4 Ways to Celebrate Linguistic Diversity

March 23, 2017

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In the Classroom

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, and over 300 of those are spoken in the U.S., so chances are your students speak some of them. Strategies for teaching ELLs often focus on learning English as quickly as possible, and once students master English, their native languages are often left at home. But rather than think of your classroom as a Tower of Babel, you can celebrate and recognize your students’ linguistic heritage while still moving towards English proficiency.

1. Investigate language family trees

Give your students a glimpse into both the diversity and interconnectedness of languages by exploring family trees. Whether it’s the huge swath of the world the Indo-European family covers—languages like Spanish and Hindi both fall under this umbrella—or the sheer number of languages found in the Niger-Congo family—1,539—your class is bound to be surprised by some of the connections between the languages they speak.

2. Read and write bilingual poems

Expose your students to bilingual poetry (like this great example by Rhina P. Espaillat) and then have them create their own poems by incorporating elements of their native language. For monolingual students, instruct them to either include foreign vocabulary or loanwords (words borrowed from other languages like café, bazaar, or kindergarten) that they know. Or challenge them to write a poem without using the letter ‘e’ (a surprisingly difficult feat).

3. Encourage independent reading in other languages

Research shows that those who develop literacy skills in their first language can then transfer them to their second language. So when it’s time for independent reading, let your students select books in their native language. This can also reduce frustration and cognitive load for reluctant readers, who might begin to actually enjoy reading.

4. Explore the roots of words 

Languages borrow ideas and words from each other all the time—and what better way to mix up a vocabulary lesson than by doing a bit of word sleuthing? Assign different vocabulary words to students (think hoi polloi, faux pas, aficionado, etc.) and have them figure out both their meaning in English and in their original language, since knowing the literal meaning often makes them easier to remember.

How do you celebrate different languages and cultures in your classroom?

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