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.