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Commentary: Mixing languages in classrooms can boost academic performance

Speaking a mixed language like Singlish in a classroom may be frowned upon but research shows that the ability to mix languages can improve learning outcomes for students, says a language researcher.

Commentary: Mixing languages in classrooms can boost academic performance

A screengrab from an MOE video featuring a girl learning her mother tongue so she can communicate with her grandfather.

JAKARTA: Multilingual skills that allow people to switch from one language to another or mix languages are often considered more as a problem than an asset.

It's no surprise that multilingual speakers are often associated with pejorative terms, like bahasa gado-gado (mixed-up language) in Indonesia for mixing Bahasa Indonesia and English in a conversation.

Research has documented the use of similar terms elsewhere, including bahasa rojak (salad language) in Malaysia, amulumala (verbal salad) in Nigeria, and tuti futi (broken-up) in the Punjabi-speaking community in India.

There are also more neutral-sounding terms like Singlish (Singapore), Japlish (Japan), Franglais (France/Canada), Taglish (the Philippines) and Hinglish (India) to label the mix of multiple languages.

Formal education systems share a similar view, looking at them as a hindrance to students’ academic success as they are believed to delay the process of learning school subjects.

Contrary to popular opinion, research shows multilingual practices do not have any adverse effect on students’ academic achievement. Adopting a multilingual approach in classrooms has proven to be important in increasing students’ academic performance and even closing the achievement gap between students living in cities and those in villages.

It has also been reported that multilingual students’ academic progress, particularly in reading and mathematics, are two to three times greater than that of their monolingual counterparts.


There are at least three main reasons why multilingual skills give students an academic edge. First, multilingual skills help students to activate their prior knowledge - knowledge and experiences previously acquired at schools and at home.

Research has shown that pre-existing knowledge helps in understanding new knowledge and a growing number of educational researchers and practitioners are grappling with bridging the gap between home and school contexts.

Prior knowledge plays a critical role in increasing academic achievement mainly because it can harness students’ curiosity, increase their attention, and help them to interpret, evaluate and encode new information.

In other words, failing to activate prior knowledge will likely result in students being demotivated and less engaged with the lessons.

One pertinent question might arise in light of this explanation: How do we activate this prior knowledge?

This is where multilingual skills in classrooms play a crucial role. Prior knowledge is encoded in the totality of the students’ linguistic repertoire, which consists of words, phrases and sentences from their first, second, third languages or more.

To put it simply, teachers must tap into the students’ full linguistic repertoire.

Imposing the rule of only using one language in the classroom will only activate knowledge embedded in that one specific language, if at all, and will make it a bit harder to process and understand new knowledge.


Second, multilingual skills help build and maintain rapport between teachers and students.

A growing body of research has shown that good rapport contributes to students’ learning and academic performance, primarily in maintaining their active engagement and interest in the lessons being taught.

Multilingual skills enable teachers and students to use many strategies to build meaningful communication and relationships with each other. For example, students can use humour - often acquired outside the classroom in multiple languages - in the classroom to build a safe space in which to freely express their identities and engage in school activities.


Third, multilingual skills help increase students’ well-being, which plays an important role in academic performance and learning. 

Positive emotions help students to be more attentive, persistent and focused. But the absence of this sense of well-being will result in students feeling socially excluded because their sociocultural backgrounds and identities are not acknowledged.

A possible explanation is that language and emotions are closely related. The more languages one speaks, the easier it is to express one’s emotions.

This means that using students’ rich linguistic resources in classrooms will likely help them develop positive emotions and well-being, which is in turn linked to a stronger sense of belonging to the school environment and helps them build relationships with their peers and teachers.

Positive relationships create positive interactions associated with learning activities, and eventually helps improve academic performance.

Rasman is a Lecturer at the Department of English Language Education at the Universitas Negeri Yogyakarta. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/cr


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