"Why are we using the terminology ESL and mother tongue, when for many students English is not actually their second language and they have multiple linguistic identities? How does this term reflect the multilingualism of many of our students?"
J. Cummins, ECIS ESL/MT conference, 2017
(Originally published on LinkedIn, March 2017)
It's not often that one gets to spend a weekend listening to, and meeting, the textbooks from your bookshelf. And yet that is what I spent the weekend doing. At the ECIS ESL/MT 2017 conference in Copenhagen, I opened the textbooks of my undergraduate and graduate studies, and I heard them tell me their stories.
From Stephen Krashen I first learned about comprehensible input, and "i+1", and that teachers need to give students a safe space to learn by lowering their affective filters. And Krashen certainly did that for all of us, in his witty, intense, informative, and at times scathing keynote, which reminded us why he is one of the greats, and also, why it's important to consider for ourselves the message of any speaker, and compare it to our own inner knowledge of teaching and learning. For while he did convince us all of the benefits of reading for learning, and made us all feel good that reading every day will help our brains stay healthy, he also provoked us by claiming that grammar teaching is never useful or necessary. Some had the courage to stand up to him (Mindy!) and some did not, but the discussion was always lively.
From Cummins, many years ago, I learned to think about the whole child, and to consider what it would feel like to be unseen in school, with your language, culture and identity denied. I learned that children do not need teachers to put barriers between their languages for learning to happen, and than we can integrate all of a child's language repertoire as a scaffold and a guide for learning. And that no, using the home language during school won't mean kids never learn English. This weekend I learned again what it is to listen to someone who truly believes that they can make a difference, and that teachers can make a difference too. And I learned that being in the speaker slot right after a Jim Cummins' keynote is a mighty uncomfortable place to be - following in the footsteps of his amazing talk, with three Cummins' quotes in my presentation, and a room full of people who had just heard "wow".
From Fred Genesee, whose work I have known and followed since my days as a graduate student in Montreal, I was reminded that yes, children with various language and learning challenges can and do become successfully bilingual. I was also reminded that it is okay to say that bilingualism is not the right fit for some children, if their needs and circumstances don't require it, and the school setting can not give them adequate support. I've been making this point gently over the last years, with the fear of seeming elitist worrying me - I don't mean to say that bilingualism is only for "smart" children, or for children who speak the "right" languages. But Fred gave me the courage to be stronger in standing up for children who will not thrive in bilingual programs, not because they couldn't become bilingual, but because the programs are not set up to give them the support they need to become bilingual.
Those were my great lessons of the weekend, but there were many smaller moments as well. From Mindy and Lara from ISH, I learned that passionate teachers who believe in doing the right thing for their bilingual learners can convince a whole school to do the right thing too.
From Susan Stewart from ISL Surrey, I heard new ways of talking to parents about raising children with languages, and of contextualising the discussions we have with parents in different ways.
From Paul Kei Matsuda, I was reassured that being against numerical evaluations for language development and grammar isn't a radical position that is incompatible with modern education. We can, and do, assess students' language on many measures that do not correlate to a number or a letter or a pass or fail.
I don't expect I'll ever have the chance again to pass a weekend with my textbooks, but I'm certainly exceedingly lucky to have had the chance to do it once.