12 August, 2021
A conversation with Dr. Adriana Oniță
Today, we're sitting down with Dr. Adriana Oniță, a multilingual educator, poet, artist, and researcher who shares our passion for supporting multilingual learners.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your experience supporting multilingual/dual language learning and why are you passionate about it?
I’ve spent the last fourteen years teaching languages and art, writing poetry, and researching how we learn, lose, and keep our languages alive. Since I was a child, I’ve experienced and witnessed how hearing, writing, speaking, and reading different languages changes our brains and our bodies—the way we think, feel, and move through the world, the way we relate to others and to the earth.
My passion for supporting multilingual children is rooted in my own childhood and the language loss I experienced upon moving to Canada in elementary school. Today I live, teach, and work in five languages (English, Romanian, Spanish, French and Italian), but I almost lost my mother tongue of Romanian as a child.
The reasons for my language loss are complex and multilayered, but one of the factors was teachers’ beliefs that my first language would somehow hinder my second language development, rather than help. These beliefs reflect a deficit view of language learning, which often results in subtractive bilingualism, where children gain fluency in a dominant language like English at the expense of the language(s) they speak at home.
As I discovered through my PhD research in Canada, intergenerational language loss is happening at an alarming rate. Therefore, in my work as a poet, educator, community arts organizer, and researcher, my main goal is to promote multilingualism and provide many opportunities for people to learn, develop, reclaim, and maintain their languages.
"There is a lot at stake when we lose a family language: our cultural identities, wisdom, stories, relationships, customs, values, humour, and more. Parents and teachers need all hands on deck to promote multilingualism in Canada, and Polylino is a great support for this."
Can you speak more about your research in the Canadian context and what you discovered on intergenerational language learning and loss?
When it comes to languages, Canada is a very interesting and contradictory country. We see newspaper headlines such as “Canadians becoming more bilingual, linguistically diverse, census data shows” (Grenier, 2017)—and we may think that this growing linguistic diversity is due to languages being learned, valued, protected, and passed on from generation to generation. However, this is quite far from the truth. Although the latest census paints Canada as a linguistically diverse country, where 213 languages are spoken, and one in four people report a non-official (not English or French) mother tongue (Statistics Canada, 2017), Indigenous Languages are all endangered (Morin, 2017) due to a tragic history of linguicide, and only a small percentage of immigrant heritage languages are transmitted intergenerationally (Houle, 2015).
If we take a closer look, seven in ten people with a mother tongue other than English or French choose to speak one of the two official languages at home (Statistics Canada, 2017). When it comes to children, Houle and Maheux (2017) reported that more than one-third of children with an immigrant background spoke only an official language at home, compared with less than 10% of their parents, which indicates that first language loss is happening at an alarming rate (within one generation).
As educators and parents, we might ask ourselves: why and how does this language loss happen? What can we creatively do to support heritage language development and maintenance as a community? There is a lot at stake when we lose a family language: our cultural identities, wisdom, stories, relationships, customs, values, humour, and more. Parents and teachers need all hands on deck to promote multilingualism in Canada, and Polylino is a great support for this.
"Many uninformed assumptions about heritage languages interfering with English language development persist, despite the fact that studies carried out in Canada and elsewhere suggest that students who maintain use of their home languages throughout their schooling perform better academically in English than those who give up speaking this language and switch to English exclusively."
What drew you to a partnership with Polylino? What benefits do you see for all learners?
Polylino is an exciting tool for all learners because the combination of pictures and story narration in different languages promotes enjoyment, curiosity, and imagination. The illustrations act as stimuli and “mnemonic” devices for children to learn and retain vocabulary in highly contextual and meaningful ways. I love that there are multiple literacies being activated with the Polylino app, including media, visual, and digital literacy. The power of multiliteracies (multilingual and multimodal) is supported through various research studies that show how engaging multiple literacies at once develops not just language learners’ linguistic competence, but also increases their enjoyment and engagement, motivation, self-confidence, risk-taking, academic success, intercultural understanding, identity development, critical thinking, and cognitive flexibility.
Children’s books in different tongues can be expensive or hard to find. Polylino is a fantastic resource for teachers and parents who are passionate about language learning, but have a hard time finding supports to help them facilitate language learning in creative ways. I personally have had a blast exploring Polylino’s diversity of books and languages. There are currently over 700 books in 64 languages, so I find myself flipping between languages I know as well as ones I am curious about learning! The creative possibilities for in-school and at-home learning are endless and I’m excited to explore further.
"Children’s books in different tongues can be expensive or hard to find. Polylino is a fantastic resource for teachers and parents who are passionate about language learning, but have a hard time finding supports to help them facilitate language learning in creative ways."
What do you wish educators and administrators knew about multilingual/dual language learning?
My wish for educators, administrators, and curriculum developers is to deeply reflect upon their own assumptions about language learning and teaching, especially if they are monolingual.
Many uninformed assumptions about heritage languages interfering with English language development persist, despite the fact that studies carried out in Canada and elsewhere suggest that students who maintain use of their home languages throughout their schooling perform better academically in English than those who give up speaking this language and switch to English exclusively.
Although my recent PhD research did not focus directly on K-12 public schooling, the stories and artworks shared by the teenage participants in my study frequently referenced their negative experiences at school with regards to how their home languages were perceived by other teachers and students, including microaggressions, bullying incidents, and linguicist and racist attitudes reflected by phrases like “Speak English, you’re in Canada!” or “Do you speak White?” My belief is that children’s home languages are a gift to the school community—they should be treated as an asset, something positive to be celebrated, nourished, supported, and maintained throughout the curriculum and school years.
Some questions for educators and administrators to consider might include:
- How might teachers and principals work collectively with students to address the roots of linguicist and racist microaggressions and bullying that some students experience?
- What policies and practices are needed for youth to feel their heritage languages are valued in school and in their education?
- How might schools promote heritage language development and maintenance in the classroom and beyond (e.g., involving families, raising awareness in the community about heritage language loss and shift, partnering with organizations like Polylino, etc.)?
Thank you, Adriana! Be sure to join our webinar series to learn more about supporting multilingual learners and see Adriana's full bio. Register here.
Grenier, E. (2017, Aug. 2). Census data shows Canada increasingly bilingual, linguistically diverse. CBC News.
Houle, R. (2015, Nov. 27). Recent evolution of immigrant-language transmission in Canada. Statistics Canada.
Houle, R., & Maheux, H. (2017). Children with an immigrant background: Bridging cultures. Census in Brief. Statistics Canada.
Morin, B. (2017, Sept. 12). Feds rushing to help save endangered Indigenous languages. CBC News.
Statistics Canada. (2017). Census in brief: Linguistic diversity and multilingualism in Canadian homes.