Teaching Yoruba in English, at an Irish school… at the age of 11.

Does the title sound a bit outlandish to you? Do you find yourself asking “How can a 10-year-old do this?”

Well, this is just one of the marvelous ways learners can surprise us when we let them use their language repertoires to the fullest, and give our learners autonomy.

This is not a made-up scenario. The example comes from Scoil Bhríde (Cailíní) in Dublin, Ireland. In their research, Little and Kirwan (2019) show how using the learners’ full linguistic repertoires in the classroom have helped them:

  • attain higher levels of self-esteem and wellbeing,
  • highly increased levels of metalinguistic awareness (in other words, a better understanding of how languages work),
  • higher levels of literacy in all of the school’s languages (English, Irish, French) and in their home language (without any instruction at school),
  • perform better (above the national average) in annual Maths and Reading tests consistently,
  • taking on language projects without being prompted, and often ambitious ones!

How did this happen? Well, a little bit of background first. Scoil Bhríde (Cailíní) is a school where 80% of the students have migrant backgrounds, and the school boasted 51 home languages at the time of research. Thus, most of the students start learning English as an additional language (EAL for short) when they start school. Now, we brush home languages aside at school for a variety of reasons: the (misplaced) belief that one language at a time in the classroom is better for the students, teachers’ worries about managing a classroom with many languages, and so on. However, the study showed that it only takes a change of perspective and little work on the teachers’ part to turn home languages into an advantage for everyone.

This was made possible by giving students more language autonomy in and out of the classroom. Since the home language is central to the students’ identity, this worked wonders. Even in instances where the teachers did not speak the home languages, home languages functioned in three important ways:

  • A communicative tool for learners amongst themselves, when their shared languages were similar enough
  • A display of cultural identity and self-esteem: being encouraged in the classroom to share information on the home language. (“This is how we say X in my language”)
  • A source of linguistic insight: remember metalinguistic awareness? When learners shared how their home language differs from the languages taught at school, this also made them think about different ways languages operate, and helped them attain a higher level of awareness, which helps them in every language.

So this brings us to the title. In this instance, we have an 11-year-old Nigerian student, who translated a song called “L’abe igi orombo (Under the orange tree)” in their home language, Yoruba, and taught it to a group of junior infants at the same school!

Isn’t it amazing to see the great things learners can achieve when we let them use their linguistic creativity?

Listen to “L’abe igi orombo” here:

Showcased research: Little, D. and Kirwan, D., 2019. Engaging with linguistic diversity: A study of educational inclusion in an Irish primary school. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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