What is Critical Language Awareness (CLA)?

Teachers often wonder how appreciation for linguistic and cultural diversity can be fostered in schools. This is not just a “cultural show” issue, but comes down to teaching every student how to be respectful and inclusive, in and out of class, making school a place where racially, linguistically, and culturally minoritized students, some of whom may be “at risk,” actually want to engage in classroom activities and the school community. No, it doesn’t mean cultural assimilation of such students, nor does it mean that people shouldn’t socialize mostly with other people who are like them, which is only natural. It means having a harmonious school community whose overlapping subgroups have fluid borders and are comprised of respectful and inclusive individuals. How do we foster this? Veteran critical applied linguists Christine Hélot and Andrea Young, along with many others whose action research they discuss in their classic article, illustrate how this can be done by fostering Critical Language Awareness (CLA).

Hélot, C., & Young, A. (2002). Bilingualism and language education in French primary schools: Why and how should migrant languages be valued? International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism5(2), 96-112. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050208667749

“…we are faced with the bizarre scenario of schools successfully transforming fluent speakers of foreign languages into monolingual English speakers, at the same time as they struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to transform English monolingual students into foreign language speakers.” –Jim Cummins, “A Proposal for Action: Strategies for Recognizing Heritage Language Competence as a Learning Resource within the Mainstream Classroom” (2005)

The research of Christine Hélot and colleagues (Hélot, Yoshimura, & Young, 2019; Hélot & Young, 2005; Young & Helot, 2003) illustrate the national language policies in education that give rise to the bizarre scenario, not just in English-dominant countries. Few countries in the 21st century would deny that foreign language learning is important to participate in the global economy. But the national education discourse surrounding language learning goes something like this:

  • First, assimilate to the dominant societal language to become a legitimate citizen of the country.
  • Then, learn prestigious “foreign” languages to help out our country’s economic standing. (I put this word “foreign” in quotation marks because in fact, there are many people in the country who speak the languages, some in communities that have lived in the country for generations.)

The first goal is largely successful due to the social pressure faced by immigrants and regional language minorities, while the second goal is less so due to the instrumental and rather boring nature of institutionalized foreign language learning, which tends to strip the foreign language learning of its deeper and more interesting cultural, historical, and humanizing elements (so as not to threaten the national cultural identity) and to promote the language as a tool entirely for instrumental purposes, as shown in places as diverse as the United Arab Emirates (Al-Bataineh & Gallagher, 2021), Japan (Kubota, 1998), and the U.K. (Rampton, 2002), and is probably true anywhere else.

Hélot and Young observed that language education programs in France, and the European Union more broadly, have promoted learning globally prestigious languages of the E.U. while spreading a discourse that immigrant students’ home languages delay their acquisition of French. When it comes to these languages, attempts to value linguistic and cultural diversity at schools rarely go beyond the level of good intentions due to the lack of concrete directives presented to teachers from the dominant linguistic and cultural mainstream. In another paper, Hélot (2003) analyzed the primary school curriculum in France and found that there were three types of languages referred to:

  1. “Foreign languages” or major E.U. languages like English, German, and Spanish
  2. “Regional languages,” such as Breton, Basque, Corsican, etc., some of which may be endangered in terms of number of speakers, but which have a culturally valuable status because they are seen as “native” to France
  3. “Migrant languages” of children who may have been born in France, but whose families are expected to assimilate into “mainstream” French society and not “retreat” into speaking Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Polish, or Vietnamese

Children who speak the third type of language can suffer subtractive bilingualism, as school instruction makes little use of their linguistic funds of knowledge. This is true even of a language like Arabic, because it is taught in its standard variety instead of the Maghribi Arabic spoken by generations of immigrants to France (Hélot, 2003, p. 2). In Arabic language curricula, children are treated as beginners, and neither the curricula nor instructional approaches recognize that children might speak some variety of Arabic at home that might be useful in class, even if it is not of the textbook variety. This also happened in the U.S. in the 1970s/80s when Latinx students were positioned as non-speakers of Spanish in the university system and were made to believe that their perfectly grammatical dialects of Spanish were “broken” and full of “bad habits.”

Another issue is who can have access to prestigious bilingual education in foreign languages. Often, you have to succeed on a test of academic aptitude—in the dominant societal language. This ends up favoring middle-class students whose literacy practices align with those at school and who speak guess-which-language as their first language (L1).

Thus, teachers are often left to their own devices when it comes to dealing with students who are speakers of the third group of languages. While bi/multilingualism may be increasingly embraced in national discourse in an economically globalized world, it is not inclusive of all languages on an equal basis, and it is only embraced to the extent that it does not threaten the hegemony of the national language. So how to meaningfully include all the languages students speak in their education—even if the teacher does not speak them—involving partnerships between teachers, parents, and children?

Introducing Critical Language Awareness (CLA)

A Critical Language Awareness (CLA) course or program is not about language learning. You will not increase your language proficiency by participating in it. It is supposed to be a complement to language classes, teaching what the language classes do NOT teach. The CLA course/program may largely be run in the dominant societal language (in this case, French) by teachers who may only speak this language, yet involve parents as linguistic and cultural resources.

A CLA course has several aims, two of which include:

  • Understanding of how languages function in society, which I have blogged about in terms of code-switching, code-meshing, and a host of other multilingual practices;
  • Understanding of what it means to be a bi/multilingual. For example, it can challenge the notion that people have to be perfectly balanced bi/multilinguals in all their languages, showing that “this myth is part of a monolingual view of the world. … The reality that surrounds most bilinguals is very different. Languages have purposes. For a bilingual [or multilingual] each language tends to have different purposes, different functions and different uses” (Baker, as cited in Hélot & Young, 2002, p. 102).

At the same time that a language awareness course shows teachers that bi/multilingualism is domain-specific, such a course can also show teachers that languages are in contact not only in society at large, but in their classrooms, and in the minds of individual children. 

Methods: What Does Teaching CLA Mean?

Didenheim was a small rural school in Alsace, an Alsatian-speaking region of France near the German border. Alsatian is a regional language that is linguistically similar to German. About a third, or 37%, of students were of non-French origin (Arabic: 10.7%, Turkish: 9.5%, Polish: 4.7%, Portuguese: 2.4%, Italian: 2.4%, Other: 4.7%, plus another 4.7% who came from Alsatian-speaking homes). However, many children were of French nationality; only eight were not (one Moroccan and seven Turkish). Some children were in contact with multiple languages, like a student whose mother was Malay and father was Alsatian.

The CLA project called the Didenheim Project started in September 2000 and involved three grades of children aged 6–9. At this age, they had yet to start learning a foreign language. The adults who implemented it included 4 teachers and 12 parents. In this school, children attended more relaxed classes on Saturday mornings, and on these mornings, each of the parents took turns working with one or more teachers to design a 1-, 2-, or 3- week unit about a language they spoke at home or had learned as an additional language.

The lessons (on Alsatian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Malay, Mandarin, Spanish, Finnish, Brazilian Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, Polish, Italian, Turkish, Arabic, Berber, German, and English) had to be fun, culturally immersive, hands-on, or project-based experiences. Again, they did not teach the language but about the language and its associated culture. The aim was to expose students to a wider range of languages and cultures than formal education would normally allow, making them aware of the richness of languages, cultures, phonetic and writing systems, etc. that people in their school community knew. As the parents worked with teachers to plan the lessons, with regular preparation and feedback meetings, the teachers also reactivated the knowledge learned the past Saturday—which I imagine could include everything from geography to linguistic puns to different animals, foods, and clothing—during the school week. In this way, not only were the teachers able to make cross-curricular connections incorporating families’ declared and shared (not assumed) funds of knowledge, but children became aware of the richness of languages and cultures in the world, which seemed to awaken their natural curiosity and potentially could have developed a spirit of tolerance in their later lives.

The first unit was on Alsatian, which matched the month of November (being that Alsatian culture was rich with Christmas traditions and customs). This honored the local community and could serve as a parallel to draw on when other languages and cultures with less social privilege were eventually introduced. Moreover, the team also felt it prudent to place local language and culture at the forefront before global languages and cultures.

The project was rooted in parent-teacher collaboration and a cross-curricular approach. Parents who had a knowledge of any language but French ran these sessions with a class teacher who co-led the activities and would later reactivate some of the knowledge as it became relevant later in the week. [Blogger’s note: This is a good example of integration of translanguaging stance, design, and shifts (Garcia, Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017): stance being a positive attitude towards linguistic diversity, design meaning deliberately created materials and lesson plans that use this diversity as a learning resource, and shifts meaning spontaneous decisions while teaching to adapt to student’s reactions.] Co-preparation and feedback meetings were organized between teachers and parents as the project progressed. Note, however, that the project was manageable in the sense that these were paired collaborations that could happen at the partners’ convenience. Perhaps, if each of the 4 teachers worked with 3 parents (i.e., 12 parents), a teacher might get several week’s break before they had to collaborate with the next parent.

I now quote Hélot and Young (2002, pp. 104-105) at length:

The activities proposed by the parents have included: telling stories with cultural and personal content (e.g. growing up in Vietnam before the war), reading traditional tales from bilingual books, tasting specialties from different culinary traditions (cooking and learning to eat Vietnamese food with chopsticks, sitting on mats with feet pointing properly), learning to sing short songs with actions (Happy Birthday was learned in most languages taught in the first year), learning about the geography and history of the countries concerned (each language was presented within its geographical context and children made poster presentations for each country which are kept in the school library), talking about lifestyles and living conditions in different countries (the Malay parent decorated the school for Chinese New Year with bamboo and red garlands, and children were asked to come to class wearing bright red, green or yellow and they were given Chinese coins in small red envelopes as good luck tokens to be kept unopened the whole year), learning how to introduce oneself (after having chosen a Vietnamese first name and learned its meaning), greet and say please and thank you in context (for example when the sushi were offered during the Japanese session), as well as basic vocabulary such as colours or fruits, listening to different sounds and learning to differentiate (e.g. hearing and repeating words containing the four tones of Mandarin), looking at the different scripts used for writing the languages (Mandarin, Malay, Japanese for example), as well as diacritic signs (Vietnamese, Finnish), highlighting linguistic borrowings and guessing meaning from transparent words (e.g. Vietnamese from French, Finnish from English), drawing parallels between languages (Alsatian and German, Portuguese and French, etc.) and negotiating meaning from context or pictures…

The parents’ presentations varied enormously in content as well as format, and showed the influence of their respective culture: the Finn showed a video presentation Finnish children had made for the Didenheim children about their school in the forest and talked about animals in the Great North, the Brazilian gave a power point presentation of Brazil centred on football, the Japanese speaking parent [a Frenchwoman who showed it was possible to learn a language at any age] came dressed in traditional costume and taught rules of politeness and some kanji. All of them based their sessions on both linguistic and cultural aspects as outlined in the project objectives.

At this age, this more touristy learning is probably fine to cultivate a positive disposition towards a range of languages and cultures. Notably, however, there were no concrete examples in the two biggest language groups, Arabic and Turkish. In another post, I argue that these groups should be prioritized in CLA lessons, being “focal immigrant groups” (Malsbary, 2012) that absorb much of the negative discourses in the public imagination. Linguistic ethnography would have illuminated if languages were framed differently in interactions of children and adults. Nevertheless, the lessons laid the foundation for later critical thinking: if students make mistakes using chopsticks, they may realize French table manners are not common sense and that one cannot fault someone for not being inducted into them; if they struggle with pronouncing other languages, they will realize how others struggle pronouncing French. These seemingly trivial activities indeed set the foundation for equal perceptions of others.

Findings and Discussion

So what was the result after one year? Naturally, the children were curious and seemed to enjoy the program as a whole, seeing fun and value in every lesson. They asked a gazillion questions—as children are wont to do when they are having a good time—some of which involved linguistic analysis, like if /j/ was frequent in Finnish, did it also have /g/, which languages had rolled /r/, etc. They noticed cognates like “balo”/”ball” and became interested in the geographic and cultural trivia. One student, after hearing about forests and animals in Lapland, said, “I’m going to ask my dad to take me to Finland on holiday.” The younger children, who had more pronunciation flexibility, enjoyed repeating the different sounds and singing different songs in Mandarin, Malay, and Japanese.

Some questions the children asked were critical (e.g., “Why is Alsatian a dialect and not a language?”, leading to the possible discussion of the statement a language is a dialect with an army and a navy), culture-specific (e.g., “Do all family names in Alsatian have meanings?”, “Are there pupil reps in Finnish schools?”), or second-language-acquisition related (e.g., “Is it hard to learn French when you are Chinese?”). By the end of the year, observers were greeted with “Which language are we learning today?” (p. 106).

Instead of teachers having to know all the answers, parents could also be a classroom resource, and it was probably all right if no one knew the answer—it could be something to look up in a book or on the Internet, or simply to discuss. Parents were given an opportunity to talk about themselves, participate in their children’s learning, and share their languages and cultures with teachers, which provided parents a legitimate place at school. This, in turn, combatted negative stereotypes, as “it is extremely difficult to generalise and give rise to stereotypes when personal contacts are established and friendships are born between individuals” (Komorowska, as cited in Hélot & Young, 2002, p. 106).

The teachers could no longer say that they didn’t draw on their students’ languages and cultures because they didn’t adequately know about them—the project required no special training, just a reasonable amount of time to collaborate. The teachers listened to and repeated short sentences in languages they had never heard before (Finnish, Malay, Japanese), and learned a range of different linguistic facts about tones, writing systems, and dialects (e.g., Portuguese in Brazil and Portugal). Hélot and Young (2002) state:

[Teachers’] enthusiasm and curiosity has grown markedly throughout the year as they have discovered the extent of what they are learning. … In a sense what the school is doing is broadening its linguistic and cultural horizon and going beyond the limits set by the education system. (p. 107)

The Didenheim project drew on a host of other similar CLA studies in K-12 education that have been implemented since the 1970s in Australia and Europe (cited on p. 108). One of the big ones was Evlang, which involved 120 classes in Austria, France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland (Candelier, 1998). Language awareness programs have many benefits: cognitive, socioemotional, metalinguistic, and sometimes critical, “to challenge pupils to ask questions about language, which so many take for granted” (Hawkins, 1987: 4)” (p. 108). Ideally, students can better understand language use as it really is, not how the mass media says it is, in a particular society.

Best of all, CLA programs/classes do not demand any particular teacher profile in terms of what language or languages a teacher speaks as first, additional, or heritage languages. This is because they are not teaching a language or languages. All that is needed is cultural open-mindedness and curiosity about languages, as well as respect for other people’s funds of knowledge. As the famed intercultural communication scholar Michael Byram (as cited in Helot & Young, 2002, p. 108) writes:

We have to admit that the fact of teaching FLs [foreign languages] is not enough to guarantee either the development of a multilingual identity or other values such as tolerance, understanding of others and the desire for justice as is often proclaimed as a declaration of intent. (p. 108)

In contrast, CLA can foster more positive attitudes and representations of other cultures and help teachers prepare pupils for their roles as future citizens on a local, national, and global level by putting all languages and all speakers of the languages on equal footing regardless of their wider societal status. CLA creates a different social order than the widely recognized one—and shows classroom participants how they might re-create this more equal social order in new contexts they may encounter in the future.

Perhaps most beneficially, links are made between language and content across the formal curriculum and families’ funds of knowledge, which then become shared language and content knowledge belonging to the school community. There is no longer that universal “perceived distance” between the home language and culture and the language of instruction and dominant culture. Instead, people share experiences of simultaneously belonging to different cultures. “Teachers can thus begin to understand not only what it means to hold more than one identity but to realize that we have composite identities which reflect the multiplicity and diversity of our belongings” (Hélot & Young, 2002, p. 110).

In short, CLA projects are a powerful way of dealing with the present linguistic diversity in the world’s elementary and secondary classrooms. Instead of seeing linguistic and cultural differences as an obstacle to teaching and learning, teachers can develop these into a resource for educating children about tolerance, citizenship, and “the global issues affecting our world today” (p. 110).


Al-Bataineh, A., & Gallagher, K. (2018). Attitudes towards translanguaging: How future teachers perceive the meshing of Arabic and English in children’s storybooks. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism24(3), 386-400. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050.2018.1471039

Candelier, M. (1998). L’éveil aux langues à l’école primaire, le programme européen ‘Evlang‘. In J. Billiez (Ed.), De la didactique des langues à la didactique du plurilinguisme – Hommage à Louise Dabène (pp. 299-308). Grenoble, France: CDL–Lidilem.

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García, O., Johnson, S. I., & Seltzer, K. (2017). The translanguaging classroom: Leveraging student bilingualism for learning. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon.

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Hélot, C., Yoshimura, M., & Young, A. (2019). Educating English language teachers to critical language awareness: A collaborative Franco-Japanese project. In M. E. López-Gopar (Ed.), International perspectives on critical pedagogies in ELT (pp. 197-217). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Kubota, R. (1998). Ideologies of English in Japan. World Englishes17(3), 295-306. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-971X.00105

Malsbary, C. B. (2012). “Assimilation, but to what mainstream?”: Immigrant youth in a super- diverse high school. Encyclopaideia: International Journal of Phenomenology and Education16(33), 89-112. https://doi.org/10.4442/ency_33_12_05

Rampton, B. (2002). Ritual and foreign language practices at school. Language in Society31(4), 491-525. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0047404502314015

Young, A., & Helot, C. (2003). Language awareness and/or language learning in French primary schools today. Language Awareness12(3-4), 234-246. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658410308667079

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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