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Learning in many Languages



"In South Africa, language is seen as one of the biggest barriers to teaching and learning."

The implication of South Africa’s multicultural and linguistic diversity is that many learners have a home language that is not their language of instruction. As an educational researcher, my own study on multilingualism in education has indicated, from teachers’ responses, that children learn best in their home language. In South Africa, language is seen as one of the biggest barriers to teaching and learning. With its historical context of a divided past, equal educational opportunities are still not afforded to every learner, with many learners learning in a language in which they are not yet proficient. There is also a preference for learning through the medium of English, due to its global status and common use by the workforce. This preference is not only shown by teachers and learners themselves but also by parents who prefer that their children learn through the medium of English. Due to globalisation, multilingualism in education has become a major point of discussion in relation to research in education. Translanguaging, which is how multilingual speakers use more than one language in their everyday communication with others, is questioning ‘monolingual practices and ideologies worldwide’.

"Translanguaging, which is how multilingual speakers use more than one language in their everyday communication with others, is questioning monolingual practices and ideologies worldwide."

Teachers in South Africa and other multilingual societies translanguage on a daily basis as an unplanned and natural occurrence by alternating between and blending languages for learners to grasp concepts. An example of translanguaging would be that listening and reading are conducted in one language while speaking and writing are done in another language; this process enables bi/multilingual learners to use their home language, which results in greater motivation and a better understanding of the content being learned at school.


According to UNESCO (2020), to some degree, between half and two-thirds of the world’s population, today is bi/multilingual. Bilinguals have many advantages over their monolingual counterparts, due to their divergent thinking skills; the size of the total vocabulary across both languages is also greater for bilingual children than that of their monolingual peers, who communicate in a single language. Mental flexibility, creativity, and elaboration in thinking can also be increased by the use of two or more languages. When bi/multilingual learners can communicate in the language their parents speak, this often creates a closer relationship between them and their parents in which communication can take place freely. Many bilingual parents want their children to be able to speak multiple languages, as this helps in bridging the generation gap and in building relationships with the extended family. Another communication advantage that bi/multilinguals have is access to different literatures, with the consequent differing cultural traditions, ideas, ways of thinking, and behaving. Bi/multilinguals who are exposed to two or more worlds have an improved understanding of people from various cultural backgrounds, having greater language awareness and sensitivity in communication.


"Mental flexibility, creativity, and elaboration in thinking can also be increased by the use of two or more languages."

Translanguaging as a practice has many benefits; in that learners gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Furthermore, learners develop skills in both the home language and second additional language. Translanguaging may foster home-school links and co-operation, if the learner is educated in a language he/she does not speak at home. The language of instruction can expand, extend, and intensify in school when schoolwork is discussed with parents in the home language. Lastly, translanguaging in the classroom results in an integration of learners who are fluent first-language speakers with those who have just begun to learn a new language; this develops a learner’s minority language, be it their first or second language.


Teachers supporting translanguaging consist of classroom strategies such as turn-and-talk partners: learners listen to the voice of an adult reader and then respond by speaking in a different language. During group work, learners may be grouped with those who speak the same home language and then write sections in their different languages for scaffolding. Teachers’ should also be encouraged to post greetings (words) from different languages on classroom walls; learners will be taught how to greet in another’s language and this will develop a closer bond between peers. Furthermore, teachers could label objects within the classroom in multiple languages. Lastly, providing opportunities for learners where reading is conducted in one language, and writing is done in another. Allowing the usage of classroom practices based on a multilingual perspective to become the norm, will in the end embrace linguistic diversity.


The above image indicates how translanguaging can be used within the classroom to transform learning. Promoting linguistic diversity within the classroom and homes is of paramount importance in the teaching and learning of children to understand subject content, and, in having pride in one’s home language. In the words of the former president Nelson Mandela; if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head, if you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.


"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head, if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." - Nelson Mandela

-- At Lesedi Educational Materials we firmly believe in what this blog speaks about and seek to continue to provide resources in heart languages for families and classrooms to make translanguaging all the more possible with resources available to all. Check out our resources available in multiple SA languages: www.lesedieducation.com/sa-languages

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