Multilingual Learners (MLs) come from all over the world and represent a wide diversity of cultural backgrounds and language skills. The more teachers know about their MLs, the better prepared they will be to best meet their language and academic needs. How to best meet their needs continues to be a challenge for many teachers, but the good news is that there is accessibility to more data, information, and resources (materials and human) than ever before. These students must acquire the knowledge and language skills needed to succeed in school if they are to pursue their goals and succeed in a 21st-century global economy.
Not knowing who the MLs are and what experiences and knowledge they bring with them places both teachers and students at a disadvantage. It is essential to know who these students are if teachers are to plan appropriately, make learning meaningful, and ensure that these students benefit fully from the total school program.
Teachers can easily learn about their MLs countries, culture, and values by simply going online. MLs need time to adjust to a new culture, learn a new language, meet federal, state, and local educational requirements, and understand the way "things are done" in their schools and in their communities.
- Come from many countries and speak many languages and regional dialects.
- Experience "culture shock" and homesickness to some degree as they begin to adjust to a new culture and language, but they also bring opportunities for U.S. teachers and students to learn about different languages and cultures.
- Bring educational backgrounds and experiences different from those in U.S. schools. Most MLs who have attended school abroad have not been exposed to the U.S. educational system. Their expectations of schooling may be different than those from their countries.
- May have interrupted schooling and different level of literacy in their native language. Learning English can be a greater challenge for MLs who are not literate in their native languages. It is also important to know at what age the MLs entered the U.S. schools. Older students may already be literate in their native languages and can transfer their learning into the new language. Younger students may not have developed their literacy skills fully in their native languages before being immersed in a new language.
- Bring a wealth of knowledge and experience from other countries. Maintenance of their native language as they are learning English will enhance bilingualism in the U.S. in languages (e.g.. Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish) that are essential in a global economy. Bilingualism will "open-up doors" of opportunities for these students as they enter the 21st-century workforce.
- Have different socio-economic status. Some MLs come from families that have parents who are well-educated, professionals (e.g. doctors, teachers, and lawyers), and have provided their children with the support needed to do well in school in their counties. Others come from families where poverty is rampant and living situations are substandard. Poor educational opportunities and low paying jobs are a result of poverty. The reason for coming to the U.S. is to improve their way of life and give their children opportunities that they do not have or are unable to attain in their countries.
Gestures, clear enunciation, hands on materials, cooperative groups, and practice in academic oral language will help MLs initially make the transition into the classroom much easier. Teachers must remember that it takes MLs time to learn a new language and content in a new language. Helping MLs feel comfortable will lower their stress level ("mental blocks") and provide opportunities for them to learn in the least restrictive learning environment possible. It is up to the teachers to make this happen for their MLs.