Inclusive Foreign Language Education

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Inclusive Foreign Language Education



The aim of this AILA Research Network is to bring together researchers, practitioners, teacher educators, policy makers and language learners active in various geographical, cultural, and institutional settings who would like to share their experience with and local insights into inclusive foreign language education. Our starting point is Halliday’s (1999, p.269) assertion that since all educational learning is mediated through language, either as “a medium of learning” or as “the substance of what is being learned”, language is a key-competence in all education. Therefore, learners with language learning difficulties are at risk of exclusion from education. However, educational research into inclusion tends to underestimate the pivotal role that linguistic competence plays in education. As a network, we thus wish to focus on the question how to create inclusive language learning environments, i.e., how to reduce “barriers to learning and participation” (Booth & Ainscow, 2002, p.3), seek equity, and make engagement in foreign language education accessible to all students. We adopt the broad view of inclusion, which focuses on all students, including marginalized groups, and is thus not limited to those with disabilities (Thomas, 2013). We assume that learner diversity should be viewed as an asset in the foreign language classroom and perceive it as an umbrella term that encompasses a range of differences observed at school, e.g., neurodiversity, cultural and linguistic variation, multilingualism, specific learning differences.

UNESCO and other international human rights organizations have been advocating the implementation of education systems that eradicate exclusion from educational opportunities based on socially perceived differences. While e.g., many European countries have acknowledged the importance of these efforts (Haug, 2017), constructing school systems that live up to the ideals of inclusion is still an on-going process. Reaching marginalized groups requires the development and implementation of effective inclusive policies, programs, and teaching solutions. As pointed out by the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2014, p.5): “The current debate is no longer about what inclusion is and why it is needed; the key question is how it is to be achieved”.

Creating inclusive language learning environments is, therefore, a pressing issue in the field of foreign language education that needs to receive more attention in order to benefit from more combined research efforts. On the one hand, there are good theoretical reasons why foreign language education should, indeed, be or become inclusive and accessible to all: Globalization, travel opportunities and the expansion of various means of digital communication emphasize the need for people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds to be able to communicate with each other in different settings and for different purposes. In Europe, the common goal of institutionalized foreign language (FL) education is the development of communicative competence (Council of Europe, 2001), which ideally should lead to the realization of the Barcelona Summit (2002) “mother tongue + 2” objective for every European citizen. In this sense, the implementation of inclusive principles in education is an ideal that is “easy to accept and difficult to be against or even criticize” (Haug, 2017). On the other hand, learning a foreign language is generally a long process and not a trivial goal to pursue, as it requires the development of a multitude of competences. While some learners may show high aptitude for foreign languages (Wen, Biedron & Skehan, 2017), individuals who experience learning difficulties stemming from biological, environmental, and psychosocial causes that affect their cognitive development and educational attainment (Carpenter, 2005) may require more elaborate support than what institutionalized foreign language education typically has to offer.

On the practical level, this can lead to uncertainty among teachers and educators how to create inclusive environments within schools. While Loreman, Forlin and Sharma (2007) show that pre-service teachers in Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, and Singapore express relatively positive attitudes towards inclusive education, with slight differences depending on the source of the special needs that students may have, other investigations point to the conclusion that teachers and educators can also express more skepticism with respect to inclusion. In a review of 26 studies, De Boer, Pijl and Minnaert (2011) demonstrate that most teachers hold neutral or negative attitudes towards the inclusion of pupils with special needs in regular primary education. Other studies show that, e.g., in Germany foreign language teachers report strong feelings of being overwhelmed and disillusioned with the prospect of offering equal opportunities to all their students (Dose, 2019), and pre-service foreign language teachers have expressed only relatively neutral attitudes towards inclusive foreign language education (Blume et al., 2019). Investigations also show that learner diversity can, in some contexts, still be perceived as a hindrance rather than an asset in the classroom. In Canada, university instructors weighed acknowledging or encouraging students’ plurilingual language practice, and thereby their linguistic variety, against the necessity to deliver the final product for assessment and communication of knowledge in formal, academic English: “Attitudes about plurilingual students were framed within a backdrop of pervasive institutional discourses about plurilingual/EAL students around which their presence in classes is often seen in terms of deficit, problems, and a lowering of standards” (Marshal, 2020, p. 12). Similar forms of resistance to learner variety in teaching practice can be observed in the context of heritage languages, which can be perceived as an obstacle to learning rather than an enrichment (Helot and Ó Laoire, 2011, xi): “Teachers in the multilingual classroom may continue to underestimate the competence of plurilingual students and to silence their voices, rather than using cross-linguistic learning strategies and learners’ metalinguistic awareness as learning resources across languages and even across school disciplines.”

Differences in the perception of inclusion have been linked to the experience that individuals have had with the notion, e.g., to the extent to which inclusive education has been practiced in their cultural context or to the question individuals shared classes with students who had cognitive and physical disabilities in homogeneous groupings when they were at school (Loreman, Forlin & Sharma, 2007). This finding is consistent with other observations in the field of educational science, which demonstrate that institutionalized education generally tends to be stable and robust in terms of its organization and structure (Tyack & Tobin, 1994). Factors such as teachers’ gender, years of experience or education can prove insignificant when teachers adjust to their new environments and feel that they must adopt the existing curricula and practices. Assuming that various educational systems around the world have established their robust local traditions and structures in the course of their histories, including their own approaches to inclusive (foreign language) education, it is plausible that foreign language teachers involved in these systems experience their workings in idiosyncratic ways. Any attempt to understand these mechanisms should thus include multiple perspectives observed within these separate local/cultural teaching contexts. This suggest that classroom choices, teacher beliefs and psychological constructs that are associated with them need to be examined from a cross-cultural perspective and highlights the necessity to find platforms that enable and encourage informed and research-based dialogue in an international context.

Thematically, the ReN will dedicate itself to promoting and disseminating research into aspects of inclusive foreign language education, such as:

  • how principles of inclusive education are interpreted and implemented in different foreign language education contexts and why this is the case;
  • what role various forms of learner diversity play in international foreign language education and why this is the case;
  • what attitudes towards inclusive foreign language education are expressed in various cultural contexts, and why this is the case;
  • what types of support systems and teaching solutions have been proposed and implemented in inclusive foreign language education and in what settings can they be considered effective;
  • how newly emerging fields and approaches, e.g., cognitive linguistics can contribute to the investigation of inclusive foreign language education.

As a group of researchers, we have already engaged in some networking: We are members of the Erasmus+ Project “VInDOW: Digital Tools for Inclusive Foreign Language Education“ funded by the European Commission, in which we develop and evaluate comprehensive digital educational modules that demonstrate how the principles of inclusion – in their broad, diversity-oriented interpretation – can be applied in the field of foreign language teacher education. Specifically, the modules combine theoretical and empirical knowledge, as well as insights from language teaching practice with educational policy guidelines about the following topics:

  1. Dyslexia and reading skills in the foreign language classroom;
  2. Social, emotional and linguistic challenges in spoken foreign language communication;
  3. Multilingual/multicultural challenges in foreign language classrooms;
  4. Autism in the foreign language classroom;
  5. Neurodiversity as a challenge in the foreign language classroom.

During our co-operation, we have recognized the willingness and need to develop further research projects associated with the topic of inclusive foreign language education.

We also observed a similar shared interest during the AILA 2021 symposium on “Learner diversity as an asset in the (inclusive) foreign language classroom: Challenges and Solutions“(S089), organized by Joanna Pfingsthorn and Julia Weltgen. The symposium focused on various approaches to recognizing learner diversity as a factor relevant to inclusive foreign language instruction, as well as its implications for ascertaining equal opportunities for all learners in the foreign language classroom. We discussed studies and projects presented both from the research and teaching perspective from a multitude of cultural settings: Germany, Poland, Greece, the US, Sri Lanka, Great Britain and Bosnia and Herzegovina and were able to explore, examine, and exemplify various challenges and solutions associated with the accommodation to learner diversity in the inclusive foreign language classroom around the globe.

As a network, our principal aims would, then, be to:

  • identify research projects already under way in the various member countries and strengthen international links between groups working in similar topic areas;
  • disseminate findings of new research into inclusive foreign language education as it is carried out, also to multipliers like policy makers and administrators;
  • share local literature reviews and compare results from local research studies disseminated in languages other than English (e.g., Polish, German, Spanish, French, Italian);
  • seek out new opportunities for collaborative and relevant research in applied linguistics and language education;
  • seek out possibilities for new multidisciplinary research into foreign language education, for example via links with educational sciences, inclusive education or psychology;
  • seek research funding opportunities for development of the network and for international research collaborations;
  • promote discussion and development of appropriate research methodologies in this area of applied linguistics.