PhD research: “We shouldn’t stay in our little bubble…we need to go and swim a bit in other bubbles.” An exploration of the theoretical, pedagogical and social dimensions of Functional Multilingual Learning in a Brussels primary school

January 2017 to September 2023
Functional Multilingual Learning
primary education
University of the Western Cape (South Africa)
Research fields
Languages and Literatures

Brussels is a highly linguistically diverse city where over half of the children in its French-speaking schools are growing up using two or more languages daily. Yet for the most part, the schools are run monolingually, indeed some insist their pupils that they should not use their ‘home’ languages in school.  This kind of language policy has two main motivations; firstly, it is conceived by teachers and policymakers to create the best conditions for the acquisition of the language of schooling (and therefore academic success); and secondly, the use of one shared language is deemed to promote cohesion across the school community. These positions are based on ‘common sense’ notions of ‘what works’ but in fact there is little scientific evidence to support them, indeed plenty to suggest the contrary. Firstly, research shows that it is completely normal for plurilingual pupils to mix and switch across their language repertoire and they do so with skill and purpose. Secondly, there is increasing evidence from across the globe that when we force pupils to only use the language of schooling, we are potentially depriving them of linguistic and cognitive tools that can help them to be more efficient and effective learners. These observations have prompted a ‘multilingual’ turn in education research which encourages policymakers and teachers to reframe discourse deficits about multilingualism and to position the pupils’ home languages as transversal resources for learning across the whole curriculum, thus creating more equitable conditions for learning for language minoritised pupils.

However, we still know little about how such models work in mainstream classrooms where the teacher doesn’t speak the pupils’ languages, nor how the pupils themselves perceive these practices. This research investigates a model specifically conceived for the mainstream classroom:  Functional Multilingual Learning (FML) (Sierens & Van Avermaet, 2014). This involves the teacher adopting a ‘multilingual lens’ and stimulating the dynamic and inclusive use of translingual learning strategies in order to promote deeper learning and affirm a collective classroom multilingual identity. I spent 8 months in a linguistically diverse school in Brussels where the school rule had always stipulated that the pupils should only use French. I trained four teachers on how to use FML and then followed how they and their pupils collectively re-imagined home languages as meaningful capital for learning and engagement in classroom life.

My main research question set out to understand the dynamics, opportunities and constraints of FML in the classroom and is broken down into four sub-studies. The first is a theoretical review of FML, and comprises a transversal analysis with two other multilingual classroom approaches:  translanguaging as pedagogy  (García & Kleyn, 2016) and Eveil Aux Langues (Candelier, 2003). It compares the pedagogical model that each proposes, the way each is built on a slightly different theory of the nature of language itself, and then how these perspectives combine in transformative vision of each model. The second study explores the teachers’ decisions as they designed and delivered ‘meaningful multilingual tasks’. It shows how they imagined home languages as individual and class resources, serving linguistic, academic, creative and community building functions and how they felt that they deepened learning, engagement and inclusion. It also reports on the different classroom language policies adopted by each teacher as well as some of the challenges of multilingual tasks, such as the inclusion of monolingual pupils. The third study focuses on the pupils and the way they positioned themselves in hierarchies of home language proficiency, even when they couldn’t speak the languages of their peers. It shows how it was easier for more ‘balanced’ bilingual pupils to participate in multilingual tasks and interaction, generating cycles of positive affirmation that others struggled to access. The position of sole-speakers is also highlighted as sensitive as they sometimes felt isolated, as well as that of the teacher who could not always mediate on language disagreements between pupils. The fourth and final article addresses how FML impacted on feelings of social cohesion in the classroom. It shows how some pupils (e.g., newcomers) were able to participate more meaningfully in classroom life but monolinguals sometimes felt excluded, and that pupils were keen to build connections across different language and ethnic groups. The question of trust is shown to be a complex matter, with many pupils anxious about multilingual insults, particularly in the playground.  

Globally, this study shows how FML can offer multilingual pupils meaningful opportunities to draw across their full linguistic repertoire in the service of learning and school belonging, in particular newcomer pupils. It offers a picture of the non-linear process of implementing a new multilingual approach as teachers and pupils collectively ‘undo’ their monolingual habits and points to the importance of ensuring bottom-up, pupil-led practices are given space. It shows that despite tensions on the playground, this is where pupils are living out the complexities of multilingual citizenship.