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Embracing Multilingualism in the Classroom

By Miyori Takano
Embracing Multilingualism in the Classroom

As someone who is Japanese and grew up attending an international school, at the time that I was a student, it seemed that international schools had a pretty hegemonic language ideology. I was an English learner, and I was told not to use Japanese in the classroom, on the playground, or during lunch. In homeroom classes, I could only use English and Japanese only during Japanese class. I vaguely remember having to go to a separate room during reading block to practice my reading with a specialist teacher. During this time, I grew up disliking Japanese and not wanting to use it. I stopped putting in an effort in learning Japanese and pushed back when my parents would try to get me to study Japanese at home. I could see how a hegemonic language ideology negatively impacted my sense of identity in that I was rejecting a part of who I was. Thankfully, as I graduated and went to college, I started re-embracing my Japanese heritage and culture. Interestingly enough, fast forward 20 years or so and I became a Japanese language teacher at the same school. The school has changed a lot in that multilingualism is now embraced. Walking down the halls, I hear more languages spoken: not just Japanese and English, but Mandarin, Korean, Spanish, and French.

Although international school communities are rich in cultural and linguistic diversity, many prioritize proficiency in English. With our student populations increasingly becoming more multilingual, multicultural, and more diverse, it is evident that our education systems will need to evolve to diversify and to “multilingui-fy.”  In the past, many international schools have held hegemonic ideologies in which “teachers believed that English proficiency was more valuable than supporting students’, families,’ and teachers’ multilingualism” (Dr. Olson-Wyman & Dr. Heidt). However, these hegemonic ideologies were detrimental to students’ sense of identity and belonging. In the past, classrooms were monolingual, and students were encouraged to only speak English. When one culture or language is valued over the others, it continues the toxic cycle of marginalization and minoritization (Lachance & Honigsfeld). While language ideologies are multi-faceted, complex, and deeply personal, embracing multilingualism and stepping away from monolingualism can create positive change that empowers our learners. In addition, it shifts our thinking from a deficit-based approach to an assets-based approach (Staehr-Fenner). When classroom instruction and assessments are monolingual, students are limited in what they can produce and share in the target language. Teachers then focus on their English language learners and how they aren’t “learning English fast enough” (Staehr-Fenner). However, when students are allowed to use their home language both in the classroom and in assessments through translanguaging, it encourages them to use their “full linguistic repertoire” and allows us to focus on what students can do (Najarro).

While it can be daunting for teachers to allow students to show their thinking in a language that they cannot communicate in, when multilingual learners are encouraged to use their multiple languages both in the classroom and for classroom assessment, the learning is centered around what they can do. Multilingual students can confirm their understanding, clarify misunderstandings, and deepen their understanding of learning content and language (Gottleib). This can be done through talking with their peers in their home language as well as partnering with families’ and multilingual communities to make learning more authentic and meaningful to students. In addition, it can help to form and maintain positive relationships with peers and teachers while also helping them shape and validate their own identities. Broadening perspectives and having a deeper understanding of our students’ and their families' social, cultural, personal, and linguistic experiences can truly help us ensure their success in the classroom (Staehr-Fenner). When instruction is limited to monolingualism, it hinders multilingual learners’ capacities to make meaning in their home language and all too often silences them into assimilation (Marshall & Nungaray). When assessment is limited to monolingualism, it can negatively affect our student data. Oftentimes, if a multilingual student is assessed in the target language without allowing them to use their thinking in their home language, it is implied that they have not acquired the content knowledge. When in reality, it is possible that they have acquired the content in their home language and just lack the vocabulary to show their knowledge in the target language. Enabling multilingual students to use translanguaging not only allows teachers to be learner-entered and draw from all their strengths but also honors and promotes the students’ voices and identities.

As a language teacher, it’s hard to balance that. How much English can I use? If input is critical, how can I use as much Japanese as I can while also ensuring that the students are understanding and making meaning?  While I don't want to stop students from speaking their home language, I also want them to get used to using the Japanese that they are learning and persevere even when they might not think of the word so that they can progress in their proficiency. It’s a tricky balance and something I can see being an issue in homeroom classrooms as well. That said, I think having clear expectations of when students can use translanguaging (i.e., during turn and talks, when they are taking notes, when they are doing interpretive reading or listening tasks) and when they are expected to use the target language (when they are doing a speaking assessment in the target language or when they are doing a writing assessment in the target language) can be helpful. I am also a big advocate for multilingual assessments. I think it would be a more beneficial tool for teachers as they can truly see if the student is lacking the content knowledge or just simply missing the vocabulary needed to show their thinking and understanding. While allowing students to use their home language during assessments might add another step for teachers who don’t speak that language, I think it would make lesson planning more effective and ensure that teachers can truly create engaging lessons for all their students. This is because if a student does understand the content but isn’t able to show it as they lack the vocabulary, the teacher could make the assumption that they don’t understand the content and try to re-teach it. The student, already knowing the content, might benefit from a review, but might also get bored and lose focus as they feel they already know this content. However, if the student is able to share their knowledge of the content, then the teacher can focus on supporting their vocabulary growth and also create different lessons that incorporate new content or allow the student to deepen their understanding of the current content.



Staehr-Fenner, D. 2020. Q&A with Authors: Breaking Down the Wall Essential Shifts for ELs’ Success | SupportEd (

Najarro, I. 2023. What is Translanguaging and How Is It Used in the Classroom? | Education Week (

Olson-Wyman, S. & Heidt, E. 2024. What do International School Teachers Believe About Multilingualism? | Tie Online(

Corwin Monday Webinar Series. 2023. Breaking Down the Monolingual Wall | Youtube (


Miyori Takano is a Japanese foreign language teacher who works at an international school in Japan. As a multilingual teacher herself, she is passionate about using translanguaging in the classroom. When she is not teaching, she can be found reading, baking, and playing board games.

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