Teaching multilingual and multicultural groups at university

Posted in: Language and Educational Practices

Reka Ratkaine Jablonkai, University of Bath

The International Day of Multilingualism was celebrated for the second time this year on Friday 27th March. This day is an opportunity to raise awareness of the world’s incredible linguistic diversity and how this multilingualism diversity is becoming increasingly normal - personally, professionally and in education. Internationalisation and changing patterns of migration are resulting in a new level of diversity worldwide and in UK universities. As well as international students, home students whose parents have an increasingly diverse heritage make UK universities more multilingual and multicultural spaces. For instance, one of my recent studies focused on lecturers in such diverse contexts, with one lecturer telling me, “I think we have sometimes fifty, sixty nationalities in one room.” However, along with diversity also comes complexity.

Language is an important means to communicate subject knowledge in teaching. A multilingual student group, therefore, faces and poses language-related challenges. These challenges can be related to discipline-specific terminology, academic literacy, the use of idioms and metaphors. Metaphors used for expressing lecturers’ stance and evaluation, for example, were found to be often misunderstood by students whose first language was not English based on their own languages and cultural value systems. As a result, they did not understand the main points of the lectures and misinterpreted the lecturers’ views on relevant points. This means that lecturers have to be prepared for a wide range of linguistic proficiency levels in one teaching session.

There are helpful strategies that lecturers can employ to support students from diverse language backgrounds. For example, they often adapt their language use to the proficiency of their students. As one of the lecturers in my study put it, “One thing that I try to pay attention to is also the type of language or the choices of word that I use in my presentation. I try to avoid difficult words.” At the same time, lecturers often explain things in more than one way, with one of the educators I interviewed explaining that he, “would explain something systematically twice, once targeting to, you know, getting the main idea in a simple way with a simple language, maybe also pacing down a bit and once where you try to push a bit and use different vocabulary and give some more details.” Other lecturers also used non-verbal communication, for example, through gestures when explaining new terminology or treated slides almost like subtitles making lectures easier for students to follow.

You might wonder what the relevance of all this is now as travel restrictions have been introduced and teaching has moved to virtual spaces. Well, there are a couple of things to consider. First, multilingual international and ethnic minority British students make up a considerable proportion of some of our cohorts and are present in our virtual classrooms. Second, non-verbal signs (posture, gestures, facial expressions, etc.) can often be used to strategically support understanding and increase intelligibility, especially for listeners whose first language is not English. Therefore, in the virtual space where non-verbal signs are somewhat limited, it becomes more important that we as lecturers ‘mind our language’ as we teach.

The blog post is based on the BAICE Seedcorn funded project, Teaching in super-diverse higher education contexts: An investigation of university lecturers’ pedagogical strategies.

Follow The Department of Education on Twitter @EducationBATH and Dr Reka Ratkaine Jablonkai on Twitter @rjreka.

Posted in: Language and Educational Practices


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