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Opening up multilingual spaces in the superdiverse primary school

Schools are and have always been places of languages. Children and educators talk to each other, they talk over each other, they listen. Yet, they do more: they bring their linguistic repertoires into the school, they hope to find their voices in the classroom and to achieve something with the words they say both for participating in their groups of peers and colleagues and for learning and teaching. At the same time, mainstream schools are places of language ideologies that regulate whose language experiences count as knowledge and whose do not. Walking down the High Street of any neighbourhood, we hear a plethora of languages; yet the mainstream school remains more often than not a strangely monolingual space that confines children’s superdiverse voices to its unofficial niches. My curiosity began here: How do children’s linguistic repertoires and the schools’ language ideologies come in contact with each other? How do educators and children negotiate the meanings of those repertoires and ideologies? And how does this play out in classrooms, where children have on average nine or ten languages in their linguistic repertoires?

(pupil, Year 4)

My research (PhD 2021 at Goldsmiths) addressed teacher agency in multilingual pedagogies – a lens with considerable conceptual power, because it allows for an exploration of both the educator’s present role and possibilities for new pedagogical developments. I talked and listened to class teachers. Yet, within the ethnographic study, my interest and curiosity needed to move on: Debates around multilingual pedagogies evolve fast in many schools worldwide; their ‘local’ circumstances as much influenced by traces of transnational movements – past and present – in the neighbourhood as by education policies. Globalisation and transnational migration are frequently referred to when these pedagogies are advocated. But is the ordinary, mainstream, superdiverse primary school sufficiently considered? Thus, I listened to children in these classrooms talking about their language experiences, the diverse meanings their languages have for them, and their ideas for what they could do with these languages in school; a question which pupils are rarely asked. The ethnographic inquiry showed the vital role of class teachers as experts of the classroom and as advocates of broader pedagogical perspectives, but it highlighted also the numerous constraints for educators in an institution that is often still firmly rooted in monolingualising ideologies.

Talking about languages

… to do more with your languages in school? Would that be a good idea?

 … yes (…) because everyone can hear your language and what you can do with it

  (pupil, Year 3)

Based on the insights from this research, a book is going to be published in March 2024, and the findings will be used in further lines of research, designing and exploring formats for professional development. More spaces for multilingual pedagogies will – and can only – open up, if teachers feel empowered to explore multilingualism together with their students, and when all three – educators, children and researchers – find spaces to voice and share their experiences.

Blog by Thomas Quehl

Thomas taught for many years at inner-city primary schools in Germany and teaches now in London. He obtained an MA at UCL’s Institute of Education in 1997/98, and this encounter resulted in two books (ed. & transl. from English) in 2000 and 2006, which focused on anti-racist pedagogy and the institutional discrimination of multilingual students. In 2011/12, he re-trained for British schools with a PGCE at Goldsmiths where he also received his PhD in 2021 and is a Visiting Research Fellow.


The Remaking of Language Education

Read about an exciting new book publication co-edited by 4 members of the Centre for Language, Culture and Learning and published in February 2022.

This blog was first published on the Multilingual Matters website:

Liberating Language Education emerged from our desire to unite our passion about language, education, and lived multilingualism with our visions of what language education can mean, feel, and look like in times of unprecedented change and uncertainty. This passion is reflected in our personas of ‘the weaver’, ‘the fool’, ‘the traveller’ and ‘the activist’ in the introduction of the book: they illustrate the complexity and richness of language experience and language learning across the lifespan and highlight the entanglements of the personal and biographical with the historical and socio-cultural dimensions of language and language pedagogy.

This kaleidoscopic perspective is amplified by the plurality and heterogeneity of voices and orientations manifested in the chapter contributions. The book calls into question a single and unified approach to language, culture, and identity, dismantling monolingual and prescriptivist discourses of pedagogy that have long dominated language education. Instead, it proposes new ways of understanding language and language education that move beyond rationalist and instrumental perspectives and emphasise locally situated meaning-making practices, messiness, and unpredictability.

These new ways liberate our understanding of language to encompass the full range of semiotic repertoires, aesthetic resources, and multimodal practices. They reimagine language education from a translingual and transcultural orientation, showcasing multiple, alternative visions of how language education might be enacted. The translingual, transcultural and transformative approach to pedagogy that underpins the book rests on the following principles:

  • an integrated and inclusive view of language and language learning
  • challenging binaries and fixed positions between formal/informal learning, school/home literacies, schools/other sites of learning
  • attention to language hierarchies and linguistic and social inequalities
  • a synergetic relationship between language and culture
  • the transformative process of language learning as reconfiguring our existing communicative resources and nurturing new ways of being, seeing, feeling and expressing in the world
  • foregrounding embodied, material and aesthetic perspectives to pedagogy
  • emphasis on learner and teacher agency and making their voices heard
  • supporting multiple ways of knowing and a decolonising stance to knowledge building
  • creating trusting, respectful and collaborative relations in research and shared ownership of knowledge

This critical and creative translingual and transcultural orientation repositions teachers, learners and researchers as active language policy creators in the remaking of language education today.

Vally Lytra, Cristina Ros i Solé, Jim Anderson and Vicky Macleroy

For more information about this book please see the Multilingual Matters website.

You can access this podcast where Vally Lytra discusses Liberating Language Education and what vision underpins this collective project:

You can also access Vicky Macleroy talking about Liberating Language Education for the Multilingual Matters Spring Conference 2022:


Foreign languages as Cultural Capital: empowering UK students from disadvantaged backgrounds through the learning of Chinese

In the UK, Chinese language teaching has thrived in both independent and state schools as a modern foreign language (MFL). Due to its economic value in the global market and potentially representing a new source of cultural capital, Chinese is particularly important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is therefore crucial that Chinese provision, as well as pedagogy for teaching Chinese in schools, are well-researched to ensure equal opportunities and high achievement for students.

In 2017, I completed my British Academy Small Grant funded research entitled, ‘Foreign languages as Cultural Capital: empowering UK students from disadvantaged backgrounds through the learning of Chinese’. The research investigated through classroom ethnography (1) whether and how teachers and students considered Chinese to be cultural capital, and (2) what pedagogies in the Chinese MFL class aided learning and ensured equality of achievement.

The study took place in Kingsford Community School, which advanced my previous Goldsmiths Award funded research (2010-2011) entitled, ‘Developing a bilingual pedagogy in the Chinese language class across mainstream and community contexts’. The findings from the two funded research projects have been presented at several international conferences and disseminated through social media such as Chinese Forum, Conversation and Faculty online broadcasting.

The key findings are summarised as follows:

  • Chinese as a MFL target language (CFL), is difficult and challenging in many ways that differ fundamentally from English and other European languages and therefore there is an urgent need to gain pedagogical awareness of CFL classrooms.
  • However, gaining a clearer picture of CFL does not mean pinning up the assumption that Chinese is so difficult that only ‘bright’ and talented students from advantaged backgrounds can learn it! The alienation remains, so does stereotype.
  • Kingsford Community School provides a good example for state schools of how the CFL class can be made compulsory, available, accessible and engaging to all students from diverse backgrounds.
  • Pedagogies for teaching Chinese are well-researched at Kingsford with a range of strategies developed which include bilingual approaches to aid the learning process and the maintenance of motivation and high performance.
  • There are many high achievers benefiting from bilingual learning experiences which means the challenge is less if learners are able and given opportunities to compare and discuss concepts in more than one language.
  • Chinese is negotiating its position as an equal with other MFLs to guarantee opportunity, equality and respect.
  • However, the current provision in terms of teaching hours and resources for gaining this equal position are far from adequate, and this pushes down demand and results in the loss of teachers and reduction of student numbers on courses.
  • Whether Chinese can be regarded as cultural capital that empowers students of all backgrounds depends on adequate provision, good pedagogies and a series of supportive policies in place. Schools and teachers cannot do it alone to ensure both equality of opportunities and achievement.

The above key findings have outlined a picture of both cautious optimism and rising concern, and suggested that without action from the government, changes in school policy and curriculum development, it will be hard for Chinese learning and teaching to meet these aspirations.

Part of the findings have fed into the PGCE Languages Programme and the GTP Mandarin course at Goldsmiths and served as reference for the training of Chinese language teachers and teacher education in the country and elsewhere.

Blog by Yangguang Chen

Vivencias and Lifeworlds in the Spanish classroom

On 12 April 2021, I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Princeton. This lecture-seminar was part of the training that Doctoral students in the department do as part of their postgraduate degree.

I presented a talk entitled ‘Vivencias and Lifeworlds in the Spanish classroom’ that talked about how language learning can be reconceptualised from being a way to acquire a body of knowledge and skills, or even a way of communicating, to be seen as a way of being and a way of living in the language.

I started the session by reading a poem in Catalan and asked students to suspend their rational minds while they turned their attention to how they perceived the language. I asked them to look out for the sounds and any other sensations that the poem evoked in them.

This kicked off our adventure to rethink the encounter with ‘another’ language in a different way: as the effort of being a person in the world or ‘languaging’ (Phipps 2007) from a multisensorial and performative way, or as ‘thought in the act’ (Manning and Massumi 2014).

I presented the concept of vivencias, an expansion of the concept of ‘Spracherleben’ by Busch (2017) to highlight the power of language to connect to our senses and our feelings, but also to our history and our relationships and entanglements with the world around us.

With a series of questions to the audience who were located in different parts of the world via Zoom, we explored the process of learning and speaking another language as a way of connecting with languages and cultures that draw on our past biographies as well as the ordinary and every day in our lives.

The discussion reflected on a way of reframing language as a process that mobilises one’s agency and affects in order to connect with our environment (social and material) to construct one’s own experience of the world.

Students took part in an exercise that has been very illuminating with students at Goldsmiths in the MA in Education, Culture, Language and Identity where they explored the role of objects and materiality in the construction of their subjectivities. They took it in turns to describe a ‘special’ meaningful object, which they brought to the seminar and showed to the camera, in terms of their cultural and linguistic identities.

The multiplicity of cultures and identities present in the seminar meant that this turned into a fascinating and stimulating session. Cloth bags, mate cups, musical instruments, paintings, and fluffy toys featured as cultural artifacts and everyday objects that are catalysts for a perceptive, reflective and imaginative exploration and the making sense of students’ vivencias (lived experience of life) in another language.

Blog by Cristina Ros i Solé