Student Learning English

Incorporating Students’ Native Languages to Enhance Their Learning

Mrs. Phillips was an amazing educator for me when I was in kindergarten. I will never forget how protected and included she made me feel when I was in her presence. I would sit there and listen to her give directions in English, but I wouldn’t understand a word of what she was saying, so I would just copy what my classmates did instead. When Mrs. Phillips visited, I made it a point to converse with her in Vietnamese without any shame. She would carefully observe my gestures in order to decipher the message I was trying to convey, and then she would praise me with a smile in order to celebrate the success of my work.

It is possible to feel love for another person even if you do not speak the same language. I also don’t recall her yelling at me to speak English, so maybe she didn’t do that. When Vietnamese was the only language I was able to communicate in at the time, waving my finger and demanding that people “Speak English!” would serve no purpose.

We are moving away from harmful English-only policies as we embrace educational approaches that are both culturally responsive and culturally supportive. Unfortuitously, policies that prioritise English almost always put other languages, and by extension the cultures that are represented by languages other than English, in last place.

When the only language that is sanctioned to be spoken in schools, the only language that multilingual learners (MLs) are exposed to is English, what messages are they internalising? Using an approach to language that is additive, multilingual individuals are able to learn a new language without having to eliminate any of the others in their repertoire.


1. I used to believe that it was necessary for students to learn the material in English. A concept such as tectonic plates, on the other hand, does not change regardless of the language it is expressed in. When I assign a research project to my students, I make it a point to tell them that it is perfectly acceptable to use an article or video that is written in a language other than their native tongue.

When my students in the tenth grade were researching the effects of Covid-19 on the Thai economy, many of them looked up information in Thai-language articles because these articles provided more nuanced and pertinent details. By doing so, we were able to both celebrate the students’ multilingualism and dispel the myth of a language hierarchy. We did this by demonstrating to the students that it is not necessary to learn content in just one language.

2. Working in concert. Reading articles written in students’ native languages is an effective method for teaching students who are already literate in additional languages. It is still possible for students who are only able to speak and understand their heritage language to learn content when they collaborate with classmates who speak the same languages.

For instance, when I assigned my students the task of reading an article in English about land subsidence, I made them take a moment at the end of each paragraph to discuss and process the information that they had just read. The majority of my students found that it was much simpler for them to comprehend the article if they discussed it with their classmates who spoke Chinese, Thai, or Korean. Because learning is a social experience, it would be beneficial for students to be able to learn through the use of all of their languages.

3. The transmission of concepts Many times, MLs have many ideas bouncing around in their heads, but they have difficulty expressing them in English. In order to provide assistance to these students, we could start by having them brainstorm, organise, and outline in the language of their heritage. It is like putting speed bumps in the path of students if they are forced to write or speak only in the English language. At this stage, the goal is not to have English output; rather, the goal is to have idea generation and to connect concepts. After the students have organised all of their ideas through the use of their native language, we will be able to assist them in translating these ideas into English.

We can see that teachers do not need to be fluent in all of the languages that their students speak by utilising any one of these three strategies for integrating heritage languages. It is sufficient for educators to recognise the multilingualism of their students as a strength that extends learning and maintains students’ connections to the communities in which they live. The more that MLs engage with each other through their respective languages, the more we are able to see their potential.

Indeed, a significant number of us are employed in settings that require English output on summatives, and state examinations are also administered in English. Despite this, being a teacher does not require that all of our activities be conducted in a single language. Consider languages to be different kinds of tools. We are restricted in what we are able to build if the only tool we have is a hammer. Imagine all of the things that we are capable of producing once we are no longer restricted in our use of any of the linguistic tools that are in our toolbox.

Last but not least, even though we do not speak our students’ languages, by encouraging them to use those languages and allowing them to do so, we are able to create an environment in which our students’ assets and cultures are honoured and recognised. In the future, when MLs may have forgotten what we’ve taught them, but they will still remember with affection how we made them feel, they will remember how we made them feel. To begin, the classroom should make an effort to be inclusive of all languages.