I had the utmost pleasure on Friday to see a keynote speaker at MATSOL (Massachusetts TESOL, an affiliate of TESOL International). Her name is Ofelia Garcia, and she challenged traditional ways of observing our multilingual students.
She introduced me to the idea of translanguaging, an example of which I found on the internet. In its simplest terms, it means that we allow the students to use ALL resources open to them. She eschews calling our students “second language learners” or even “English Language Learners.” Instead, she sees herself and others as “English users.” “Home language” can even be somewhat confusing for students who have multiple languages going on where they live.
She believes that once we start creating these labels–like SLIFE or SIFE, which is the new hot topic in the English learning world–that we need to fill those categories. We as human beings need to label and sort, instead of just meeting students where they are.
There were two metaphors she pulled out to illustrate the problem with labeling students as second language learners.
One was the iPhone. If you select a language, the phone tries to point out all of your spelling errors, or when texting, suggests the closest word in that language, even if you are trying to live between the two. There really is no language switch for students. There are languages that are working together, evolving. And it’s our job as teachers to help students in that expressive vein.
The second was an ATV. Garcia suggested that we are constantly correcting on our journey in languages, constantly adjusting, just as the ATV’s wheels go up and down with the terrain.
She gave examples of schools she’s been working with in the Bronx where teachers are finding innovative ways to connect students to the languages they use. The teachers had community volunteers and parents help with translating and recording books into the heritage language of students in the classroom, so that a student who enters in fifth grade does not have to start over at a kindergarten level; he or she can continue to take in grade-level information without the struggle while still encountering the text in English and the students’ other language(s). There are multilingual word walls to draw connections. The idea behind “English only” classrooms is archaic, and hampers our students’ efforts to learn. We learn through interaction. And exposure. And if we cut off one avenue of understanding, we are doing harm.
Though Garcia doesn’t like the SLIFE/SIFE label, I don’t think that this flies in the face of the direction we are moving with these students. Rather, it supports and extends the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (MALP) that takes students where they are and leads them into a more supported transition between U.S. educational expectations and the ones students experienced previously.
I can’t wait to explore this further.