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Plurilingual Teaching Across the Curriculum

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Learning a second language necessitates similarly coordinated efforts across the curriculum. In the meantime, we teachers in the disciplines need to assume responsibility for helping our students acquire a second language 



The posting below argues for infusing the learning of a second language into all, or almost all, undergraduate courses. It is by

Prof Julian Hermida, Department of Law and Politics, Algoma University, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Plurilingual Teaching Across the Curriculum


With notable exceptions, American undergraduate education is unilingual. While American society is multicultural with a plurality of languages and immigrant minorities, the vast majority of US universities do not require proficiency in a second language for undergraduate graduation. This has resulted in two interrelated phenomena. First, unilingual students do not acquire a second language. Second, students who are already bilingual, such as first or second generation immigrants, do not become fully literate in their first language, because higher education institutions do not give them the possibility to pursue part of their education in their first language.

Learning a plurality of languages has become an essential component of education in a globalized world. The benefits are multifold. Language determines the way in which we understand reality. Language is a system of representation for perception and thinking. So, learning a discipline in a second language enables learners to achieve a degree of depth which cannot be achieved when learning in only one language (Bowden & Marton, 2004). Knowledge of more than one language is also crucial to compete with graduates from universities in Europe and other parts of the world that have extensive foreign and second language policy programs. For example, the Council of Europe adopted policy that recommends its member states to adopt a plurilingual approach to education at all levels. Within this framework, authorities have to ensure that language instruction is fully integrated within the core of the educational aims of universities and to consider and treat each language in the curriculum not in isolation but as part of a coherent plurilingual education for all students across the entire curriculum (Council of Europe, 2008). A plurilingual education also fosters an increase in awareness and sensitivity for multicultural issues (Haigh, 2009).

We have relegated the teaching of second languages essentially to Literature or Language departments. While these play a very important role in higher education, their efforts do not guarantee a plurilingual education for all students. The result has been that languages are treated as subjects like any other discipline \"in terms of time allocation, organization of curriculum time, and assessment and certification. Languages therefore compete with other subjects for curriculum time and learners' attention.\" (Council of Europe, 2008). This parallels the development of writing in North American universities (Kearns & Turner, 2008). When teaching writing was confined exclusively to English departments, students did not achieve writing literacy in the disciplines. Disciplinary departments had to assume the role of teaching students how to write in their fields. And some still do so reluctantly.

Learning a second language necessitates similarly coordinated efforts across the curriculum. In the meantime, we teachers in the disciplines need to assume responsibility for helping our students acquire a second language. Those of us who teach in non language disciplines -particularly if we are unilingual - may think that we are not prepared to help our students learn a second language. I suggest that by making small but constant changes aimed at fostering the development of a second language in our courses - while maintaining the core of instruction in English - we can help our students develop a second language in the long term, even if we do not speak it fluently.

The recommendations that follow are based on insights gained through personal experience, action research, and extensive literature survey.

* Choose a second language (L2) and connect it to your course.


Choose the language you want your students to develop according to your and your students' preferences and the resources available in your community. Then, make it a natural path for students to learn that L2. For example, if you choose Spanish for a Criminal Justice course, include discussions on overincarceration of Latinos in your course.

* Start small and introduce changes gradually.


First, you may only aim at instilling in students an awareness of the importance to learn L2. You can be more ambitious in future courses. Also, try to see the big picture. Most of us have the same students in different courses throughout their university years. So, maybe we can try to help students develop a very basic notion of a second language in the introduction to our discipline course and progressively aim at slightly higher levels in subsequent courses.

* Educate yourself about theories of second language acquisition.


Become familiar with the theories on second language acquisition and the predominant methods for teaching second languages. If you are already familiar with learning theories and effective teaching methods, you will have strong  foundations to understand second language theories easily.


* Provide input in L2

Learners acquire a second language when they receive L2 input that is within their zone of proximal development (input + 1). For example, introduce yourself in the L2, write the agenda for the class in L2, and give them a short and simple text about your discipline in the L2, preferably one with visual information. Ask students to infer the content based on linguistic and paralinguistic clues. If you don't speak the language, look for alternative sources of input, e.g., a short video or a student who speaks L2.

* Encourage your students to use L2 in class.

David Perkins (2009) suggests that students should play - at least an accessible version of - the game of the target discipline from the beginning. This entails speaking and listening to L2, just like learning to play baseball means actually playing the game. After the initial silent period (Krashen, 1988), you should encourage your students to start using L2 in class. For example, if they have to give an oral presentation in English, ask them to briefly introduce themselves and the presentation in L2 or encourage them to ask a simple question in L2 during a lecture.

* Help students experiment with L2.

Devote a few minutes every class to discuss specific aspects of the language. Help students deduce a grammatical aspect of L2. For example, if students are trying to express opinions in L2, show some examples of how people do so in L2. Then, ask them to discuss and deduce the grammatical forms used to express opinions in small groups. Then, you can write students' conclusions on the board. Let students experiment with these forms. If you don't speak L2 ask a student or a friend who does to help you. Remember it is the students who need to negotiate meanings and construct knowledge in L2.

* Take them out to the field.

If, for example, you teach accounting, visit a company whose head office is in a country where people speak L2. Meet with a manager and ask her to show your students a balance sheet written in L2. Even if students have a rudimentary knowledge of L2, they will be familiar with a balance sheet and will be able to deduce the information written in L2. It is by making connections between new knowledge (L2) and their existing knowledge (accounting) that students will learn L2.

* Hook them up with other L2 learners and native speakers.

Learning is a collective enterprise. Encourage students to connect to L2 learners from other universities to exchange emails about the discipline. Ask your students to follow a native speaker who tweets about your discipline in L2.

* Deal proactively with natural resistance.

You will meet resistance from the administration, your colleagues, and your students. The best way to do deal with resistance from your colleagues and administrators is by engaging in action research projects to collect data about the success of your courses. Share the results in presentations at your institution or publish them (Weimer, 2002). Research shows that students are more enthusiastic about unconventional teaching. If you communicate your goals clearly, you are passionate about the learning enterprise, and you treat them fairly, students will soon embark with your linguistic goals.

* Take risks!

If we don't, our students in unilingual universities will not be fully prepared to work and live in an increasingly globalized world.


• Bowden, John & Marton, Ference. (2004). University of Learning. London: Routledge.

• Council of Europe (2008). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and the promotion of plurilingualism, CM/Rec(2008).

• Haigh, Martin (2009). Fostering Cross-Cultural Empathy with Non-Western Curricular Structures, Journal of Studies in International Education, Vol. 13 No.2. p. 271.

• Kearns, Judith & Turner, Brian. (2008). The Historical Roots of Writing Instruction in Anglo-Canadian Universities, European Journal of Writing, pp. 1-8

• Krashen, Stephen (1988). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. New York: Prentice-Hall International.

• Perkins, David. (2009). Making Learning Whole. How Seven Principles of Teaching can Transform Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

• Shulman, Lee (2004). Teaching as community property: Essays on higher education in Pat Hutchings (ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

• Weimer, Maryellen (2002). Learner-centered teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass