Why allow the mixing of languages ​​at school?


Since the end of the 1960s , work on language acquisition, both in children and adults, has focused on how humans are able to develop one or more initial languages ​​(the language “native” which is often conjugated in the plural) then other additional languages ​​(“foreign” languages).

This work has highlighted the complex nature of these processes, including the phenomenon of attrition – the fact of totally or partially losing one’s competence in a language (sometimes one’s “mother tongue”) under the effect of a lack of actualization of the latter, through practice for example.

Remember that, far from the French monolingual vision, the vast majority of humans on earth are multilingual . A situation regularly underlined on the occasion of the European Day of Languages .

If the first works on plurilingualism have long considered the brain as modular – that is to say that the brain would classify languages ​​independently of each other – advances in neurocognition as well as those relating to the acquisition of third language have opened the door to a more complex understanding of speech production .

Teaching practices

The way of considering the use of several languages ​​has evolved with scientific advances in the field. Initially, it was a question of considering plurilingual skills as the ability to use several languages ​​in a superimposed and cumulative and therefore independent way. Then, this same competence was considered from the angle of a temporary intertwining between two or more languages ​​– “certain transparent words or false friends in French slip when I speak in English”. Finally, more recent work describes a transversal approach to the languages ​​of the repertoire of individuals that transcend the borders between languages.

The foundations of “translanguaging” are part of the British school, not to say Welsh ( Trawsieithu ), with the work of Cen Williams in the 1980s. At that time, the educational objective was to enhance, at school, local languages ​​confronted with British English as the language of instruction. To do this, the mobilization and promotion of the two languages, for joint production and perception objectives, were legitimized.

Practices of this type can be identified in other spaces. Thus, in Argentina reading-comprehension , where learners read a text in a foreign language and produce a synthesis in Spanish, is well institutionalized.

In the 2000s, the American school of “translanguaging”, embodied by Ofelia García , broadened this pedagogical principle towards an understanding of the transversal cognitive processes of language mastery. In its context, it was a question of reflecting on the accompaniment of Spanish-speaking children in the south of the United States of America where American English, as the language of instruction, is a factor in school failure. It is thus a question of recognizing that individuals do not segment the languages ​​of their repertoire but that they develop specific transversal social practices according to the contexts of production of the discourse.

In a pedagogical system, learners can read resources in the languages ​​they master, then collaborate in a multilingual way in the production of a synthesis in the target language and standard (academic French, for example) then finish with the writing a synthetic text in one of their initial languages. This principle goes beyond the mere fact of “mixing” languages ​​as do humorous sketches on language learning or advertisements for English lessons.

It should be noted that the term “translanguaging” has been translated and takes on very different meanings in French-language research, as Guillaume Gentil , professor of applied linguistics at Carleton University, points out. The principles defined by “translanguaging” can also appear in other contemporary and French-speaking concepts such as “plurilingual competence” theorized by Coste, Moore and Zarate and included in the Common European Framework of References for Languages ​​(CEFRL).

Towards a translingual activism

Beyond the simple description of pedagogical practices or cognitive processes, “translanguaging” calls for a translingual activism according to Alastair Pennycook, professor at the University of Technology in Sydney. Indeed, recognizing the existence of this transversal conception of language skills leads to societal transformations with repercussions on language policies.

The researcher is particularly interested in countries where English has reduced the use of endogenous regional languages ​​and in forms of linguistic liberalism ( Globish , for example).

This vision also impacts language education policies and the compartmentalization of foreign languages ​​in “classrooms”. It is a question of opening them up to the world by favoring a task-based approach allowing better recognition of the reality of effective (trans)linguistic practices.

However, it is important to note that the works that go in this direction suggest recognizing the interest of valuing the complex uses of individuals when it comes to “manipulating” several languages ​​to carry out a task. This recognition does not lead to the fact of thinking that everything must be mixed and we can expect individuals to be able, at the end of this translingual process, to produce something according to social expectations, in the language studied (a academic dissertation, a cover letter, a poetic text, etc.).

To do this, Marie-Françoise Narcy-Combes, professor emeritus in language didactics, and her co-authors propose ten fundamental principles , the main ones of which are as follows.

For the learner, it is a question of welcoming him as a unique, complex and multi-faceted being who brings back with him his knowledge, his aptitudes and his cultural and emotional experiences. This leads to valuing (and having recourse to) all the languages ​​he speaks. There is no “sub-language” in a teaching device. This will make all the more sense if the teacher ensures that the learner is encouraged to communicate in the target language with people from other countries. The investment of the child will be all the more important as the work is done in favor of the development of his creativity, by promoting a stimulating learning environment.

For the teacher, it is always more effective to be caring and encouraging by proposing clear and realistic learning objectives to ensure that the learners understand them. It is relevant to set up tasks related to the social world outside of school and to adapt the work steps according to the needs that emerge as the exercise is carried out.

The teacher cannot have all the solutions. It is therefore essential to encourage collaboration between peers and social interactions (in particular for evaluation by members outside the system) but also to identify all the readily available tools that will allow learners to become actors in the language studied. So let’s compare our languages  !

Author Bio: Gregory Miras is a Lecturer in language teaching and pronunciation at the University of Rouen Normandy