Language Learning

Supporting Multilingual Learners with an Asset-based Approach

Multilingual learners (MLs), also known as bilingual or multilingual students, are a vibrant and essential part of today’s educational landscape. These students navigate the complexities of two or more languages daily, showcasing incredible linguistic dexterity. Their presence in K-12 classrooms is more significant now than ever, mirroring the diverse fabric of society. 

The term “multilingual learner” covers a broad range of language proficiency, from those fluent in their native languages and English, to those juggling multiple languages from different cultural contexts. Understanding the nuances of multilingualism is crucial for educators. Each learner brings their identity, culture, and unique way of viewing the world into the classroom. 

Multilingual learners bring a wealth of experiences that enrich their learning environments, fostering a global perspective among classmates. Taking an asset-based, rather than deficit-based, approach to supporting MLs ensures that their strengths are valued and recognized.

The pitfalls of deficit-based thinking

Deficit-based thinking views students according to what they lack, rather than recognizing their potential and existing strengths. 

For multilingual learners, this approach can be particularly harmful. When educators and society focus on what students cannot do, instead of appreciating the wealth of knowledge and cultural understanding they bring, it can diminish their sense of self-worth, and dampen their enthusiasm for learning. 

Deficit-based thinking continues a cycle of disadvantage, where MLs are denied opportunities to showcase their true abilities. This negative view can lead to feelings of alienation and inadequacy, preventing the development of essential skills such as critical thinking and creativity. By pigeonholing MLs into a box of limitations, we inadvertently deny them the chance to flourish and contribute meaningfully to the educational community and society.

This negative narrative not only affects students, but also influences how teachers and peers view them. Stereotypes and biases can form, creating barriers to meaningful interactions and collaborative learning experiences. It’s essential to challenge these misconceptions and shift the narrative toward the inherent assets that MLs hold, including their abilities to seamlessly navigate between languages and cultures, which is an invaluable skill in our interconnected world

By understanding these challenges and changing how we perceive multilingual learners, we can create a more inclusive and supportive educational environment that empowers them to thrive academically and personally.

How to shift to an asset-based approach for multilingual learners

An asset-based approach fundamentally shifts the focus to multilingual learners’ inherent strengths and capabilities, rather than fixating on the challenges they face. It recognizes multilingualism as a unique asset, rather than an obstacle. 

Linguistic diversity becomes a source of enrichment, enabling students to communicate effectively, and preparing them for future careers. This approach acknowledges the cognitive benefits of multilingualism, such as enhanced problem-solving skills and creativity, which are invaluable in today’s complex world.

At its core, an asset-based approach is about celebrating the multifaceted identities of MLs. It appreciates the cultural wealth they bring to the classroom, recognizing that their diverse backgrounds enrich the learning experience for everyone. By honoring students’ cultures and heritages, educators can create supportive environments where students feel valued and respected. 

Culturally responsive teaching methods are key, acknowledging and incorporating students’ cultural references and traditions into the curriculum. This approach not only boosts the self-esteem of MLs, but also encourages a sense of pride in their heritages, fostering a positive attitude toward learning. 

Ultimately, an asset-based approach empowers MLs, equipping them with the confidence and skills they need to thrive academically and socially. It also promotes a deep understanding and appreciation for linguistic and cultural diversity among all students.

By embracing an asset-based approach, educators can unlock the vast potential within multilingual learners, transforming challenges into opportunities. Shifting the narrative from deficits to strengths enriches the entire educational ecosystem. As we celebrate unique languages, cultures, and perspectives, we pave the way for a future where every child can thrive, regardless of their linguistic background.


How have you seen an asset-based approach work in your school or classroom? We’d love to hear your perspective! Tag us on social media and use #UnitingOurWorld.

Caroline Weeks

Caroline Weeks is a marketing consultant at Participate Learning. She is passionate about using the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for global learning.

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