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The effects of a multilingual approach: An exploratory study with Year 9

Written by: Sarah Sheppard
6 min read

We live in an increasingly multilingual society in which modern foreign language (MFL) teachers will teach students who speak and learn many different languages. Yet in a typical MFL lesson, few references are made to these other languages or indeed the linguistic skills that such students have. In schools where students learn more than one language, at least in Key Stage 3, these languages tend to be taught in isolation, with students reluctant to make connections between them. This approach is at odds with the ‘multilingual turn’ in second language acquisition research, which argues that we need to adopt a more comparative approach and draw on students’ entire linguistic repertoire (Conteh and Meier, 2014). My intervention with Year 9 aimed to explore the potential benefits of this multilingual approach. 


What does a multilingual approach look like? There have been several projects in other countries, such as the Passepartout project in Switzerland, where English and French were both taught with the two languages being explicitly compared during lessons (Passepartout, 2009).  In Austria there have been ‘multilingual seminars’, with students actively encouraged to compare the languages that they were learning and to use them all in various activities; in South Tyrol primary school, children took part in ‘riflessione lingua’, classes comparing Italian, German and English (Jessner et al., 2016).

No similar curricula exist in the UK, although various projects promote multilingualism within both schools and wider society (Creative Multilingualism, 2020; Fisher et al., 2020; Lanvers, 2020; Lanvers et al., 2019). However, these projects tend to involve interventions outside ordinary language lessons, such as the We Are Multilingual materials produced as a result of the MEITS project (Faculty of Education, 2019). My study sought to find a multilingual approach that could be easily integrated into lessons as an activity, rather than a series of separate lessons.

The literature suggests several possible benefits of a multilingual approach. The approach is rooted in the Language Awareness (LA) movement, which first emerged in the 1980s to improve both MFL and English teaching (Hawkins, 1987; Fairclough, 1992). Throughout his life, Hawkins (1999, 2005) argued that language learning in school should be about preparing students for future language learning. Indeed, MFL as preparation for future language learning is part of the stated aims of the National Curriculum, and makes sense in a world where it is difficult to predict which languages the UK will need in ten years’ time (Department for Education and Skills, 2013). However, a review of numerous projects across Europe found scant and conflicting evidence on the effect of LA on language-learning skills, although there is some evidence that projects that encourage students to compare their first language and the language being learnt have a positive effect on these skills (Sierens et al., 2018). The authors do make clear that a lot more research needs to be done, particularly in a secondary school context. 

Other research suggests that adopting a multilingual approach should have a positive impact on motivation, as concluded by several French projects looking at multilingualism in primary schools  (Candelier, 2004, 2008; Hélot and Young, 2006), as well as more recent projects which promoted multilingual identities in English secondary schools (Forbes et al., 2021). A number of small-scale projects in Ireland and Quebec have suggested that encouraging students to compare languages improves their metalinguistic, multilingual and cross-linguistic awareness (XLA) (Simard, 2004; Ó Laoire, 2007; Frijns et al., 2018; Sierens et al., 2018). However, measuring this is extremely tricky, as no specific tests exist for it.

The intervention 

Given the lack of UK-based projects that integrated a multilingual approach into ordinary language lessons, and the lack of conclusive evidence about its ability to improve XLA and language-learning skills, I wanted to see whether adopting a multilingual approach in lessons with Year 9 could improve student attitudes and motivation, their XLA and their language-learning skills. A pre/post-test quasi-experimental design was used, with half the year group (9K, n=91) taking part in an 8-week intervention as part of their normal lessons, and the other half of the year group (9L, n=89) acting as a comparison. The whole year group took a series of tests and surveys before and after the intervention to measure any resulting changes. They took a survey to test attitudes towards languages, a ‘spot the differences’ activity to test XLA and an ab initio Latin/Swedish task to measure language-learning skills with an unknown language. Small-group interviews were also conducted after the intervention with the 9K students, to further investigate the project’s impact. 

The intervention took the form of multilingual translation starters, encouraged by the poetry translation projects of the Stephen Spender Trust (2019) and Creative Multilingualism (2020). Both suggested that translation was an ideal medium with which to promote discussion and encourage recognition of language skills from outside the classroom. It is also an activity that students are very used to, making it easy to integrate into lessons. The 9K group began each lesson with one English sentence, which they had to translate first into Spanish or German, then French, and then any other languages that they knew. They were then invited to reflect on any similarities and differences that they spotted between the languages. 


The pre-intervention survey revealed positive attitudes towards language-learning, and this did not change after the intervention. While students self-reported on the survey as making connections between the two languages that they learn in school, the test of their XLA revealed that this was not in fact the case. The post-intervention tests did not see any statistically significant improvement, but this did emerge in the lessons and focus group interviews afterwards. The activity was extremely popular, with students requesting it after the intervention period. Student attitudes towards multilingualism were also seen to improve in the observations and focus group interviews, with students saying how ‘cool’ and ‘interesting’ it was to hear so many different languages in the lessons.

The test of students’ ability to spot patterns in a new language did show a significant improvement for the intervention group, as seen in Table 1:

Group Mean pre-intervention Median pre-intervention Standard deviation pre-intervention Mean post-intervention Median post-intervention Standard deviation post-intervention
9K intervention group 75% 83% 21% 81% 88% 17%
9L comparison group 75% 79% 20% 77% 75% 15%
Table 1: Combined results from Latin/Swedish tests pre- and post-intervention

The intervention group’s mean and median scores on the new tests appeared to have improved. These differences were tested for statistical significance, using a non-parametric Mann-Whitney U test. A significant difference was found in the results on the post-intervention test between the comparison and intervention group (U=2951.500, p<0.05). This seems to support Hawkins’ (2005) theoretical argument that developing a curriculum that focused on multilingual awareness would be a useful language apprenticeship model, giving students the necessary pattern-spotting skills to acquire new languages. As with any small-scale practitioner research, it would be foolhardy to assume that any change is solely down to one intervention, given the complexity of teaching and learning. Nonetheless, given that the only known difference between the comparison and intervention group was the intervention itself, it seems possible that this made some contribution to the improvement in test scores.


The small-scale study showed that bringing multiple languages into the classroom, rather than teaching each language separately, encourages pattern-spotting and develops awareness of how different languages work. These skills were clearly emerging in student interviews and teacher observation, even if the XLA test did not show an improvement in scores for the intervention group. One possible explanation for this is that there is a big difference between participating in a whole-class discussion guided by a teacher about similarities and differences, and having to articulate these differences in writing. The intervention directly encouraged students to develop their XLA, and teachers reported improved participation levels in the class discussions. This exploratory study allowed students to stop seeing their languages as separate subjects, and acknowledged and utilised their language repertoires from outside school in the MFL classroom. It created an activity that was easily integrated into established schemes of work and developed students’ skills in multiple languages, as well as linguistic skills such as translation, pattern-spotting and XLA. For MFL teachers who seek to cultivate linguists, not just learners of one language, and for those teaching in a diverse society, it is an approach well worth exploring.

The work described was completed as part of my Masters in learning and teaching at the University of Oxford.

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