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Multilingual Thinking in Multicultural Classrooms

Written By: Marcelo Staricoff
5 min read


Schools are microcosms of society, and as such they draw upon the multilingual and multicultural richness and heritages of the societies in which they are based, and of every individual that is part of their community at any one time. I have always been fascinated by the prospect of setting up a teaching, learning, leadership and social environment in the classroom and throughout the school that not only reflects and celebrates the multiculturality of every individual but also uses it to drive every aspect of the school’s ethos and philosophy of education.

Designing a philosophy of education that offers every individual, at all times, the opportunity to think multilingually across all areas of the curriculum and to co-exist as part of a multicultural classroom and school is one of the core principles that underpins the Joy of Not Knowing (JONK) philosophy of education and approach to school leadership. There are many studies that assert the importance of establishing a multilingual approach to the teaching and learning process. For example, Marian and Shook (2012) state that ‘today more of the world’s population is bilingual than monolingual and note that this trend not only facilitates cross-cultural communication but also has a positive impact of an individual’s cognitive ability. They explain in their paper The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual (Cerebrum, 2012) that ‘the bilingual brain can have better attention and task-switching capacities than the monolingual brain and that bilingualism can have ‘positive effects across the whole age spectrum’. The authors also describe how managing multiple languages appears to have ‘broad effects on neurological function’ and lead to enriched cognitive control, improved metalinguistic awareness (ability to recognise and be playful with language), better memory, visual-spatial skills and creativity’.

It is also fascinating to note that research studies demonstrate that establishing a multi-lingual classroom benefits all children. Dr Dina Mehmedbegovic, a lecturer at the Institute of Education, University College, UK discusses in an interview published on the Erasmus+ online platform (2016) the importance of communicating to children and their families that every language that a child speaks is important, part of the teaching and learning process and also part of the thinking about the future, their employability, enabling them to convert their linguistic capital into economic capital in the future. Marian and Shook (2012) conclude that the cognitive and neurological benefits they observed from bilingualism are ‘not exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life’. This observation is further supported by Fan et al. (2015) which found a social advantage from merely being exposed to multiple languages, not necessarily from actively speaking those languages. Furthermore, Lauchlan et al. (2012) found that bilingualism has a positive effect on children’s ability to think creatively and to problem solve. It is interesting to note that in Ariadne de Villa’s (2017) article entitled Critical Thinking in Language Learning and Teaching, critical thinking is seen as an essential tool for second language acquisition. The ability to thrive in a multilingual learning environment is increased if the children are able to develop their critical thinking skills. These studies suggest that there is a symbiotic relationship between critical thinking and a multilingual learning environment i.e. they both complement each other. This article concludes with a range of studies that support the theory of incorporating a multilingual approach to education.

The JONK approach defines three principal means by which practitioners can integrate a multilingual thinking approach to their everyday teaching and learning routine. It suggests that all tasks can be presented in a way that enables the student to:

  • complete the task in one language and then in another language(s)
  • use the entire repertoire of language(s) and cultural heritage that they possess to think and engage with a task, where each of the languages is used within a prescribed and structured approach
  • use the entire repertoire of language(s) and cultural heritage that they possess to think and engage with a task, free from any pre-set conditions in which the language(s) is used.


In the first of these situations, a child for whom the main language of instruction represents an additional language to them, may prefer to write a poem or plan a story, for example in their first language and then translate the work into the language of instruction. This approach enables each individual to launch into a task by thinking and expressing themselves in the language that evokes the most emotion and provides the most meaning to them, from a personalisation of learning perspective.

In the second scenario the child is offered the opportunity to use more than one language when thinking about a task and engaging in the learning process. But the way that the multiple languages are applied is pre-determined, for example, if writing a poem, the structure may involve writing alternate verses in alternate languages or if creating a Mind Map that contains six main branches, the student is tasked to create three branches in one language and three in another.

In the third scenario, the child is completely free to use their entire repertoire of language and cultural heritage to think through and complete a task. There are no pre-set parameters or expectations. In solving a mathematical problem or checking the answer using an alternative method, for example, a child may use a cross-cultural approach, which could involve a different methodology to those being taught as part of the everyday curriculum.

It is fascinating to note that thinking, learning and co-existing in a multilingual and multicultural school environment offers numerous emotional, cognitive, social and neurological benefits in equal proportion to multilingual as well as to monolingual students, a perception that was wonderfully captured by Nelson Mandela when he stated that ‘if you talk to a man in a language that he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’.


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How might these inclusive approaches be used in your classroom, or perhaps you have existing practice you could share?
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