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Research group Multilingualism on my mind
MA thesis on multilingualism

Future English Teachers’ Thoughts on Multilingualism

Do student teachers feel prepared to teach English in multilingual classrooms? Synne Nordlie investigated student teachers’ beliefs about multilingualism in her fresh master’s thesis.

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A growing interest in multilingualism

In the research literature, there has been a shift in the views on multilingualism; views have changed from primarily holding negative associations towards more positive associations. Today, language is seen as a valuable resource and there seems to be a general consensus among researchers that there are certain cognitive benefits related to multilingualism. Several studies show that multilinguals have an increased awareness of language and language learning (metalinguistic awareness) compared to monolinguals. Studies also indicate that bi- or multilingualism does not automatically become a resource for pupils, as certain conditions must be met for pupils to benefit from their language background in language learning. In order for pupils to benefit from their linguistic background, all languages must be appreciated and made available. The various languages should be used as resources that all pupils might draw from in further language learning.

In the European context, the increased attention to multilingualism has been particularly apparent through the European Union’s policy, which promotes a multilingual European identity. To ensure multilingualism among European citizens, the EU proposed in 1995 that EU citizens should be proficient in three European languages. Norwegian language curricula are highly influenced by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which emphasizes the value of multilingualism. Furthermore, the Norwegian language curricula (LK06) include competence aims that have the potential to enhance pupils’ multilingualism. An extended multilingual focus may be found in the new curriculum as well.

Even though there is an aim to foster multilingualism in Norwegian language curricula, research suggests that Norwegian language teachers’ beliefs about multilingualism and a multilingual pedagogy not always conform with the focus on multilingualism that is found in the curriculum (see e.g. Haukås, 2016). Furthermore, findings from studies such as Dahl and Krulatz (2016) and Krulatz and Torgersen (2016) indicate that many teachers do not feel prepared to educate pupils who have languages other than Norwegian as their first language.

In this text, multilingualism refers to ‘the ability to use more than two languages’. The multilingual pupil may be a pupil who has a language other than Norwegian as their mother tongue, but it may also be a pupil who learns a second foreign language (German/Spanish/French) in school. I would, therefore, like to stress that almost all pupils in lower and upper secondary school in Norway are multilingual in the sense that they learn and use more than two languages. 

How do student teachers relate to multilingualism?

As there seems to be an increased focus on multilingualism in Norwegian schools today, it was considered relevant to find out more about the student teachers and their approaches to multilingualism. Do Norwegian student teachers feel prepared to teach English in multilingual classrooms? More specifically – do the students have sufficient knowledge and experience on the topic? What attitudes do they have towards multilingualism and a multilingual pedagogy, and what perceptions do they have of themselves as future teachers?

To gain insight on the topic, I conducted a web-based survey in which student teachers at five different educational institutions participated. A total of 102 students completed the survey. The respondents differed in terms of gender, age, study program and year of study. Through a collection of quantitative and qualitative data, the study sought to gather information about the students’ approaches to multilingualism and a multilingual pedagogy. The data were analyzed descriptively, which means that no attempt was made to generalize the results to the entire population of Norwegian student teachers.   

Little knowledge and little experience

Findings from the survey indicate that the students have some knowledge about multilingualism. However, only half of the students reported that they had been introduced to the topic in their studies, and less than half of the students answered that they had come across multilingual literature on the syllabi in their studies. More than sixty percent of the students reported that they had not been introduced to specific teaching strategies aimed at multilinguals or pupils who do not have Norwegian as their first language. Such results could indicate that the knowledge students have about multilingualism has been acquired under other circumstances than in their studies, and there is a reason to expect them to be unaware of the complexity related to multilingualism.

The results furthermore indicate that few of the students had both knowledge of and experience with using a multilingual pedagogy (18.63%), whereas the majority of the students stated that they had neither knowledge nor experience with using such pedagogical strategies (41.18%).

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Conflicting attitudes

Despite lacking knowledge and experience, the results nevertheless indicate that most students have positive attitudes related to multilingualism. Knowledge of several languages is seen as a resource in society in general, as well as in relation to professional life.

The responses related to a multilingual pedagogy, however, appear to be less consistent. On the one hand, more than half of the students agree or strongly agree that the teacher should make room for other languages than English in the ELT classroom. On the other hand, more than half of the students also agree or strongly agree with the statement that the ideal ELT classroom is one where English is the only language that is used. Additionally, more than half of the students stated that they would in fact allow their future pupils to speak languages other than English in the ELT classroom, while more than a third of the students stated that they would not allow the use of languages other than English.

The students thus appear to have positive attitudes to using several languages in English teaching, but nevertheless express a preference for the use of English only.

The students do not feel prepared to teach in multilingual classrooms

A particularly important yet worrisome finding is that more than half of the students stated that they do not feel prepared to teach English to multilingual pupils. Similarly, more than half of the students stated that they do not feel sufficiently prepared to teach English to pupils to whom Norwegian is not their first language. Most of the students (93.2%) stated that they would like more input on topics related to multilingualism in their studies.

Why does this matter?

If multilingualism is an aim for Norwegian pupils, language teachers have an important responsibility to implement a multilingual pedagogy by using the multilingualism that exists in the classroom as a resource. However, the results from this study indicate that most student teachers do not seem to have received adequate knowledge or experience related to multilingualism in their studies. The result that most students do not feel prepared to teach in multilingual classrooms is worrying, and it is important to ensure that student teachers feel well prepared to meet their pupils’ needs in the future. Language teachers have a great responsibility for supporting the pupils’ language learning. Therefore, a greater focus on multilingualism and a multilingual pedagogical approach in teacher education programs is needed.