The Language of Learning

Apr 27, 2022

Education student wants to improve outcomes in multilingual classrooms.

Around 73,000 Minnesotan students are enrolled as English Language Learners (ELL) in the public school system. Navigating school without English fluency can be daunting, unfamiliar, and even lonely to experience as a child. 

Julia Bianchini, an Integrated Elementary and Special Education major, was one of those students. 

“I grew up speaking Portuguese until I was 5,” Bianchini says. “When I entered kindergarten, I was put into a school system that did not use my primary language as a resource. Over time, English became my primary language … By the age of 7, I could understand the Portuguese language but struggled to speak it.”

Bianchini’s personal experience informed her fall research study, “How are Teachers of Multilingual Learners Using Primary Language to Support Student Learning?” She connected with her professor and mentor, Assistant Professor Suki Jones Mozenter, through a diversity course. Together, the two decided on the topic of multilingual learners due to the experiences Bianchini had. 

“I’ve really gotten to know Suki on a personal level.” Bianchini continues, “She actually challenged me to conduct this study with her.” 

The premise of the research study was to explore how teachers use students’ primary languages to help them learn while acquiring the English language. While the commonly held belief is that more English is better, Bianchini’s research highlighted teachers successfully using students’ primary language as a valued asset. Instead of restricting the use of a primary language, students were encouraged to actively speak their primary languages and celebrate their identities. 

The study participants had all been recognized for their teaching of multilingual learners, with various accolades such as Teacher of the Year. Bianchini interviewed them, asking questions about how they use different languages to support student learning. “An example would be, how is this teacher using a student’s primary language to help the student learn academics, while also teaching English, while also still respecting and valuing their primary language and culture?” she explains. 

One specific area of interest was cognates—words that sound similar and share the same meaning in different languages, such as “telephone” in English and “telefono” in Spanish. “Teachers are actually able to use cognates while they have a classroom full of multilingual learners, which can allow for some clarity.” 

However, Bianchini warns about using false cognates—words that sound similar but have completely different meanings. These words could ultimately confuse a student, instead of helping them to understand. “It is important to note that there are many false cognates between different languages, so while it's good to learn the different cognates, it's equally as important to learn the false cognates,” she says.

As a future educator, Bianchini looked to the research as a reminder to value students and their cultures. 

There are plenty of ways for educators to incorporate students' cultures into the classroom, such as “finding resources to learn a student’s primary language, how their culture revolves around their language, and recognizing that students may feel isolated when learning,” Bianchini suggests. “It’s important to let them know that they are important and respected.” 

Ultimately, Bianchini wants people to understand that learning a different language is hard. “I want people to recognize and remember that a language barrier is not a learning disability, but if ignored, it can become a child’s biggest barrier in succeeding in the education system.”

About the Integrated Early and Special Education program