I’d be the first to admit to being a language learner. In fact, I’ll freely admit that I’m also an English Language Learner – just a bit further along that road than my students. So why would I rather my students weren’t labelled as English Language Learners?
It’s because I think the label English Language Learners does not accurately encompass the particular skills, experience and strengths that they have. Michal Paradowski of the Institute of Linguistics at the University of Warsaw has outlined the 15 key benefits of multilingualism. These include improved critical thinking abilities, better problem-solving skills due to having multiple cultural perspectives, being more efficient communicators in their first language and many more. Once you see the range of qualities these learners have, it’s hard to go back to defining them merely as people who haven’t achieved fluency in English yet.
Neither does it give a proper representation of the challenges they face, which are many more than just having to learn English. At the same time, they have to maintain and develop their first language otherwise they are at risk of subtractive bilingualism, in which further languages are added at the expense of the first language and culture. Among others, James Cummins at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto has published widely on this and related topics.
That’s why I think that when it comes to giving this wonderful, diverse group of learners a label, English Language Learners focuses too much on what could be seen as a deficit. Multilingual Learners celebrates their skills, affirms their identities and recognises the challenges they face.