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Multilingual textbooks

Finding a textbook for multilingual learners: Introducing a critical review series

There is a need for textbooks to adopt a multilingual approach that takes into account learners' language backgrounds and does not assume that they are unable to draw on their previous language experiences when learning a new language.

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This blogpost sets the stage for a series of critical reviews of textbooks that purport to offer multilingual content. The aim is to promote further discussion on the part of all stakeholders, i.e. parents, textbook publishers, teachers, and students, regarding the nature and purpose of textbook content, moving beyond the merely cultural to that which can more accurately reflect the ways languages interact and are learned in the multilingual mind. After all, the more traditional approach to language teaching has been decidedly monolingual, where languages are often seen as disconnected entities in the language learner’s mind with little or no consideration for how they can interact, influence, and benefit each other. The communicative approach to language teaching has similarly encouraged the exclusive use of the target language during lessons, with the rationale being that an immersive experience will lead to more effective learning that is free from cross-linguistic interference. Such a belief, however, does not reflect how languages interact in the mind of the emergent multilingual learner.

A spate of recent studies and the odd teacher development program have sought to contribute to changing this state of affairs, although, for most teachers around the world, the monolingual approach to teaching continues to be a dominant force that informs their practices and even how they perceive themselves in terms of their legitimacy and professionalism. In this respect, one area that clearly needs more attention is the quality and design of textbooks as these concern the focus on multilingual approaches to language learning. Textbooks, after all, still occupy a place of great importance for language learners and teachers alike despite the popularity and ubiquitous consumption of digital and online media. In many countries, for example, learners continue to study foreign languages and associated culture(s) exclusively through textbooks. This is because they have few, if any, opportunities to interact with native speakers of the target language in their daily lives.

Studies on textbook content to date like Haukås (2017)[1] indicate that textbooks employ language content based on the assumption that learners have no previous language learning experience, and, as a result, can fail to help them build on this experience. They (textbooks), furthermore, integrate only weak multilingual activities, often employing tasks that focus on translating isolated single sentences and expressions from the learners’ L1 into the target language. The incorporation of multilingual texts that showcase the use of translanguaging in textbook dialogues, as well as translations of literary excerpts written by contemporary authors that engage learns on a deeper level that encompasses both form and function, could perhaps be more useful activities and prove more effective in promoting cross-linguistic awareness and cognitive engagement. 

Indeed, if learners are to be encouraged to make use of their entire language repertoire when learning additional languages, it is contradictory and perhaps even confusing for them to rely on textbooks that do not reflect their multilingual state. For teachers, too, textbooks serve as a vital tool that supports how they organize their lessons, especially if they are novice teachers. The use of textbooks that incorporate multilingual approaches to language teaching, therefore, can encourage language teachers to adopt more multilingual pedagogies in the language classroom so that they can promote more effective learning outcomes in their students.

 

[1] Haukås, Å. (2017). Zur Förderung von Mehrsprachigkeit in DaF-Lehrwerken. Deutsch als Fremdsprache, 158-167.