in what the teacher said or how she said it. In the primary classroom contextualisation is best done through visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities to establish the what, when, where, why and how of the item to be studied. Since the aim here is to activate students’ prior knowledge, the language they use is largely irrelevant. If the class level is low, the teacher has the choice of omitting the activation stage which will in turn reduce the value of the activity, or including it but allowing the children to express themselves in any language they choose. If children can’t complete a key lesson stage such as generating interest in a topic in L2, then surely it’s better they do it in L1 than not at all? By not doing it we all know learning can be compromised. Furthermore, we know young learners can’t deal with lots of language terminology and analysis, so the only way for them to compare one language to another is by using both the languages. Again, should they miss out on this useful strategy due to their age and language competency?

Learner Training

Young children will sometimes inexplicably sit with their hand up for ages because they don’t know how to do a task, or because they want to ask you whether they should use a pen or a pencil. Relying on either themselves, or their peers to solve problems does not come naturally. Perhaps because looking at what their partner is doing is generally (and wrongly) regarded as cheating. Neither does the fact that you have done that exact task type before, you have written a visual reminder of what to do on the board and the book has included an example seem to help. Children forget quickly and don’t always know how to process the information presented. Asking adult learners to create a menu is easy as we all have lots of experience of using them. Young children are unlikely to have ever looked at one in much detail, and would need clear examples as to how to create one.

blog 1.jpgLanguage is ever present in Beirut. As you know I speak neither Arabic nor French, however, navigating the city is not as challenging as might be expected. For example I can ascertain lots of useful information from the pictured sign. I know it’s a tourist attraction from the colour and style. I can see it is a Christian church from the picture. I know how to get there from the arrows. I can guess there is a meeting room, and a place to get information because there are similar words in English. We tend to take it for granted that students will develop the necessary skills of inferring information on their own. However we also know that certain children are regularly completely lost in lessons however well we think we have set up the task. These children tend to become the banes of our lives, and we forget the emotional and social burden this lack of understanding puts on them, let alone the effect on their academic development. Remember to ask yourself if you have provided enough scaffolding, clues and help to allow all children to succeed even though it may seem obvious and old ground.

Going back to my tourist sign, if I had wanted further clarification I could have used google translate, asked a passer-by, looked in a dictionary or simply walked in to investigate. A plurilingual teacher should advocate all forms of input to facilitate learning. We can use phones to teach students how to use online resources responsibly, and to distinguish clickbait from reliable news. We can encourage students to ask each other, or their brothers and sisters and parents when they don’t know what to do or how to do something.  We can encourage different nationalities to integrate their cultural identity into the classroom to enrich the learning experience of all involved. We can treat all people and all languages in the classroom as equal, and nurture informed, plurilingual pluricultural citizens to guarantee our safe future in an unsafe world.

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