Home » Volume IV, Issue 1 / Fall 2015 » Language Education of Linguistically Minoritized Students: First Steps for Teachers

Language Education of Linguistically Minoritized Students: First Steps for Teachers

Demet Arpacik
The Graduate Center, City University of New York

The term “language education” refers broadly to the teaching and learning of a wide variety of languages and the contexts in which languages are taught. Language education of “linguistically minoritized students” refers in particular to the teaching of students whose territory is colonized, ruled, and governed by another group that dominates them culturally and linguistically, or those who become linguistic minorities through migration and are learning the language of a host country different from their own. As a result, the needs and expectations of different groups of students vary drastically depending on situations and conditions. The linguistic capital of a minority group may be degraded and delegitimized by the existing social ad political structures. Structural elements in the society are utilized to create a hierarchy of languages that undermine and oppress the use of languages of the minority group, and promote the language of the dominant group. This situation is more pervasive in nation states or in countries where nationalism based on a single identity and language is strongly promoted.

A linguistically minoritized population may not necessarily be smaller in number, but is a group whose language is targeted for extermination and debasement resulting from a purposeful misconception about the importance placed on different languages. While certain languages are referred to as more civilized, correct, modern, and proper, others are described as colloquial, informal, less civilized, and backward. In such a society, the task of the teacher is much harder. Language education requires teaching of a language, but also involves willingness to fight one’s biases, prejudices, as well as structural injustices that render a minority language oppressed. This short guide, intended for teachers, offers some practical tips that can pave the way for further transformative and empowering practices in language education of linguistic minoritized students. While the challenges to language education are many, this guide is a start to understanding some of the most recent critical arguments around the education of linguistic minorities. I begin with a list of critical understandings of language and language education that illuminate the practical guidelines that follow.

Necessary Principles for Teaching Linguistically Minoritized Students

  • Having a different linguistic repertoire from the dominant group is not a deficiency; a minority language is not something to be fixed or eradicated, but rather something to invest in. It contributes cognitively, socially, and economically to the child. A teacher needs to provide equal opportunity for every student to have a voice in his or her own linguistic repertoire (May, 2008; Dudley-Marling & Lucas, 2009; Busch, 2012).
  • The idea that languages are only grammatical structures that are distinct and unrelated to other languages is disputed by critical scholars such as Ofelia Garcia, Alastair Pennycook, Suresh Canagarajah, Jan Blommaert, and Sinfree Makoni. Rather, languages are embedded in social, historical, political, and cultural contexts. Thus, they cannot be abstracted from these contexts and confined to classroom walls. In this sense, language cannot be taught simply as teaching grammar and memorizing words. Language education should include the teaching of how languages inform and enhance one another, and are used in different contests (Bloomaert, 2010).
  • Languages are concepts invented as part of colonial and nation-state building processes, rather than as linguistic formations alone. The separation between specific languages as distinct and separate entities is a social construction. The efforts to separate, homogenize, create language families, and map language origins derive from an ideology of racial and national essences. Based on this misconception, hierarchies of languages and language families are established and languages are treated as separate entities rather than interactive and social cultural elements (Makoni & Pennycook, 2007).
  • Translanguaging is a progressive understanding of language education that allows for crossing linguistic boundaries set up by external forces and utilizes the fluid nature of languages. Speakers can use various features from their linguistic repertoire in a variety of forms and contexts depending on their needs and wishes to overcome external forces that may seek to delimit their use of language. They can perform their identities through their repertoires. Strict time and space-bounded separation between languages in language education stems from a monolingual perspective (García & Li Wei, 2014).
  • Language policies can serve as institutional forms of power that discriminate against linguistically minoritized groups in a heterogeneous society. As educational institutions, schools often privilege a certain linguistic group while disregarding others, leading to unequal educational opportunities (Blackledge, 2000).
  • Language should be used to promote intercultural understanding and appreciation of diversity instead of being an instrument of inclusion or exclusion of individuals with different linguistic repertoires. Language policies and practices should not create barriers between linguistically different groups (Valdés, forthcoming).
  • As outlined under Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, linguistically minoritized people shall not be denied the right to enjoy their own culture and to use their own language. In addition to being seen as a resource, language should be accepted and protected as a fundamental human right (The Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights).

Practical Guidelines for Teachers

The guidelines listed below were designed for teachers of linguistically minoritized students,and they assume and acknowledge the existence of an oppressive system that marginalizes students based on language. To serve students with multilingual backgrounds, teachers need to develop the necessary perspectives that enable them to take a critical approach to their teaching, and to critique and work to change already existing discriminating structures. The guidelines will likely resonate with critical educators who are not content with an education system that advantages students of particular languages, but sets up to fail students of other languages. Critical, revolutionary, and transformative teachers can challenge existing structures to help their students achieve their full potential. The list below aims to inspire teachers to work against hegemonic practices, to support teachers in their efforts to meet the needs of their linguistic minority students, and to counter the practices of institutions that pathologize the culture and language of minority groups.

1) Students and parents who have different language repertoires need to be equally represented, recognized, and valued:
Classrooms should include elements that appeal to linguistic minority students, so that they do not feel isolated in a space that does not represent the life they pursue outside of school. Teachers can organize space and physical displays by incorporating items that are familiar to students, including words in print, books, and signs in their own language. Students can contribute to this representation in ways they find meaningful, such as presenting works, creating posters, or using different mediums (such as songs and poetry) in their language. Teachers can model for students how to recognize, value, and respect different linguistic identities by learning the basics of a language that is unfamiliar to them. For parents of students who have a different linguistic repertoire than the school’s, language should not hinder their participation in school activities and decisions. Parents from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds should not feel inferior or incapable. Materials, letters, school magazines, songs, and communication tools should all be translated into home languages. Parents can collaborate with teachers to provide translation. In addition, teachers can ask parents to support their children’s home language rather than asking them to conform to widely held assumptions that parents of linguistic minority students should emphasize the dominant language.

2) Include Translanguaging in Instruction and Curriculum Practice:
Translanguaging are linguistic processes that allow multilingual speakers to break the structural and societal boundaries that constrain them by providing students with opportunities to experiment with language in various genres and modes. Teachers should not remain fixated on correction and accuracy but instead allow for creativity and self-expression through different linguistic features and modalities. Educators should avoid separating languages through space-bounded (different classrooms, different schools, different labs) and time-bounded (different time of the day, or time allocation for languages) practices. Multiple languages can be coherently used within a common space and time, an approach that fosters crossing linguistic boundaries and transcends barriers that are often created between different languages. Students can retrieve all of the resources available in his or her linguistic repertoire. Rather than allocating equal amounts of time over language, languages should be used alongside and to enhance each other.

For example, students can write a composition drawing words from different languages in their repertoire, encouraging expression through whichever language one chooses for communication, and acknowledges different levels of proficiencies that the learner has in different languages. The purpose should not be to teach one dominant language, but rather to develop each language. To further understand the ideological and practical aspects of translanguaging pedagogy, one can look at Ofelia García and Li Wei’s (2014) book entitled Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education, which outlines the theory of translanguaging and includes concrete practical suggestions. The authors acknowledge the difficulties of enacting such an approach in a very heterogeneous classroom. Yet, there is no one type of translanguaging and its application can change depending on the context and the linguistic composition of the classroom. Ultimately, translanguaging classrooms utilize different linguistic repertoires in meaningful ways, rather than privileging one language and proficiency in that language.

3) Openly address the issue of discrimination based on language in the classroom:
The issue of language discrimination should be openly discussed and addressed in the classroom. Such discussion can start as early as preschool when students learn pronunciation of different languages. Cartoons, puppets shows, and different character presentations can be used to open up discussion with concrete examples, creating scenarios and simulations where children think about different levels of language proficiency and their reactions to how language is used in everyday life. The teacher can model how to respond in a positive way when languages are used in unfamiliar ways. As children grow and begin to develop capabilities in abstract thinking, they can explore issues of language discrimination and their effects in more abstract ways. Teachers can openly address concerns or feelings in classrooms and work to counter any discrimination through norms agreed upon by the entire class. In later adolescence, students can be invited to critique curriculum through the lens of language and the ways in which language policies and practices in educational settings impact their learning. For instance, the teacher can compare and contrast the objectives of an English lesson and with that of an additional language class analyze what is expected of students in each of these two classes, analyzing how a language is favored and why. Ultimately, education in the effects of language discrimination should be a practice not only for bilingual learners but also for monolingual students that speak the majority language.

4) Developing Multilingual Literacies:
Depending on the linguistic repertoire of students, teachers should introduce literacy practices to increase literacy in more than one language. A bilingual notes approach enables understanding and learning in both languages simultaneously. This technique, which includes notes in two or more languages, is used in preparing academic materials, worksheets, letters home, and other written documents in multiple languages. Collaboration between teachers of other subjects and language teachers should be established to create and sustain such a program. In this way, students can draw upon their already existing linguistic repertoire to understand new content material in another language. Teachers can create a multilingual literacy corner in which students can display their writing in several languages and other students can read and respond. Other multilingual tasks require students to utilize more than one language for varied purposes, such as a multilingual diary. Bilingual students can help to translate some works into their language and distribute as a resource to create multilingual learning materials. Schools can form a multilingual literacy club where students can organize events to celebrate their accomplishments in developing skills in multiple languages (Lin, 2013).

5) Creating a Plurilingual Language Portfolio:
In European countries, a plurilingual language approach has been adopted to foster multilingualism both in and outside of schools. This approach is formally recognized in the Council of Europe and its goal is for its citizens “ to develop a degree of communicative ability in a number of languages over their lifetime in accordance with their needs” (Council of Europe).[1] The European Language Portfolio (ELP) is a flexible technique adapted to local contexts and used by students to record their own proficiency in different languages and follow their progress. The Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters (AIE) is a similar instructional tool that promotes the appreciation of diversity and understanding of cultures. A section is devoted to plurilingualism and its facilitative role in intercultural encounters. Such portfolios can increase self-reflection, metalinguistic ability, and foster a conscious effort to immerse in translingual practices, resulting in broader investment in all languages they possess and pride in linguistic diversity (Taylor & Snoddon, 2013).[2]

6) Beyond Classroom Literacy: Community-School Partnership:
Since language is rooted and developed in social and cultural interactions, educators should think about language use beyond the walls of the classroom. Partnerships between the community and schools need to be secured to support students’ learning. Community members, particularly parents, should be invited to support translanguaging activities in the classrooms. Teachers should have children experience and utilize their literacy skills in their community and to draw from the richness of daily local language practices. For instance, a survey can be carried out by students to learn about the linguistic diversity of their communities. They can observe language practices in the streets, or take a community walk to document different languages.

8) Fostering Dialogue and Mutual Understanding between Speakers of Different Languages:
Educators should foster mutual understanding among speakers of different languages in and out of the classroom. Students should respect and show appreciation for their classmates’ languages and try to learn and add different features to their own linguistic repertoires to develop intercultural understanding. Incorporating diverse language features, even in classes where language may not be the focus of the instruction, into classroom routines can result in some familiarity with different languages.

9) Understanding the different nature of minority language education compared to a popular foreign language instruction:
Minority language education and bilingual education are not synonymous with foreign language instruction. Some families of school-age children may prefer education in a language that is considered to have high status (i.e., French, German, or English), rather than learn the language of a minority group. Minoritized students may want to be educated in the languages they need to perform their identities in multiple ways in different contexts. The intentions of different groups for showing a preference for being educated in particular languages can differ, where some students want to excel in a language for economic reasons or and others for its prestige. For this reason, language education should be viewed not merely in terms of teaching language signs, grammar, and structure, but in terms of its relation to learners’ lives and to the larger social world. As well, minority language education must take into consideration the broader societal reasons why students choose to learn languages, or are required to learn languages, in ways that are different from the purpose behind foreign language instruction (Norton, 2014).


This brief intended to provide guidance for teachers of students from linguistically minoritized groups, so they can develop a critical approach in teaching. Such critical pedagogy values every student’s social reality and is necessary in order for the guidelines outlined here to be meaningful. These suggestions require patience, commitment, understanding, and effort on the part of teachers. Teachers may not be supported by already existing systems and mechanisms, but they have the power to make an invaluable impact, starting from their immediate environment in their classrooms. Facing language barriers and restrictions on their own language, linguistic minority students are at risk of many challenges stemming from the difficult process of negotiating their culture with the dominant culture. Teachers have an important role in helping students to integrate their linguistic repertoire in a healthy way with the language and culture of their school without feelings of inferiority or deficiency.


Blackledge, A. (2000). Education, diversity and social justice. National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum. Retrieved from http://www.naldic.org.uk/Resources/NALDIC/Initial%20Teacher%20Education/Documents/KRBlackledge.pdf.

Bloomaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Busch, B. (2012). The Linguistic repertoire revisited. Applied Linguistics, 33(5): 503-523.

Council of Europe. Education and Languages, Language Policy. Retrieved from https://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/Guide_curricula_EN.asp.

Dudley-Marling, C. & Lucas, K. (2009). Pathologizing the language and culture of poor children. The National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved from http://academic.evergreen.edu/curricular/med/langpoor.pdf.

García, O., & Li Wei. 2014. Translanguaging. Language, Bilingualism and Education. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lin, A. (2013) Toward paradigmatic change in TESOL methodologies: Building plurilingual pedagogies from the ground up. TESOL Quarterly, 47(3): 521-545.

Makoni, S., & Pennycook, A. (2007). Disinventing and reconstituting languages. Buffalo: Multilingual Matters.

May, S. (2008). Language and minority rights: ethnicity, nationalism and the politics of language. New York, NY: Routledge.

Norton, B. (2014). Identity, literacy, and the multilingual classroom. In S. May (Ed.), The Multilingual Turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual Education. New York, NY: Routledge.

The Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx.

Taylor, S. K., & Snoddon, K. (2013). Plurilingualism and Curriculum Design: Toward a Synergic Vision. TESOL Quarterly, 47(3): 600-614.

Valdés, G. Forthcoming. Entry Visa Denied: The construction of ideological language borders in educational settings. In O. García, N. Flores, & M. Spotti (Eds.), Handbook of Language and Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[1] For related links, see:
(ELP) http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/elp/
(AIE) http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/autobiography/default_en.asp

[2] More information about this policy and these practices, as well as evaluation techniques, can be found on the Council of Europe website: https://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/Guide_curricula_EN.asp