Navigating Multilingualism

by Kelley Calvert

In training consultants to support multilingual writers in the Writing Center last fall, I struggled to determine where to begin. The topic of multilingual support is so vast, while the number of contact hours for training remains so limited. Then, I came across the NPR podcast Rough Translation with an episode entitled, “Non-native Speakers Navigate the World of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad; English” in which global communication specialist Heather Hansen discusses English as an international language and problematizes the notion of “native speakers.” Early in the podcast, she shares her experience as an English speaker immersed in a German-speaking classroom, saying, “If only I could do this in English, they would all know how smart I am.” This statement served as a lightbulb for me: the first step in understanding how to support multilingual students involves empathy–not just in the sense of understanding their experiences, but in terms of understanding our own.

I offer the following notes on the training as a springboard for ideas and insights into our thinking on multilingualism. As educators, we can use the podcast to facilitate a conversation in the classroom or train other peer educators on campus; on a personal level, we can simply listen to the podcast and bring some self-awareness to our own perceptions of language and language learning during a long drive or quiet moment at home.

We began our 50-minute Writing Center training by listening to a segment of the podcast. I chose minutes 8:18 to 13:13 of the 34-minute podcast because I felt these five minutes provided the most material for discussion, covering statistics on English speakers globally, offering surprising information about cross-cultural communication, and placing the burden of conversation on both the speaker and listener. While listening to the podcast, I asked consultants to jot down one idea that surprised or interested them.

After listening, many consultants shared their thoughts. Several noted that they had never thought about the fact that 4.4 billion people speak English in the world, with 4 billion learning the language in a classroom setting. That means that “native speakers” make up a tiny fraction of the world’s English-speaking population. Another salient area of noticing revolved around the frequent use of idioms (e.g., the whole nine yards, to touch base) in American English and how difficult these idioms can be for non-native speakers. Finally, many consultants noted how Hansen problematized the notion of the native speaker: Indian, South African, and Singaporean people grow up speaking English, so why aren’t they included in the native-speaker canon?

From this warm-up discussion, we moved into a “Connect-Extend-Challenge” activity, based on Harvard’s Thinking Routines. On post-it notes, I asked consultants to answer questions in the following sequence:

  • “Connect” question on green post-its: What connections can you make to your work in the Writing Center? We then collected the post-its and arranged them in one area of the whiteboard.
  • “Extend” question on blue post-its: What new ideas did you get that broadened your thinking or extended it in different directions? We again collected the post-its and arranged them on the whiteboard.
  • “Challenge” question on yellow post-its: What challenges emerge for you and/or the Writing Center based on this podcast?

After collecting this final set of “Challenge” post-its, consultants moved the post-its around and grouped them into themes as a collaborative exercise. This process was beneficial in many ways. For consultants, they were able to read, analyze, and discuss peers’ ideas and thoughts. They were able to think more deeply about the topics addressed in the podcast while interacting and building relationships with their peer colleagues. In connecting, many shared their own experiences of difference and related those to challenges faced by multilingual writers. In extending, some consultants noted that they were for the first time considering how their communication styles (e.g., using idioms) might impact conversations with multilingual writers. In considering challenges, many noted the difficulty of addressing writers’ concerns around grammar while also affirming the value of their multilingualism.

As a trainer and administrator, I benefited greatly from this activity as I was granted a window into peer educators’ experiences. Based on the challenges identified in the post-its, support staff were able to identify areas for future training and professional development. I encourage you to have a listen to the podcast and reply with a comment on the questions or insights it brings forth for you. If any of the activities mentioned above could benefit your classroom or context, feel free to reach out with any questions. I am always happy to share materials, thoughts, and ideas.

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