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Research on multilingualism in the classroom

Multilingualism plays an important role in inequality in education. Pupils who do not have Dutch as their first language often have fewer opportunities to keep up with school. How can schools and teachers best handle this? Together with primary schools in Amsterdam, UvA scientists are investigating how multilingualism can actually contribute to better learning performance. In this way, an obstacle can become a stepping-stone.

Inequality is a persistent problem in Dutch education. This has become even more visible during the corona crisis. More and more often, pupils do not reach the level that they are capable of. This inequality has an effect later in life, for example when it comes to career opportunities or the housing market. It also affects future generations. Research shows that multilingualism plays an important role in this. Pupils whose mother tongue is not Dutch often have to struggle more to keep up at school, because they have to acquire knowledge in a language they are still learning. At the same time, knowledge and skills developed in the home language are not or hardly used.

Dr. Lisa Gaikhorst (photo: Christiaan Kanis)

Better learning performance through a multilingual approach

Educational scientists dr. Lisa Gaikhorst and prof. dr. Joana Duarte of the University of Amsterdam are taking action with the Multiquity project: a study into tackling educational inequality through a multilingual approach. They will investigate how multilingualism in the classroom contributes to better learning performances and how the motivation and well-being of multilingual children can be improved. ‘A good command of your mother tongue is very beneficial for learning Dutch. Developing language skills helps you to acquire a second language. Besides, we see that pupils who are allowed to speak in their mother tongue are more involved in the lessons at school,' Lisa Gaikhorst explains. ‘They also become more confident in their own abilities. Dutch-speaking children benefit from this approach too, because their own language skills improve and they become open and understanding towards non-Dutch speakers.’

‘We see that when pupils are allowed to speak in their mother tongue, they are more involved in the lessons at school.’

What does a multilingual approach look like? Lisa Gaikhorst gives a few examples: ‘You can start with small steps. Let pupils look up information for a certain project in their mother tongue. Then they can consult with language buddies in their own language. Another idea is to have a school library with books in different languages, or to let them practice words together with their parents, in their mother tongue.’

Practical example of multilingual approach in the classroom

Teachers in primary and secondary education consider dealing with multilingualism in the classroom as a tremendous challenge. They often lack the knowledge and tools and are in need of inspiring examples. The university can play a role in this, by gathering the scientific knowledge that is available and making it comprehensible for education. The goal of the Multiquity project is to create an online handbook in which the information is made accessible to all schools and teachers in The Netherlands.