It’s time to change the way we teach English

January 16, 2019

By the Conversation

As we move into 2019, the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, it’s time to consider not only how we think about Canada’s linguistic identity but also how we might develop best practices for learning and teaching languages.

Since 1969, Canada has recognized two official languages, English and French, but many people who live in the country are in fact multilingual. There are approximately 60 Indigenous languages and 140 immigrant languages in Canada besides English and French.

For example, in my own case I use five languages: Portuguese, Spanish, English and a little Italian and French. I was born in Brazil in a family with Italian and Spanish heritage, and learned Portuguese, the country’s official language, at school. Later, I learned English, followed by French after I moved to Montréal. In Canada, stories like mine are more common than we think.

To teach English in a way that acknowledges multiple languages in Canada, we need an approach that values and advances students’ existing language and cultural identities.

Plurilingual instruction is an approach that doesn’t discourage or shy away from using the learner’s primary language(s) when the new language is introduced. Plurilingual approaches seek to move beyond monolingual approaches, focused on the target language only.

A plurilingual approach can be taken to teach any new language. But in particular, my research has led me to focus on how plurilingual approaches to teaching English could change students’ experiences of language learning.

English is often a second or third language
In Canada, 7.7 million residents speak a non-official language as a mother tongue, an increase of 13.3 per cent between 2011 to 2016, and the number of people speaking more than one language at home is on the rise.

Using more than one language is not uncommon in Canada, particularly in metropolitan areas such as Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver where switching and mixing languages for different purposes is part of everyday life.

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