When I was growing up, I noticed that speaking Spanish got me lumped into a group of negative stereotypes. In communication, there was English and then there was other. And the other…well, let’s just say the other didn’t get you special treatment. Kids (yes, even 3 and 4 year olds), are very sensitive to social cues of the dominant culture and often will sacrifice pieces of their identity to fit in to what the dominant culture values. Although teachers frequently say “It’s great that you’re bilingual! That’s so nice,” our behavior does not always match our words. Even if you are a monolingual teacher, there are so many ways you can model positive attitudes towards other languages in your classroom so that all students feel empowered and included.
Ask families to share their language through specific academic vocabulary. Knowing conversational language and academic language are two different things, and you’d be surprised how many families have a challenging time recalling academic vocabulary in their native languages when they’ve been immersed in English for so long! It can be fun to offer the opportunity to look up vocabulary together as a family and bring it back to share with the class. With the affirmation of their families, often times kids feel a strong sense of pride bringing in their family language to the classroom to teach their peers.
Post multiple languages around the classroom so it becomes to norm to see other alphabets. From Write the Room activities in elementary school, to directions and procedures, to inspirational quotes, giving kids the chance to normalize being multilingual removes the power and pressures of the dominant language. It allows kids of all languages to differentiate which language is which regularly, and provides an opportunity for students to connect their identity to the written word.
Make an effort to pronounce names correctly. Although I would expect every teacher to make the same effort I do in name pronunciation, it’s unrealistic to expect every adult your students will ever run into to do the same. For example, this year I have a student named Lucas. The difference between the English and Spanish pronunciation is minimal, but certainly noticeable. (“Luc-ahs” vs. “Luc-is.”) When the kids correct me towards the English way, I gently remind them that I am calling him “Luc-ahs” because that’s what his parents named him. I also teach explicitly about multiple ways to pronounce a name. The kids need to know that they can always politely correct an adult about what they prefer to be called. We practice sentence frames like “Excuse me, but my name is pronounced __________.” I have had specialists actually correct my students on how their own names should be pronounced and find that teaching kids how to advocate for their identities is critical.
If you can, provide literature from different cultures and in different languages. Especially in early elementary where picture books are so critical, books in many languages encourage kids to recall read alouds and re-tell them to their peers. Again, it gives kids the chance to differentiate between languages (“Wait, this book is in Spanish! I need the English one!” or “I can read this English one and I’m practicing this Spanish one at home!”) And, once again, it normalizes seeing many languages in a public space.
Teach explicitly about accents when parents come to volunteer. In my classroom, we have many Spanish-speaking parents participating regularly during the day. In the past, I’ve heard kids making fun of the way Spanish-speaking parents pronounce words. Now, I know to explicitly teach that accents are an important part of who you are. For example, when we don’t understand an accent, it’s polite to say “Can you please repeat that?” rather than giving the speaker an impatient “What?!” Although these lessons came from awkward experiences and hurt feelings, now I know what to anticipate and our lessons are continual throughout the year to support an inclusive environment for students and parents.
Model learning another language. I know more than anyone that adults (especially adult teachers) hate to show incompetence in any academic arena, but this is one area where modeling effort and failure is so powerful! When we admit that language is not something to be taken for granted and show kids its power in the world, we allow students of all languages the chance to be teachers. Every day during calendar time, we say the days of the week in English, Spanish & French. When the kids have mastered all three languages, I ask them which languages they are curious about learning next. One year, the kids voted for learning Gaelic because we did an in-depth St. Patrick’s day/Ireland unit. MAN, was that a challenge for me! We used Google Translate to write the days down, and then watched a few YouTube videos to learn the pronunciation. A lot of the kids had a much easier time making the sounds than I did! And it was a great opportunity to remind them not to make fun of me…to support my language development through encouraging words and modeling…and to expect me to get better every day, not overnight. When ELLs hear this message constantly, you are putting the power of language back into their hands.
When my Spanish-speakers are asking my Ukrainian-speakers how to say “butterfly,” and my Arabic speaker points with pride at “his letters,” and my Filipino student shouts excitedly that the word for “soup” is the same in Spanish and Tagalog…you know they recognize the value of all languages. I do not work in a dual language school, but I do serve a multilingual community! Creating and maintaining a classroom ready for the exchange of languages is immensely beneficial for the entire population. Supporting the language needs of all families not only includes everyone, but enriches them as well.
My dog also has an Instagram, and it's better than anyone's. @mrdarcy_theiggy