Below you will find the complete set of resources (tools and texts) from the Our Language research project, sorted into themes.
Many thanks to the ESOL students and teachers who have generously shared their stories with us. Some names have been changed but all the accounts found in the materials are real situations and experiences.
Thank you also to Intertype – a graphic design service for non-profit organisations -for designing the classroom materials. We’re grateful to Pauline Moon for some of the photographs.
Choose from our four themes:
The first module in the website is Our Selves. In this section the focus is on individual language repertoires, practices and ideologies. We start with the individual in order to encourage students to think about themselves and their own experiences before branching out to look at the home, the community and the classroom.
Many sociolinguists are interested in the communicative ‘repertoires’ of individual speakers and what they can tell us about people’s biographies and phenomenon such as migration and mobility; for example, people who have always lived in the same place are likely to use the language resources they hear most in that space. People who have moved around a lot will draw on a broader set of linguistic resources. People who live in areas where a lot of different languages are spoken may find they use some of these resources on a day-to-day basis.
Language repertoires can include whole languages, bits and pieces of languages, accents, registers and styles – all the ways of speaking which people have picked up on their life’s journey. One important aspect of communicative repertoire is that it is shaped by our individual and societal beliefs about language (ideologies). One example is the idea of ‘proficiency’, i.e. that you can only claim to know a language when you have mastered it to a high level of competence. However, the idea of repertoire challenges this ideology. Even if we know just a single word of a particular language, it can be an important piece of our own ‘repertoire’. These ideas can be liberating for ESOL students who may think, or may have been told, that their English is not good enough. When they look at their whole repertoire they will find that they have a wide range of linguistic expertise, of which ‘English’ is just a part.
This module consists of activities, tools and texts designed to allow students to explore their own repertoires. The question is not, ‘what languages do you speak and how well do you speak them?’ but ‘what languages, varieties, styles do you know and how did you get to know them?’ In this model we also explore the question, ‘what beliefs do you hold about language and where do they come from?’ Via the activities, you can invite your students to discuss their own repertoires and ideologies and think about each other’s. When doing this work, students describe and evaluate their own language practices and begin to think differently about notions of language and how it is used in society. They can begin to develop a sense of themselves as multilingual citizens with diverse linguistic profiles. This awareness can also help students to challenge instances of hostility to multilingualism (linguicism).
Much of the module focuses on the topic of heritage language transmission. People have a myriad of different approaches to language use in families and these materials offer no correct ‘answers’ or right or wrong approach. Instead, the tools and materials allow students to explore how and to what extent the children and young people in their lives acquire their heritage languages and, perhaps more importantly, how they feel about this.
Language use in the home is also influenced by ideologies and beliefs relating to what should and shouldn’t happen in the home as well as power relations within families. These ideologies or beliefs may not necessarily relate to actual language practices. In fact, what people say they do with languages often tells us more about their language ideologies, or the prevailing language ideologies in society, than their actual language practices – in fact, people are often not aware of what they actually do! For example, families who say they adopt strict rules about when and where to use English in the home, are sometimes surprised at how different the reality is when they examine their language practices closely. The activities in this module allow students to shed a light on some of these contradictions and provide interesting material for discussion and reflection.
Not all students are parents and this module is not only focussed on heritage language transmission (although non-parents are of course also interested in this topic). The module also allows students to explore and reflect on the linguistic choices they make when talking to other members of their household, neighbours and visitors to the home, as well as phoning/skyping family and friends in other parts of the world. We encourage students to think about language mixing and translanguaging, as this is how communication works in many multilingual homes. Like all the modules, the focus is on multilingual repertoires where home languages are valued and students are encouraged to see themselves – and their children if they have them – as multilingual citizens with a broad range of repertoires, styles and linguistic skills.
The issue of language in the community is rarely out of the news, and there is a recurring discourse in the UK which tends to frame multilingualism – and thus speakers of other languages – as a threat to cohesion and integration. The 2016 Louise Casey report, for example, was one in a long line which focussed on lack of English as a major cause of tension in communities. Sadly, most recent political discourse has focussed on multilingualism as a problem and not a benefit. There was no mention in the Casey report, for example, of the advantages of speaking more than one language, the benefits to new arrivals of being able to use their expert language(s), the importance of mother tongue education to promote heritage language learning or the benefits of multilingual skills in communities and institutions. Hostility to multilingualism has become more vociferous since the 2016 Brexit Referendum, among politicians, in the media and in the streets. There has been a sharp rise in reports of racially-motivated hate crime and whilst it’s more difficult to measure linguicism, at least anecdotally this has also become far more prevalent. In one English for Action class around half the group had been told to “speak English” in public places, most often on public transport.
This module allows students to explore their linguistic neighbourhoods, reflecting on their own language use as well as their neighbours’. It encourages students to analyse their own ideas about language in the community, challenging their own prejudices as well as the prejudice they may encounter themselves. It provides an opportunity for students to offer each other solidarity and take action to defend their right to use their languages in public places.
However, the “English Only” ideology is far from universally accepted; many scholars of Second Language Acquisition, bilingual education and translanguaging pedagogy point to the essential role of students’ other languages in the successful learning of an additional one. There are also important political reasons to include languages other than English in the ESOL classroom. By encouraging multilingual spaces in the ESOL classroom we can contribute to the creation of positive counter narratives to the dominance of monolingualism in public discourse.
In our experience, students see the value in having a multilingual classroom, although they also want to increase the amount of English they speak. This topic can sometimes be slightly fraught and students often express strong views. Working multilingually with ESOL students can sometimes be tricky. Often there can be one student who doesn’t share any expert languages with anyone else in the classroom and they can feel isolated. Or perhaps so many students share a language that it can become dominant and students end up feeling frustrated that they haven’t spoken enough English. Faced with these problems, an ‘English-only’ policy could seem to be a solution and it is indeed one which is sometimes favoured by students. However, it isn’t realistic or practical for people not to draw on their expert languages in class, whether this be during the learning process or simply exchanging a few words with a classmate who shares their language. By creating a dialogue with students about language(s) in the classroom, so they are involved in decision making from the start, you can overcome many of the difficulties. Through learning about the benefits, and having a chance to raise concerns, students can create a productive and convivial multilingual learning environment.
What message does your college or institution send about languages other than English? Is there an official ‘policy’? What do your students think? In practice, what are your classrooms like in terms of language use? Is there a difference between students’ opinions about language use in the classroom and what they actually do? You can use the tools and texts in this section to explore these questions and others relating to language in the classroom.