Thursday, 20 March 2014

Monolingual vs. Multilingual

I spent over 10 years teaching largely monolingual groups in Spain. The students were generally either university students or working professionals who wanted to learn English to improve their job prospects.

I have recently moved to Scarborough in the UK and now work with mainly multilingual groups. We currently have students from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Qatar, Spain, South Korea, Israel and Libya. We will have new students arriving in the next couple of weeks from Thailand, Italy and Portugal.

So, what have been the main differences between teaching monolingual students in their home country and teaching multilingual groups in the UK?

Firstly, English is the common language for students in multilingual classes. They need English to communicate with each other and with their teacher.

In Spain, I constantly found myself pointing to the classroom language chart on the wall as well as gently reminding students to speak in English. During error correction, I routinely asked my students to think about how much English they had spoken during the speaking task and often asked them to repeat the activity with a different partner… and speak more English.  I saw colleagues in Spain effectively use the ‘envelope of doom’ (an envelope passed to students who use too much Spanish. The student holding the envelope at the end of the class gets extra homework). With lower level classes, I was also very clear about when I expected them to use English (anything on the classroom language poster had to be expressed in English, for example) but I did allow some Spanish in the planning of a presentation if not in the presentation itself.  Having said all that, with all the students sharing the same mother tongue, it was much more difficult to motivate them to speak in English.

With multilingual groups, this is less of a problem (except when I have groups of students from the same country, at which point I go back to the techniques I used in Spain).  What I now have in my classes are students who generally speak English out of a need to communicate with each other. On a personal level, I do feel better about this than having to force my students to speak English!

Secondly, multilingual (and therefore multicultural) groups provide a natural information gap. Students can find out how their country is different from that of their classmates. This week in my upper-intermediate class, for example, we have talked about the age at which people learn to drive in different countries, important world events and how they were perceived in different countries (9/11, the Arab Spring and the death of Princess Diana, for example) and also the best beaches to visit around the world.  Many of these conversations were started by a student asking a question or commenting on something said by one of their classmates. I had to do very little. When I was teaching in Madrid, the information gap was often between me and the students. However, after ten years, it was wearing pretty thin and I often had to feign ignorance so that the students could practice their speaking!

Thirdly, it is strange not to understand the students’ mother tongue! I am not advocating teachers using L1. However, my knowledge of Spanish did help me understand why students were making certain mistakes (I am agree, for example, is a translation error) and therefore pick up on / correct the error quickly. Nowadays, however, I have to ask the students questions like ‘Do you have the present perfect / past perfect in your language?’ which are quite technical questions for many non-teachers.

Fourthly, monolingual students also share a culture and, as a teacher immersed Spanish culture, I fully understood the environment I was working in. Working with so many different nationalities, many of which I have never worked with before, I find myself unsure of where the limits are (‘will that idea / comment be offensive to…?’). I have also discovered that my own world knowledge (and I considered myself a seasoned traveller after working in Spain, Mexico, Kenya, Indonesia, France and Italy) is not as broad as I thought it was and that this world knowledge is massively Eurocentric. 

Finally, the students in my current classes in Scarborough are actually living in the UK and are therefore themselves fully immersed in the language and culture. They go home, talk to their host family, go to the cinema, watch TV, talk to each other, go shopping, get on trains and visit other cities. They pick up incidental language that is very difficult to ‘teach’ students in monolingual classes living in their own country. I know from living in Spain that I picked up Spanish expressions that I won’t find in any dictionary!

My students in Madrid generally came to class during their lunch break or after school / university / work. For many, the three hours of weekly classes was their ONLY exposure to English and therefore progress was much slower. I spent more time on reviewing material, on recycling vocabulary, on trying to encourage them to watch TV, read books, read an online newspaper.

Monolingual vs. multilingual is a HUGE topic which I have barely covered here. Does anyone else have any thoughts? It would be great to hear them.

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