University of Calgary

Embracing the multilingual classroom

UToday HomeAugust 28, 2013

By Heath McCoy

Associate professors, from left: Mary O'Brien (Linguistics. Languages and Cultures), Suzanne Curtin (Psychology), and Rahat Naqvi (Education). The three were co-chairs of the international conference, Interdisciplinary Approaches to Multilingualism, held Associate professors, from left: Mary O'Brien (Linguistics. Languages and Cultures), Suzanne Curtin (Psychology), and Rahat Naqvi (Education). The three were co-chairs of the international conference, Interdisciplinary Approaches to Multilingualism, held on campus Aug. 15-17. Photo by Hidir Karul A federally funded conference on the role of multilingualism in today’s society, held on campus Aug. 15-17, broke important new ground for classroom practitioners as well as language researchers, says associate professor Mary O’Brien, director of the Language Research Centre and co-chair of the event.

O’Brien hosted the international conference, Interdisciplinary Approaches to Multilingualism, along with co-chairs and fellow associate professors Suzanne Curtin (Psychology) and Rahat Naqvi (Education). The event brought together educators ranging from kindergarten to university levels with language researchers from as far away as Qatar and Edinburgh. The language researchers in attendance came from a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, languages, psychology and education.

A key discussion on the table was how educators should best adapt to the new realities of the multilingual classroom.

“This was a first conversation with everyone at the same table,” explains O’Brien. “People from the worlds of the laboratory and the classroom, who don’t always communicate, were in the same place discussing this common theme.” 

That alone made the SSHRC-funded conference a huge success, says O’Brien. She adds: “The next step has to be collaboration. Now that we’ve made these connections, we can plan common research projects that involve both teachers from schools and researchers from the universities.”

Recent studies show that in Calgary today, over 40 per cent of new immigrants do not speak either English or French. As a result, classrooms are becoming increasingly multilingual, creating new challenges for teachers, which they are not always adequately prepared for.

“While we know a lot about multilingualism, there are still a lot of myths about growing up with more than one language,” says Curtin. “These myths require a concerted effort from educators and researchers to help dispel them through evidence-based research.”

One of the key messages that emerged from the IAM conference was that the realities of the multilingual classroom should best be viewed as learning opportunities rather than educational hurdles.

“We have to understand what a bilingual child brings to the classroom that monolingual children don’t,” says O’Brien. “Children who speak languages other than English at home aren’t coming in with a deficit. All of these languages that kids are speaking can be used as a resource that we can all learn from.”

Of course, some teachers are understandably intimidated by the challenges of a multilingual classroom, but it’s not something that can be denied. “Bilingualism is the reality in most of the world,” says O’Brien. “We have to realize that and understand what this means for classrooms. And we all have to start dealing with it.”

The IAM conference dealt with these issues head on. “It was about presenting teachers with the results of research,” says O’Brien. “Just as importantly, though, it was about sharing the realities of the classroom with laboratory-based researchers.”

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