How to make use of bilingual children’s home language in the classroom: Translanguaging [Transcript]

January 18, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and mother of two bilingual children. Before we start this episode of Kletsheads, we have some news. Kletsheads is now on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. If you’re a social media user, we’d love it if you followed us and shared the podcast with your friends, family or colleagues. Our name is just simply Kletsheads. In this episode of Kletsheads, we’re talking about translanguaging. Translanguaging is an approach to teaching which allows bilingual children to make use of all of the languages they know whilst at school. So not restricting them to just the main school language. In Let’s Klets! we talk to speech and language therapists Victoria and Marie about their experiences working with bilingual children. They also provide lots of useful tips, both for professionals and parents. And our Kletshead of the Week is a Katriina. She grew up with Finnish and English at home and French at school. Now aged 32, she talks about the responsibility she feels to pass on Finnish to her own future children. Keep listening to find out more.

Sharon Unsworth: The number of multilingual pupils in schools here in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, as well as many other places across the world, has risen steadily in recent years. Yet, for the most part, schools remain mainly monolingual places. Here in the Netherlands, for example, children who speak a language other than Dutch at home are expected to leave that language at home and use only Dutch at school. For some children, school is also the place where they learn Dutch, their second language. But according to some researchers, learning a second language at school works better if multilingual children are allowed to make use of the home language in class as well as the school language. One of the strategies that can be used for this is called translanguaging. And translanguaging is being used not only to learn language but also to learn other content, for example, maths. What does translanguaging entail? What are its goals? And does it actually work? What do we know from research on this topic? I put all of these questions to Joana Duarte, lecturer in multilingualism and literacy at the Stenden University of Applied Sciences in Leeuwarden, in Friesland in the north of the Netherlands, and Special Professor in Global Citizenship and Bilingual Education at the University of Amsterdam. I started by asking Joana what exactly translanguaging is.

Joana Duarte: Hmm. Well, in order to answer that question, I would like to ask you a question. Could you please ask me for my phone number?

Sharon Unsworth: What’s your phone number?

Joana Duarte: My phone number is zero seis quatro três dois cinco três quatro zero un. And that always happens to me when people ask me for numbers or facts. I always go back to my native language, the one in which I learned counting, and I always have sometimes to translate live, zero, zero, seis. And I think that this is the essence of translanguaging, that you can in your mind, or in your mind and your articulation, switch between different languages, different registers, different varieties with different aims. Obviously, on the one side, translanguaging means the flexible way in which multilingual use their languages and switch between languages and registers. But what distinguishes translanguaging from code-mixing or code-switching is that it has been used also to describe the pedagogical approaches that include using pupils’ multiple language repertoires in education for teaching and learning. So on the one hand, it’s the language use of multilingual pupils and speakers, and on the other hand, it’s a pedagogical approach that makes use of the flexible ways in which pupils use their languages.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. OK, so it’s like making use of what the children bring to school with them. So not just asking them to leave the other language at the school gates, but employing that in the classroom.

Joana Duarte: Yes. And recognizing it as a resource for the learning process.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Rather than a hindrance.

Joana Duarte: Exactly.

Sharon Unsworth: What’s the goal of this approach then?

Joana Duarte: Well, I think the goal of every approach should be to improve learning and to improve the quality and the conditions of learning. And I think the same thing is valid for translanguaging because it does speak to the way multilingual speakers use and learn their languages. So, of course, everything that fits into what you’re used to, then it’s easier for you to use in the classroom. And on the other hand, it has an attitudinal component, right. You’re accepted with your language, with your background, with your language use in class, which, of course, increases your motivation, your willingness to participate and, of course, your general well-being because you’re being accepted with the multilingual resources that you have instead of being forced to act in a kind of monolingual mode.

Sharon Unsworth: Can you maybe give an example or a few examples of a translanguaging approach in the classroom? What kind of things should we think of when we talk about translanguaging in the classroom?

Joana Duarte: Well, there are, of course, different ways of implementing translanguaging. I think that this is also very much teacher-related, what kind of preparation and what kind of attitude you have towards using multiple languages in your classroom. But the typical approach is the one that was developed in Wales, which means alternating different phases in your classroom, well, by alternating languages. For example, the teacher produces a question in this case Welsh, for example, but specifically tells the pupils they can discuss first in English their answers and then find a Welsh answer. And then when they go back to the whole class reporting, they will still use the Welsh language, but they use the English as a scaffold to, well, develop their answers in Welsh. Still, there’s a lot of language division, right. There’s still specific labelling of specific languages and they still are kept very much separate in terms of the approach. And then there is, of course, the more fluid approaches, in which you invite pupils that share the same home language to use all their multiple repertoires, without mentioning or you can use Russian or you can use Turkish because they just can use whatever language they are used to speak with each other. Normally you don’t find these approaches a lot in whole class speech, right, because then you have to focus on one or two large languages that are shared by everyone. You find this more in individual teacher-pupil conversations, in small groups or in the individual group discussion of pupils that shared the same home languages.

Sharon Unsworth: So there are different ways of approaching it and factors like the languages present in the room, the context and the actual aim will impact that. You mentioned a number of goals. What evidence is there that these goals are actually achieved?

Joana Duarte: Well, like any topic in academia, there is a hot discussion about the kinds of effects or gains you can see. Of course, translanguaging has many goals at different levels; raising involvement, working on real cognitive goals like learning new vocabulary. But there are also many goals that are now being taken more serious and that are related to social affective and social-emotional aspects, like raising involvement, raising participation, raising wellbeing, and also sense of school belonging and tolerance towards multilingualism on the part of the teachers. So depending on the goal that you’re looking at in terms of reviewing the research, you will find also different findings. The latest research has looked at, for example, translanguaging for acquiring mathematics, which I particularly find very interesting. And they have compared Makonye, for example, in 2019 compared to different groups of sixth-graders in Zimbabwe. One group was able to use their native languages to acquire the concepts of perimeter and area in mathematics. And for the others, the intervention was conducted just in English. And he found that the multilingual group had significant gains in vocabulary. So they learned the vocabulary in English much better than the group that was just immersed in the English language. And he particularly found a difference in the amount of errors and misconceptions around the central terms that were dealt with. And apart from that, he also found that the pupils in the experimental group, in the translanguaging group, were much more engaged and were much more motivated to follow the mathematics classes. So although he was looking at vocabulary, he found side effects in terms of their engagement in participation in class. And well, there are other studies, but what you can see is that there are gains in terms of language learning. There are gains in terms of subject learning, in the case of Makonye that was mathematics, and there are also gains in terms of social-emotional factors such as well-being, multilingual identities was one study also, tolerance, intercultural competence.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So it seems to work then, is the conclusion?

Joana Duarte: It seems to work under the right circumstances, meaning that the teachers have to be professionalised, motivated and engaged in applying their own operationalization that they are comfortable with, right, of translanguaging. It cannot be a top-down decision from someone without preparation.

Sharon Unsworth: Right, right. So that’s the kind of circumstance in which it is unlikely to work then?

Joana Duarte: It is, it is. In the study conducted in Belgium by Piet van Avermaet and his colleagues, they found that some of the teachers in the interventions, they only did some multilingual activities when the camera was on or when the classes were being observed, but they had the feeling that between those observation moments, not a lot was happening. And they interpreted it as that the teachers didn’t feel the ownership of the approach. It was something that belonged to the design of the project, that the school had said, “Yes, we’ll do it,” but that the individual, not all the individual teachers felt it was the right thing to do. And so, of course, they did it less. And they also saw the effects on the numbers that they measured.

Sharon Unsworth: So translanguaging in the classroom basically means allowing children to make use of all their languages. As a teacher, you can do this in different ways, depending on how many languages are spoken by the students in your classroom and the task in hand. The use of translanguaging as a multilingual approach to teaching has various goals. These relate, for instance, to how children feel and interact with others. These are the social affective goals Joana referred to. Translanguaging may also concern the knowledge children develop and how they engage in learning, then we’re talking about cognitive goals. And there are also broader goals that are not so much about individual children, but about the status of languages, about inclusion and empowerment. The gains which Joana has mentioned so far have been for bilingual children, so children who speak a different language than the main school language at home. I asked Joana whether there might also be gains for monolingual children, so children who speak only the school language at home, but who have bilingual classmates.

Joana Duarte: Yes, especially in approaches conducted from a language awareness perspective. And the gains in the monolingual children are related to language awareness, to language learning strategies and also to intercultural awareness, so the ability that you can place yourself in another person’s shoes and see events or the world or whatever from their position, and they measure this also in very young children already. So there are different types of gains to be acquired by different children, but all of them can definitely learn something from implementing translanguaging or language awareness approaches.

Sharon Unsworth: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about what the differences between a language awareness approach and a translanguaging approach.

Joana Duarte: Language awareness does not have to be about using the languages themselves. It can be about exploring, I think that’s the biggest difference, exploring, getting to know more. And you can do this by using just one language so you can choose the main language of instruction. And then your topic is about attitudes or about a language area or about different alphabets or about speakers of different languages. So the topic is getting to know language and language diversity deeper. It doesn’t mean that you use all the languages of the children to do this. Often that is not the case. And translanguaging really appeals to making use of your individual repertoire to make sense of a task, to engage, to maximize your communication with your speaker that shares the same language. So it does have a different aim and it does have a different implementation.

Sharon Unsworth: We’ll talk more in a minute about to what extent such an approach can be implemented in a school system, like, for example, in the Netherlands, which is quite monolingual. But first, we’re going to hear from our Kletshead of the week


Kletshead of the Week

Sharon Unsworth: In each episode of Kletsheads, we talk to a bilingual child about what it’s like to grow up with two or more languages. In this episode, we’re off to Canada, where we talk to someone who grew up trilingual and is now an adult.

Katriina: My name is Katriina. I’m 32 years old and I live in Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories in Canada. And I speak English as well as Finnish and French.

Sharon Unsworth: OK, so tell me where you learned Finnish and French first.

Katriina: Yeah, so Finnish was probably the first language I spoke. My mother’s from Finland and she had a big emphasis on teaching Finnish when we were children. She always spoke Finnish to us when we were very young. So I probably spoke Finnish before I spoke any other languages because I spent so much time with my mom when I was a little girl. And then French came a little bit later. My mom enrolled me in French immersion kindergarten and then elementary school. So I started learning French at a young age as well, and then French really picked up for me in my adult life, first on exchange in France. And then I met my partner in Montréal in Quebec, even though he’s from France. We met in Quebec and the language that we use to speak together is French. So I speak a lot of French nowadays.

Sharon Unsworth: And where were you raised? Where did you grow up? Which country?

Katriina: In Canada.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, OK. And so that’s how you can speak such good English then.

Katriina: Yeah. And then my father, he’s unilingual, he only speaks English and so our language at home was always English. So as soon as we kind of got to the age of going to school and being more comfortable in English, we kind of switched to English as being our main language. Even with my mom, I spoke English at home eventually.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I’m curious how that went, right, because often I speak to a lot of parents on the podcast and one of the questions that I get asked by parents is, “What do we do when we each speak a language and one of us doesn’t understand the other person’s language?” Right, so I’m guessing your dad you said he was a monolingual, so he doesn’t speak or understand Finnish.

Katriina: Yeah, I think it was definitely a source of frustration for him. I think any time we were speaking Finnish and he didn’t know what we were talking about, he’d kind of be like, “Speak English, I don’t understand you.” Even when we were visiting Finland and we weren’t speaking English, he was a little bit frustrated by not being able to understand others. But on the other hand, he didn’t really ever make a very big effort to learn Finnish. It also became a language that my brother and I became more comfortable in just because so much of our life was in English. The school in English of our friends spoke English, and especially now I have a really hard time having a conversation where I can fully express myself in Finnish. And so I revert to English with my mom and yeah, some pieces of conversations with my family in Finland as well.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, I mean, nobody’s getting anywhere these days with the pandemic. What happens when you go back to Finland? Does it all wake up again?

Katriina: So it’s interesting. I think the reason why Finnish was so strong when I was a child is because we’d go back to Finland pretty regularly. I don’t think it was every summer, but maybe every second summer. And we spent a year in Finland when I was thirteen, I think. And so I’d go back for like two months, like the entire summer. So it wasn’t just a week here and there, it was like a real immersion in Finnish for the whole summer. And I had cousins there that were the same age. And so I spend my summers with them speaking Finnish. And so when I was young, it was always much stronger because I’d have that immersion regularly. But then as I started getting older and even in my teen years, I started working in the summer and so I’d go back for less. And then university, so trips to Finland became shorter. And with that, my Finnish became much weaker. And I notice still today that if I’m talking about any subject that I would have talked about in my childhood, I can find all the words that I need to know. If I try talking about a subject about like my work or what I’m studying or things that I would have kind of started doing more in my adult life, I don’t have the vocabulary because I’ve never really practised it. It’s a bit of a point of frustration for me now when I do go back to Finland, just because I am a bit sad that I’m not stronger in the language and I feel almost like I’m losing it. And yeah, just that feeling of not being able to express myself in this language. And it’s such a different language than all of the other languages I speak, even between French and English. If you don’t know a word, you can kind of make it up. Whereas in Finnish it even the way that phrases are constructed in Finnish, it’s such a different language. It’s really difficult to make up for it by speaking another language.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. It is very different, right. So it’s related to Hungarian, from the same language family. And it’s pretty… For an outsider can seem quite complex, right. But because like you said, because it’s not related to English or to French, sometimes it can be hard to lean on your other language when you maybe can’t find the word. So I’m curious to hear how you experience going to French immersion school, right? Because you were being raised bilingually and then you basically were thrown in in the deep end, which is essentially what immersion kind of is when you went to school. Do you feel that being bilingual helped you or did it hinder?

Katriina: I don’t really know what I was thinking when I was five years old, but I don’t think it was ever really a struggle for me. Like, I know my mom also put my brother in French immersion and after three years of French immersion, he switched to an English school because that just wasn’t working for him. But there was never the case for me. I don’t think I really ever had a bigger issue with it. Eventually, after grade six ended up going to an English school, but when I changed schools to junior high, it was because the closest school to my house was an English school. By that point, I kind of had the foundation already.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And now you said your partner is a French speaker. Yeah. So you speak French and English, presumably in your daily life.

Katriina: Yeah. Yeah. Most of my work is in English. Not all of them, but a lot of my friends are in English as well. But my language that we speak at home, with my partner, is French, so it’s a pretty common language for me in my daily life.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And so I’m curious, so I know, you told me earlier that you don’t have children right now, but if you were to have children in the future, have you thought about which languages you’re going to, or language, you’re going to speak to them?

Katriina: Yeah, I have a lot. I think they’ll obviously pick up French just because that’s our home language and we will probably raise them in Quebec. So from my side, I think English is a very useful language and so I think I’ll probably try and bring that there. But then I also have this sore point of wanting to teach them Finnish, but not knowing if I’ll be able to just because my Finnish isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be and just not having those opportunities to use it. And the number of Finnish speakers is not immense, and so I kind of have that feeling of not passing on this language that’s so unique and doesn’t have a huge number of speakers in the world. And just like a bit of guilt.

Sharon Unsworth: It’s almost like you’ve got a sense of responsibility.

Katriina: Yeah. Living in Canada, there’s a lot of indigenous languages in Canada and I see how there’s a struggle at the moment with indigenous languages, just with the history of colonisation and the effort that the Canadian government put to trying to erase indigenous languages in the 20th century and earlier. And now there’s kind of a bit of a revival in some of those indigenous languages of people wanting to learn it. And true speakers are all elders. People in their 70s and 80s are the ones who are really fluent and depending on the language, like some of the languages are stronger, I think, than others. I guess I’m seeing in Canada the struggle and kind of the sadness that comes with languages that are endangered. And I know Finnish is nowhere near that, but just I guess it’s not a dominant language in any way, shape or form in the world. And I guess I kind of feel like I can see how in a language can become endangered. My mom was born and raised in Finnish and I know Finnish. And then my children are probably not going to be great speakers, if at all. So I can see how quickly it gets lost. And that’s kind of a bit of a sad point.

Sharon Unsworth: So you were raised bilingual and now you’re bilingual in your daily life because your partner speaks another language as well. Do you switch languages between you or do you always speak French?

Katriina: Yeah, I do switch. I think the moments when I switch to English sometimes, yeah. When I’m in an argument when I’m trying to make a point, at the end of a long day when I’m really tired, even in some of my French conversations, I’ll switch back and forth because Montréal is a very bilingual city. And so the majority of people in Montréal speak or at least understand French and English. And so you can have these conversations where you’re switching back and forth between languages, depending on the subject or who’s talking, and everyone’s kind of following along. So it’s quite common for me to switch back and forth between French and English.

Sharon Unsworth: And I think for people who live in monolingual communities, that sometimes sounds a little odd, right. But when you know you know that the vast majority of people around you are bilingual, then it’s like you make use of all the language repertoire that you have, right, to say what you want to say. So I know no Finnish. I know nothing. Have you got a good word you could teach me? I’d love to know something in Finnish.

Katriina: You had, in your questions, one about the favourite word. And I was thinking about that a bit before this recording. I think the word that I came up with was kaillio, just because it’s a word that I’m always searching for in another language. And I have never found it in another language. And it’s just for this kind of landscape formations. It’s when you have, like an open rock, like, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Canada or to Scandinavia where you have this sealed environment and you have these like rock hills, like rock mounds or on the side of a lake, you have a big rock. And kaillio is the Finnish word you have for those landscape formations. And it’s just a landscape that I come across so often in Canada and I never know how to say it in English or in French, and I’m still referring to it as kaillio.

Sharon Unsworth: Kallio?

Katriina: k a i l l i o.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, it’s funny, right? Those words that you only really have in one language. In Dutch, there’s the word gezellig, gets translated often as “cosy.” It kind of means cosy but it just means like nice and fun.

Katriina: Definitely. Another one in English actually that I can’t find in French, is “home” which gets translated in French to chez soi. It’s not really the same. Like home is almost a feeling of being at home, and the cosiness of it and everything. And in Finnish you have kotona or koti but it doesn’t really exist in French, which I find interesting.

Sharon Unsworth: Can you read in Finnish?

Katriina: I can, but I’m very slow. I did spend that year in Finland when I was 13 and I went to school there. And so I did kind of pick up more skills you’d pick up in school in Finland, but it was only about one year. And I can read like emails and messages and write letters to my grandmother.

Sharon Unsworth: Well, that makes sense, but it’s of course, very nice. You can still write messages to your grandmother, right?

Katriina: Yeah, but I will admit that I write my message in English. I put it in Google Translate and then I use that as a guide while I’m writing. So I don’t write word for word, but I do that in French, too.

Sharon Unsworth: I think we’re going to wrap up now. So we usually end by you telling me how you say thank you and goodbye in one of your languages. So maybe I can have another two more words in Finnish. So how do you say thank you in Finnish?

Katriina: Thank you is Kiitos.

Sharon Unsworth: Kiitos?

Katriina: Kiitos. Yeah. Starts with a “k,” double “i,” t-o-s. And then goodbye. The informal way of goodbye is just repeating how you say hi twice. So to say hi to people, you’d say either “Hey” or “Moi.” So to say bye to people informally, you say “Hey hey” or “Moi moi.”

Sharon Unsworth: OK, so, kiitos, Katrina, and moi moi.

Katriina: Thank you very much. This has been fun.

Sharon Unsworth: Today, we’re talking to Joana Duarte about translanguaging. We’ve heard what it is and that there’s evidence to suggest that under the right circumstances, it is effective in helping children not only to learn languages better, but also to feel better about themselves, to be more positive about their own multilingual identity, even to learn knowledge other than languages, for example, maths. To what extent can we use this approach? Now we’re here in the Netherlands and, in general, I say in general, because Joana is in Friesland, which is a very multilingual part of the Netherlands, but in general, I think and you can say if you don’t agree, Joana, the educational system in the Netherlands is pretty monolingual that. Would you agree with that?

Joana Duarte: Yes, I would agree with that, yes. And it does mean that that Dutch is clearly, implicitly taken as the majority language in the language in use, and that in foreign language education, there is the implicit idea that you should only use that language while teaching it and thus keeping it apart from all the other languages. So it’s double monolingual in this way.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, double monolingual, which almost sounds bilingual, but we don’t mean that. We definitely don’t mean that. And I think, you know, the Netherlands is not unique in this way, right. This is the same in many countries around the world. So I guess the question is, okay, this approach then, it seems to work, but is there actually any room for it? Can it be used for all kinds of languages? And to what extent can it be used in primary school, secondary school? Maybe you can tell us a bit more about that.

Joana Duarte: Well, the answer is obviously, yes, under the right circumstances. Well, what we see in our schools is that it takes time, right? You cannot implement translanguaging or other diversity-based approaches top-down and expect teachers to change their mindsets and their teaching within six weeks. So it is a process and it has different phases. And in order for it to work, the teachers must be allowed to experiment in their own classes in a safe and a small-scale way, right. So with approaches that fit their own way of teaching and their own approach towards teaching. Small things. And while working with the schools, primary schools and secondary schools, I’ve also been often amazed by the creativity and the resources that teachers have and that was also not visible until we said, well, why not use translanguaging in relation to things that you yourself like to do? And then suddenly there were people doing multilingual theatre plays inside and outside using all the languages. There were people reading books in different languages and making voices and getting props.

Sharon Unsworth: Can it be used then for all kinds of languages? So Fries is a national language of the Netherlands, in case you didn’t know that listener, and a minority language, just like other languages around the world. But you’ve also got, you know, the languages of children whose parents have immigrated into a country, also got different dialects within a country. Can you use it for all of these things?

Joana Duarte: Sure. It’s just the way that you implement this approach that is different, right? If you want to switch between Frisian, English and Dutch, which is also a kind of translanguaging within the province of Friesland, then you can use these three languages almost to fulfil the same functions, right. To learn to use the book, to ask for instructions, to ask for a translation, to acquire new knowledge of history. It doesn’t really matter. But if you want to use Spanish or Arabic or Turkish or Tigrinya or Chinese as a teacher, you yourself do not normally speak these languages. So your approach to using them in the classroom will, of course, be a very different one. And that means that you have to empower your students and encourage them to use their languages when working in small home language groups. And you have to change your school system to make room for these languages. For example, some of our schools have a home language reading corner, so all the pupils of a language an hour a week they read in Polish or in Arabic for the younger children, sometimes there is a parent coming or grandma coming to read in those languages. So the structure of the school has been adapted so as to give room to those languages when it’s difficult to do it in class. There are other schools that use digital tools like apps, other schools, they’ve decided to involve the libraries and specifically asked the library to have books in the different languages and to find people that can read in those languages. So depending on the languages that you have, and the parents that you have, and the possibilities in the community, you can adapt your school and your school activities to include activities in those languages.

Sharon Unsworth: That sounds great. You did touch upon one of the potential concerns that I think teachers might have, and that’s that, “Well, I don’t speak all of those languages, how is that going to work?” You’re saying, you know, give the room to the pupils to let them speak them.

Joana Duarte: Yeah. And what we see is that when teachers do that, the pupils, they feel the trust of the teacher. And normally they are very respectful because we’ve made some recordings of the students while they are working in their home languages in Bosnian and in Twi and in Tigrinya. And we had our student assistants translate these recordings and we found that 90 per cent of the time they were just doing their task as asked by the teacher and the rest was more managerial, like, “Where’s my pen?” or “Where did you put it again?” Like fighting over school material. And some was, “What did you do in the weekend?” which we also, of course, found in the groups that chose to do their tasks just in Dutch. What the children said is they felt more comfortable. They said it felt more like being at home and I could focus just on the task, and then not doing the task and doing it in perfect Dutch.

Sharon Unsworth: Here’s what some of the teachers who took part in Joana’s research had to say about their experiences using a languaging approach.

Teacher 1: Something that I do a lot during language lessons that focus on vocabulary is to say, “We’ve learned a new word,” and then add, “How do you say that in your language?” It’s not a separate lesson, I don’t do that, that’s also impossible in our context, with all the things that need to be done each day, I just integrate it into the regular lessons.

Teacher 2: The first positive point we saw is that the children feel seen, they feel respected, they gain more self-esteem for their own language, that their language may also be there in a new country. That is very valuable.

Teacher 3: The children experience that their own languages are also important when learning new languages. Some pupils know quite a few languages. You see their self-confidence increase when their language is in the spotlight and they can tell us something about it.

Sharon Unsworth: Parents might have concerns as well, right? If their children aren’t so proficient or they don’t think they’re that proficient in their home language, then the idea of them being able to use that to learn things at school might be a concern in that they might think, “Well, they might struggle. How is that going to help, actually?”

Joana Duarte: Yeah, this is one point of concern. We get this back from schools a lot. Actually, what our schools developed was that when you have an intake with parents that you take this policy as a school already in the intake. “We are a multilingual school. How would you feel if we would encourage your daughter or son to use whatever she knows from the home language to learn?” And if the parents really feel uncomfortable or whatever concerns they might have is then noted down in the intake and is given to the teacher that will receive the child. And this is something that really needs to be identified and respected by schools.

Sharon Unsworth: Parents who are happy for the child to use all of his or her languages at school can also get more involved themselves. Here’s what one of the teachers in Joana’s research did.

Teacher 4: We have had the letters that children take home with an invitation to parent-teacher meetings translated into other languages so that we now have letters in multiple languages. Mathematical concepts have also been translated into their other languages. Some of this was done by children, but not all children can read and write in their own language. So when this isn’t possible, we get the parents involved.

Sharon Unsworth: Before we listen to the rest of my conversation with Joana, we hear from two more guests. In every episode of Kletsheads, I talk to a parent or professional about their experiences with bilingual children. This time we hear from two speech and language therapists from the UK.


Let’s Klets!

Victoria Farrell: My name is Victoria. I live in Maidstone, which is in Kent in the UK, and I’m a speech and language therapist.

Marie Newton: My name is Marie, and I’m also a speech and language therapist working with children in Brighton and Hove, and I originally come from France.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, so you’re bilingual, too?

Marie Newton: Yes, I am.

Sharon Unsworth: As is Victoria. I heard.

Victoria Farrell: Yes. Yeah, I am, in Spanish and English.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, so two bilinguals. You’re both speech and language therapists, so maybe you can tell us how long you’ve been working as speech and language therapists and a bit about your own background.

Marie Newton: Yes. So I initially studied English in France at university and applied linguistics, and I moved to the UK about almost 25 years ago now. And initially, I was teaching languages, so I wasn’t a speech and language therapist. And then I retrained about 14 years ago and I’ve now been working for 12 years, mostly with paediatrics. And currently, my job is at a really mainstream school. So I work with children between the age of 4 and 16.

Sharon Unsworth: Wow. That’s a big age range.

Marie Newton: It is a big age range, yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, and with bilingual children then?

Marie Newton: Yes. Bilingual children are part of our caseload. In Brighton and Hove, we’ve got a number of bilingual children, but it’s probably not one of the areas where we’ve got the most, compared to some of the London boroughs, for instance, so.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, okay. And Victoria, what about you?

Victoria Farrell: I was born in the UK, but when I was very little, I was just under two, I think, we went over to live in Spain. So actually, Spanish technically is my first language, but by the age of six, we came back to the UK. I did all my schooling and everything in the UK, went to university. I actually studied Hispanic Studies and Business Studies at universities to that. And actually, just as I finished university, when I was in my sort of early twenties, my family decided to move back to Spain and I thought, I’m going to go as well. So I actually had a couple of years out there, as an adult working out there and then decided to come back. I was looking to sort of retrain and kind of got interested in speech and language therapy. And I’ve been working, like Marie, as a paediatric speech and language therapist, predominantly at the moment with early years. Since I qualified, I have worked in a range of settings. I’ve done some school work, some secondary work and also in some specialist settings.

Sharon Unsworth: Just for the people who are outside the UK. I mean, I’m British, but I’ve lived long enough outside to… I think I know what early years are, but maybe can you tell us?

Victoria Farrell: Yeah, preschool children, basically, before they start school, and then reception would be their first year at school.

Marie Newton: So they’re four.

Sharon Unsworth: Four, okay, yeah. So then you both have dealt with bilingual children. To what extent is working with bilingual children different from working with monolingual children? Apart from the obvious, they know another language.

Marie Newton: You know, whoever you work with, you always have to think about all the environments where the children use the language that they’re learning. So in case of bilingual children, obviously there’s more environment, there’s more languages in the different environments. I think that’s probably one of the main things to remember. And also what the communication partners of that child, what do they speak together? So really thinking about what does that child speak and in which environment? And I think that’s quite a big thing for us to think about, because even though we might be working in a school, actually that child is only in school for a few hours a day. So it’s really thinking about everything.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, the whole picture.

Marie Newton: The whole picture, yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: And Victoria, so they’re both a bit of similarities and differences. What else is different?

Victoria Farrell: It’s more about additional things to consider. And, you know, typically with any family, we would ask them, you know, background questions, case history questions. In addition to that, we would also want to find out a little bit more information about their languages. What is their exposure like? You know, when were they introduced, those languages, and from birth to wherever the child is now, you know, how is that changed? Because we know with bilingual children, you know, it doesn’t stay static, it can change. Different families have different circumstances. The child might be born in one country, come over to the UK, for example, in our case, you had different periods in different countries. So all of that really is very important for us to sort of consider that as well. And I think the other obviously big thing as well is that a lot of the time we might be working with interpreters, whether that’s because we need to communicate with the families, or to do part of that assessment as well. So, you know, as a speech and language therapist, you know, you’re working with someone who you are dependent on to understand and to be able to communicate your message effectively.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I guess you need a really good working relationship with the interpreters then, right. To be able to do the job properly. Marie, did you want to add something?

Marie Newton: Yeah, I do agree with everything that Victoria is saying. I think it’s the idea of language exposure and also dominance at different points in your life. One language is always going to be dominant in one area compared to the other one, so I often give the example of that I would find it very difficult to do my job in French because that’s not how I function. But obviously, if I move back to France and I had to do it, then that dominance would come up again. And we really have to think about that with kids. But the exposure is then linked to the dominance and who talks to them in what language and going back to the interpreter. You’re right, it’s not difficult, but it takes a long time to really establish this relationship with the interpreters, to make sure that we’re all doing the best job we can to find out as much as possible about that child’s language development and their language environment.

Sharon Unsworth: How easy is it for you to access that information? So you mentioned, you know, exposure. I’m involved in this project that’s looking at that and I’m just curious to know firsthand from you, you know.

Marie Newton: I think it’s the time that it takes. So that’s I think that for me is the biggest difference with working with monolingual children is you just need to allow yourself the time to be able to collect all the information that you need and that, by definition, takes longer.

Victoria Farrell: At the end of the day, we are still looking to provide an equitable service. And what we mean by that is that we want to provide the same standard of assessment and intervention that we would for a monolingual child, but for us to actually achieve the same, you know, we do need a little bit longer.

Sharon Unsworth: Victoria, have you got any other top tips for speech and language therapists?

Victoria Farrell: So we’ve talked a little bit about working with interpreters and I think you mentioned before about building that rapport with the interpreters. So a really, really top tip for me would be: make sure that you do build that time before your session with the family and the child. You know, because you are working together. I mean, I’ve been very lucky to work with really amazing interpreters. They’ve been really, really great. And I’ve gained so much insight into that particular language that we’re looking at. You know, a little bit about the culture as well comes into it. So, you know, interpreters can be a really great resource. So I would say do use them and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Talk about what you’re going to do in the session a little bit, and then obviously having the time after the session to go through kind of what went well and any kind of analysis that you might need to do for it, depending on the age of the child and kind of what assessments you’ve carried out or information you’ve gathered.

Marie Newton: I think it’s the time that you spend working with the child and the interpreter and the family. But it’s also giving yourself as a clinician, giving yourself time to not know. It’s okay that, you know, sometimes you see your child and you might have a hypothesis about what their clinical need is, but it’s okay to not be sure. And I often say that to newly qualified or students that we have with us. You could start from somewhere, you’ve got a baseline and then you’ll see how the child progresses. You’ll see, you know, how he responds or she responds to the support. So it’s not just time in terms of, okay, you need more time to do the actual work, but it’s also time as a sort of longer piece of work, if you want, over months sometimes. So we don’t always know everything straight away. And that’s completely okay. I think it’s really important to emphasize that.

Sharon Unsworth: Have you got any other top tips for colleagues?

Marie Newton: I think one of the top tips that it might be more about a recommendation for good clinical practice is to not score formal assessment. So you can use some of the resources and the materials, because they may be useful to gather information, but what you’re looking for is not quantitative information, it’s qualitative. And I think we still see a lot of that in practice, that people feel that they’re not confident enough, maybe, to kind of state the level of need of that child, the level of impairment. But actually, you do have the clinical skills and just take the time and please don’t score formal assessments.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Do you have any tips for parents, parents of bilingual children who are going to a speech and language therapist or have been referred to a speech and language therapist? What kind of things should they pay attention to? Are there any dos and don’ts?

Victoria Farrell: I very much want to reassure parents that, you know, being bilingual and raising their child bilingual is not going to have a negative impact on their language development. Now, I do get sometimes parents that maybe have been advised by other professionals sometimes, or other parents as well, to maybe just concentrate on one language, because if your child is struggling a little bit, which predominantly tends to be the language that’s used in the school, in the learning environment. So a lot of it is around sort of supporting and advising parents as well as other professionals, actually, that actually, you know, it isn’t going to have a negative impact. So if your child has got language learning difficulties, then they will have that, whether they’re monolingual or bilingual. So it’s not going to make it worse. Just really reassuring them with that. And really, my main thing for families is: use the language that is natural for you and that can be really different for different families. Of course, we want, you know, we want parents to use the language that they’re going to give their child the best sort of language models and things like that. But we’ve got to think that those parents as well, they may have come to the UK and they’re very new to English as well. They’re learning it alongside their children. And so it’s about what’s natural for you in that environment.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, perhaps not being so dogmatic about things, I guess, right? Yeah.

Marie Newton: And the other thing I was going to add also is code-mixing. So, you know, using words from one language to the next of code-switching, that’s completely normal as part of bilingual development because often parents say, “Oh, but he is putting French words into an English sentence.” But we all do it. I do it when I speak English, or French, with my English friends. You know, it’s just normal. It means that they’re communicating and they’re using the language that comes naturally. And some words you will only know in one language for a while because you just haven’t used them or some words actually don’t exist in another language.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, let’s think of it broader now. What does the future look like for bilingual children over there in the UK? Is it looking rosy or not so rosy?

Marie Newton: I think it depends probably where you live. You know that we talk a lot about postcode lottery in about the NHS and health service, I think is probably true with education. I think some areas have got more money than others. It also depends about the school decision. And a lot of schools have got really tight budgets and they have to make decisions about where that money goes and where they trained their teachers, so, I mean, you know, I think there’s a lot of really good practice out there. And there’s some really good organizations that support children with DL nationally. So I think there’s a lot of really positive things. The things that I think are still remaining as a maybe not an issue, but something that we still have to talk about is to really make sure, and I think Victoria mentioned that earlier on, really make sure that, you know, the message that goes across is not “It delays your language acquisition if you speak two languages or three languages.” It doesn’t. And I think that message is still sometimes out there. And, you know, so that’s probably not so rosy.

Sharon Unsworth: So there’s some myths that still need busting.

Victoria Farrell: Yeah, I’m definitely hearing more of those messages that are coming through. And also there’s a lot more on the Internet as well. There’s lots of podcasts like this one, obviously lots of things that are sending out all that right information, because I think what’s really important for us is that whatever you decide to do in terms of bilingualism, you know, you do it, but you’ve got the right information.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah, and that’s the actually the whole goal of this podcast is to give people information, not to tell them what to do, but to give them information based on, you know, the latest findings and also people’s experiences, which is why it’s great that you guys are willing to share your experiences with us. Just to wrap up then, so you’ve both worked for many years now as a speech and language therapist with bilingual children. You said, you know a bit about things that have improved, things that could still be better. What are you most proud of?

Marie Newton: We’re both involved in the Valley Gaullism Clinical Excellence Network, and we’ve done a lot of training for specialist teachers and speech and language therapists. And I think some of the training we’ve delivered, but we’ve also had external speakers, researchers coming to talk. I mean, it’s always difficult to measure the impact of training like that, but it feels to me like it’s a really positive thing to be able to do that. And actually, in some ways, the pandemic has helped in the sense that we’ve been able to do some virtual sessions and we’ve had really good attendance at our sessions. So I feel quite proud that we’ve managed, you know, on top of our day jobs. We’re a small group of clinicians and teachers and I think, as a working group, we’ve done pretty well.

Sharon Unsworth: Sounds great, so multilingual advocacy, essentially.

Marie Newton: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Victoria?

Victoria Farrell: yeah, I mean, I would agree with Marie as well. And also, you know, in the past when I have done training for members of staff as well, raising, you know, their awareness. And I think it is really, really nice when you get therapists or, you know, other professionals come up and kind of feedback and say how they managed their session, they felt more confident, you know. So when you get nice positive feedback, then that’s always really great.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. So the feeling, I suppose, that, you know, that what you’re doing is having an effect and, you know, it’s like so this is a good example of being bilingual. I can only think of it in Dutch. What I want to say is that’s like a bit of oil that spreads out.

Victoria Farrell: All right, I don’t know what that is in English.

Sharon Unsworth: I’m rubbish at idioms, but anyway, that the spreading of the positivity towards and the confidence that people have in knowing how to work with bilingual children and the families. Well, thanks ever so much for taking the time to share your experiences and thoughts. It’s been really great to hear about them. Good luck with everything. Thank you very much.

Marie Newton: Thank you.

Victoria Farrell: Cheers.

Sharon Unsworth: Thanks to Victoria and Marie for sharing their experiences with us. The project I mentioned during our conversation is called the Q-BEx Project. Q-BEx stands for Quantifying Bilingual Experience and in this project, headed up by my colleagues at Leeds University in the UK, we’re developing a user-friendly online questionnaire in many different languages, which can be used by clinicians, teachers and researchers to gather information about bilingual children’s language environments and history from their parents and from the children themselves. There’s a link to the project’s website in the shownotes. Back now to my conversation with Joana.

Sharon Unsworth: I have one last question, and that’s also actually about home. Are there any aspects of translanguaging that parents can use at home? Often at home, you’re faced with a different problem. So when children want to talk about what they’ve learnt at school, they often switch from your language, if that’s not Dutch, to the school language, whatever, whatever that may be, even if in all the circumstances they would carry on, speak in the home language. And I’m wondering that can you implement a translanguaging approach at home even?

Joana Duarte: Yeah, this is a good point. I think that all parents of multilingual children struggle with this. I think that what translanguaging has taught me as a mother is to be much more tolerant about the translanguaging practices of my son. If he comes home and he wants to speak, well, when we lived in Germany, it was German. We’re now in the Netherlands, it’s Dutch or Frisian, to tell me about school? I let him. I don’t say anything about it. I just accept it. And I answer in Portuguese or ask questions in Portuguese. And then he goes on, what I notice is if we really have a conversation, so it’s not just, “Yeah my day was nice, thank you.” So if there’s a conversation following this teenager way of talking, then he will eventually switch, like after like twenty minutes or half an hour. Then you see more or I hear more Portuguese and then more Portuguese and more Portuguese and then it’s just Portuguese at the end. So it has taught me to be patient and to be tolerant towards his own needs to express himself in a translanguaging way without having to roll his eyes, like “Oh, my mom wants me to use Portuguese, ugh.” Because I noticed when we did that that he was not motivated to tell me stuff because it was too much work to and tell me about his day, which is already horrible, right, talk to your mother about your day. Who the hell does that? And then it had to be in Portuguese. And since I don’t do that anymore, we have many more conversations now when he comes from school and eventually they are mostly in our normal communication language.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I think that will be very reassuring to many parents. Thank you, Joana, this has been super interesting to hear about all the different ways that translanguaging can be implemented and successfully implemented at school and potentially also at home.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to Kletsheads podcast dot org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. Make sure you select the English edition. And if you’ve enjoyed the show, why not share it with a friend? Thanks for listening. And as we say in Dutch: tot het volgende keer.

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Marieke van den Akker.

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