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Where language policy meets practice

Robin Chenoweth
Tue, 2017-10-17 09:32

Fulbright Scholar studies multi-linguilism in France's schools

The seeds of Francis Troyan’s love for world language were planted on Sunday afternoons in his grandparents’ dining room. Over pierogis and keilbasa, his family talked about church and school, about community and life.

But if his grandparents disagreed about anything, they broke into side conversations in Polish.  Young Francis was transfixed.

“That’s a language shift; that’s what I’m still interested in today,” Troyan said.

Now a Fulbright Scholar in Montepellier, France, the assistant professor of world language education is studying similar language dynamics among immigrant (he prefers the term ‘newcomer’) and native students. The College of Education and Human Ecology researcher has been invited to collaborate with a group of 40 scholars at Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3 through 2018.

Troyan will explore how students and teachers use different languages in different contexts, and why.

For example, if a student brainstorms a class assignment in her first language, how does she adjust her thinking and language use when she switches to French to write it?

In 2001, France broadened its plurilinguistic teaching policy — one that allows learners to use a variety of languages for different purposes while at school. Embraced by the European Union, the point was to develop citizens who can move flexibly across borders and function well in a variety language contexts, Troyan said.

Language education experts in the United States covet such policies, but Troyan wants to know: Has the policy truly been implemented in France?

“No one has really dug into it in a detailed way to really look at whether students are given opportunities to use (their home) language,” he said.

A challenge for teachers

An influx of refugees and other immigrants makes following the policy problematic for teachers. Up to 60 percent of the kindergartners and first-graders in Troyan’s upcoming study speak Albanian, Russian, Spanish or Arabic as their first language.

“What really becomes challenging with multiple languages is making connections” or knowing aspects of all the languages, he said. “It becomes really challenging the more languages a teacher has in a classroom.”

Certain practices have been shown in U.S. studies to improve learning for students who speak other languages. Does the teacher allow students to break into groups that speak the same language? Or must all students speak French all the time? Do word lists include multiple languages? Are parents of language learners brought into the classroom community?

“We now know that allowing the student’s home language and valuing the student’s language is one of the keys to promoting their development in both languages,” Troyan said.

When those multilanguage options are disallowed, however, implications arise for kids’ social identity and academic learning.

“The learning stops, or it is minimized or changes when they have to switch back” to the classroom language, Troyan said.

His findings in France could impact teaching practices here in the United States, said Christian Faltis, chair and professor of teaching and learning.

“Dr. Troyan’s work has the potential to transform how newcomers in the U.S. are invited to use meaningful language for learning and for sustaining their home languages throughout their schooling experiences,” he said.

While the United States has best practices in teaching language to students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, we lack the national policy that supports its implementation. This leaves states to decide on their own what to do.

“The next piece will be to look at newcomers in both places,” the United States and France, Troyan said. “What are the practices here, what are the practices there, and what can we learn across the two settings?”

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