Teaching Second Language in a Multilingual Classroom

Dr. Riswita Sarmah Lecturer, DIET Tinsukia
Riswita Sarmah

Multilingualism is the very essence of our country India. Owing to its varied regional diversities, India is essentially a multilingual and a multicultural nation. It is here that we find a melting pot of differing cultures, epitomizing the trope of unity in diversity. The term “multilingual” has its roots in Latin, referring to an individual who is a “polyglot” or someone who speaks several languages. Multilingualism is the act of using polyglot or using multiple languages either by an individual speaker or by a community of speakers. In an Indian classroom multilingualism is a stark reality. Children from disparate backgrounds learn under the same roof and are often surrounded by different linguistic utterances. Languages thrive and flourish in company of other languages. Hence, the interaction with and among the children fortifies multilingualism and the pace of learning the target language particularly the second language. Accommodating the languages spoken by children with differing linguistic backgrounds in a classroom, provide a sense of acceptance to the child. This also accords flexibility to the language learning process. 
            Multilingualism is a rich resource in learning a new language; it cannot be seen as a hindrance in learning a language after acquiring the first language. When we already know a language, we can use this prior knowledge to construct the structures of any language that we learn later with much more ease and comfort. Knowledge of other languages makes us more open minded and more receptive to varied cultural conventions, customs and usages. Encouraging students to contribute to the classroom discussions by providing language items from varied cultural background also makes the class more interesting and fosters the feeling of togetherness and respectfulness among children. Multilingualism should not be seen as a problem but it must be advantageously used by teachers for effective classroom transaction. It is fallacious to assume that the learners’ first language stands as a barrier in learning a second language. There are very many ways in which the first language of the students can be deployed to make second language teaching and learning effective in a multilingual classroom. Students can make use of common greetings in their home language and understand greetings better in the target language. The students can engage in activities like labelling different things in their classroom like the window, door, chair, and so on in both second language and their home language. Teachers can help create a word wall in the classroom, by putting useful and important words and expressions in the students’ home language. Reading materials such as multilingual dictionaries can be kept in reading corners in the classroom. These can be some ways in which second language learning can be facilitated in a multilingual classroom.
The multiplicity of the languages in a classroom bolsters the spirit to learn better in a collaborative environment. Speech primarily is a social behaviour, hence in this light, it can be said that social interaction and language are intrinsically connected. This aspect corresponds to what Vygotsky says regarding learning- that learning is primarily dependent on social interaction. Language learning is facilitated through social interaction, and language learning thereby requires collaboration. If communication is effective, it will result in useful co-construction of knowledge. Code-switching is used in a multilingual classroom which functions as a tool for communication amongst the students. Simply put, code switching facilitates one to switch between languages that one knows for effective communication. Elements from different languages are translated or mixed, using both the home language and the second language in a balanced, judicious and effective manner. The classroom becomes learner-centred as learners actively engage in learning activities as they collaborate. The diversity of languages spoken in the classroom makes code-switching a natural part of communication. Code-switching can occur when the speaker or the subject changes, between or after sentences or even inside sentences. Students systematically alternate or code-switch into their first language when there arises a need for clarification and emphasis or whilst learners and teachers try to negotiate meaning in the teaching/learning situation. Code switching can be used as a resource to help students learn the second language in a multilingual classroom. Students can use their competence in first language to develop second language through code switching. Communicative competency is efficaciously furthered through such exercises. The ability to use a language accurately and fluently is the ultimate aim of language learning. Penny Ur states “the function of a language is effective communication”,   thus such activities in a second language learning classroom impacts the communicative competency of the students. In a multilingual classroom, the students thereby become more tolerant towards each other’s languages and at the same time are able to gain proficiency in the second language. 
Teaching of English as a second language in a multilingual context is an enormous challenge for the English teachers due to the linguistic diversity in the classrooms. Teachers may encounter daunting challenges for instance- the students in the multilingual classroom may lack confidence or hesitate to use English language. They may hesitate to express for the fear of committing mistakes or due to cultural differences.  Lack of ample time to engage in joyful multilingual activities during classroom transactions could also be a problem. This could be because of various reasons like lesser number of teachers in the school, lengthy syllabus and other local issues.  Multilingual classrooms are always challenging for the teachers; therefore teachers who teach in such classes should be trained to cope up with the challenges and contingencies. Teachers, who are professionally trained and groomed can effectively transact teaching and learning in a multilingual classroom. 

“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,” asserts Nelson Mandela. Multilingual classroom is an inclusive classroom that gives ample opportunity to the students use his or her first language. At the same time students also get exposure to other languages spoken by their classmates, thereby making them more tolerant and resourceful. The diversity in our socio-cultural ethos gets reflected in our classrooms. The Indian classroom is defined by its multilingual premise. Children from varied or different linguistic, cultural, social and economic backgrounds come together to learn. These differences can seldom be ignored. This aspect is the very essence of our being and thus it must be celebrated. A multilingual classroom therefore can be deemed as a vehicle for learning more about each other, the world and at the same time learn a target second language in a more effective and holistic manner.