Development of multilingual competence through cultural immersion in the language classroom

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №7 - 2015

Author: Smagina Anna, Kazakh American Free University, Kazakhstan

Every time we enter a classroom in Kazakhstan we hear students speaking at least two languages: Russian and Kazakh. What is interesting is that they speak both languages at once. Some Kazakh words are used as substitutes for some Russian words and vice versa. This comes naturally with being raised in bilingual background as, going back to Soviet times, Kazakh families used both the Kazakh and Russian languages to communicate outside and inside a family circle, at work and community relatively.

The number of Kazakh schools was poor during the Soviet period and only after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan decided to restore the Kazakh culture and re-establish schools with the Uzbek, Uighur, Tajik, and, of course, Kazakh languages. The government still opens new Kazakh schools. Thus, current situation is as follows. A year ago secondary schools had classes taught in six different languages: Kazakh, Russian, Uzbek, Uighur, Tajik and the English language. There are almost eight thousand comprehensive secondary schools nowadays, among them 3817 are Kazakh schools, 1400 are Russian schools, 60 are Uzbek, 13 are Uighur, 3 are Tajik, and 8 are English schools. Moreover, there are 2193 schools with two or more languages [1].

The choice of languages at schools is not random. People of different nationalities live here as a big family; they get familiar with the languages of other nationalities, they even learn those languages. Absattarov and Sadykov (1999) in their research showed that each respondent had claimed to have neighbours with no less than five different nationalities. 81,3 % had friends of other nationalities and more than 50% had relatives of other nationalities (the amount of respondents is 1392 from Kazakhstan) [2]. Therefore, each region needed to have diverse schools so that everyone could have had an equal opportunity to study.

The main strategy of educational policies in Kazakhstan is to create generations who can speak 3 languages: Kazakh, Russian and English. Kazakh and Russian families tend to get their children to Kazakh schools so that they would repeat the same situation with Kazakh families back to the Soviet period: Russian at home, Kazakh at school.

It is not only logical but has scientific ground in it. Language is a mirror of the culture. Thus, cultural immersion in the classroom should increase cultural awareness among students with different nationalities as well as language acquisition in the language classroom.

The process of multilingual education started in 2004. The idea was given by Nursultan Nazarbaev, the President of Kazakhstan. Later it was developed and finally approved in 2007 as a special cultural project, Trinity of Languages. The project was proposed in the Address of President of the Republic of Kazakhstan N. Nazarbayev to the people of Kazakhstan, “New Kazakhstan in the new world”, and entailed the acquisition of the Kazakh language as the state language, Russian as the language of interethnic communication, and English as the language for successful integration to global economy [3]. The creation of equal conditions for acquisition of the above-mentioned languages does not mean equal sphere of their usage and status. The emphasis is on teaching component of the cultural project, on multilingual education. The education is based on two essential constituents: establishment of multilingual secondary schools and training for personnel to teach in these schools.

Innovations have already started with Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools. The plan is to have 20 of those around Kazakhstan and 700 of state comprehensive schools in regions [4].

In 2012 universities launched multilingual programs of education to train qualified teachers able to teach in three languages [5]. This new approach to education requires new methods of teaching along with teaching materials and organization of the learning process.

Multilinguism has several definitions: it is the usage of several languages within the community (first of all, country); it is the usage of several languages according to the specific communicative situation. One way or another, it is the basis for multicultural personality. Multilingual person is a person who is able to use different languages depending on the situation. However, learning foreign languages does not mean being multilingual. Multilingual education only takes place when other subjects are taught in foreign languages, for example, History in English [6].

The concept of multilingual education is to result in training a multilingual personality, thus, includes the content and principles of education, new techniques using multilingual phrasebooks, dictionaries and course books with similarities and differences of the native and target languages [7].

New methods of education should provide equality of the content to teach both target languages, starting from universal language phenomena to the specific ones.

The main purpose of foreign language teaching is to train multicultural and multilanguage personality with information, communicative and intellectual needs, abilities and competencies, which allow a person to successfully function under the conditions of international communication within professional sphere as the object of foreign cognition, communication and art. Thus, being multilingual and multicultural means not only to be able to communicate using different languages within different cultures but also represent your own culture and language.

Multilanguage personality is an active speaker of several languages, who also presents:

- speech personality, which is a complex of psychophysiological qualities allowing individuals to speak several languages at once;

- communicative personality, which is a set of abilities to behave verbally and use several languages and means of communication with different people;

- vocabulary personality, a set of worldview directions and experiences, reflected in lexical systems of several languages [8].

The aim of multicultural and multilanguage education is to build a personality which has an ability to function actively in multinational and multicultural environment, developed sense of understanding and respect towards other cultures, to live in peace with other nationalities and be tolerant to different races and religions. Therefore, it is our responsibility to develop those qualities in a student.

In the middle of multicultural communication there is a person with multilingual competence, based on the native and target (non-native) languages and cultures.

Multicultural personality, according to N. Nazarbayev (1996), from ethnocultural point of view, is an individual oriented to other cultures through his or her own [9]. He also mentions the qualities for multicultural personality to possess:

- developed linguistic consciousness (knowledge of the native, state and foreign languages, which develops worldview and basis for further professional development);

- coherent worldview (developed coherent map of interactions between such terms as world, culture and socium);

- developed historical consciousness (knowledge of myths, symbols, images which influence multicultural personality as well);

- developed geographical consciousness (developing multicultural personality through country-specific studies and ethnographic aspects);

- developed artistic consciousness (introduction into cultural diversity of the whole world through pieces of art in different spheres).

However, this definition is not complete. According to the works of A. Jurinsky, multilingual personality entails the acceptance of the uniqueness of other culture by the former, the personality is ready for tolerant cross-cultural dialogue.

It is generally accepted that there are three levels of multilingual personality: high, medium and low. The high level is characterized by the high level of empathy and tolerance, ability to resolve conflicts. The medium level implies partial development of the above-mentioned characteristics; the personality tends to display proneness to conflict in some cross-cultural situations. The low level of multilingual personality entails poorly developed empathy and tolerance, selfishness and proneness to conflicts.

As one can see the essential criteria for multilingual personality are such characteristics as empathy and tolerance, thus, he or she has a potential to have cross-cultural dialogue. Knowledge of the languages by individuals is required for cross-cultural communication. Moreover, those characteristics mentioned appear only if the interlocutors have fully developed worldview with all its components (world, society, culture, history, geography) associated with the relative notions acquired while learning languages. In other words, it is not only the transferring of the linguistic knowledge but acquisition of language conception of the world.

Thereby, in teaching foreign languages it is of primary importance to develop lingvocultural competence that is recognition of the language as depository of the culture, the interconnection between the language and the history of the people, acquisition of speech etiquette and cross-cultural communication.

Learning new languages starts in the language classroom. As it has been already mentioned new education programs require new methods and new organization. Language classrooms are a great place to develop those qualities needed for successful results of multilingual education. The most essential part here is developing a multilingual competence. The term entails a system of linguistic knowledge, ability to detect differences and similarities between different languages, understanding the functions of the language, developed cognitive interest.

Multilingual competence improves understanding the methods and the process of language acquisition and develops the ability to communicate and act in unfamiliar situations.

In order to design a concrete action plan for developing the above-mentioned competence in EFL classroom it is of interest to study current situation at universities.

The research conducted by the author of the article showed that more than 75% (76.6%, 260 students total) of the respondents use at least three languages in their everyday communication, among them 51% are Kazakh, the rest are Russian and other nationalities. 87% agreed that it is necessary to speak several languages and will need them in future. What is important is that 70% of them want to learn languages at university.

As recommendations for teaching foreign languages students mentioned more practice with native speakers and cultural studies as there is a lot of specific vocabulary coming from a foreign culture. 61% of the respondents admitted to be familiar with the term “multilanguage education” and found it useful and desirable.

That brings one to the conclusion that the survey reveals the challenge of bringing cultural immersion to the language classroom in order to provide proper language acquisition as well as develop multilingual competence.

So, there are at least two constituents one can apply within multilanguage education for the purpose of developing multilingual competence of the multilingual personality of all levels. One the one hand, there is new organization of the learning process in EFL classroom, and teaching techniques, on the other hand. Current education system implies two branches according to the teaching language: Russian and Kazakh. The English language, correspondingly, is taught in separate groups, Russian and Kazakh. Mixed groups of students from Russian and Kazakh branches will provide acquaintance with a different culture through learning one target language. As a multilingual personality has three levels, language proficiency has three levels as well. According to the Common European Framework of Reference for languages, first levels of language proficiency (A1, A2) entail the ability to communicate on everyday topics (family, work, hobby, etc.). Therefore, in EFL classroom students will share personal as well as cultural information in mixed groups providing cultural immersion. Studying a new culture (English) together, Kazakh and Russian students will found themselves closer so students have the responsibility to be a representative of their cultures in class.

The teacher is responsible for organizing effective exercises to provide an incentive so that the interest to share cultural knowledge emerges. Starting from the very first classes the teacher should conduct team building activities, with the following group work of all kind.

Modern teaching methods and resources allow educators to adjust current education processes to add the activities required to build multilingual competence to regular ones in the course books. Group work, projects, role play, critical thinking, conflict resolution, all these activities tend to have a positive effect on developing qualities and abilities necessary to become a multilanguage personality.

It goes without saying, as it has been mentioned before, courses with mixed groups of students must be developed from the general to specific, from the similar to different, from the simplest to difficult. It is the most essential part at the beginning of the course A1 to show students what they have in common in their cultures with the help of team building. The specific schedules must be developed to provide group work for the most of activities in the course; the teacher must not forget to mix students for every new group work. Further, according to the level of proficiency and academic year, the course includes projects as extracurricular activity, and so on and so forth.

As a high level of multilanguage personality implies the high level of empathy and tolerance, ability to resolve conflicts, the teacher in the language classroom develops activities directed to critical thinking and conflict resolution. The present-day situation in the world gives no choice but to learn how to be tolerant and not to get into a conflict. Students with a high level of proficiency are suggested to study news and read newspapers, in projects, suggest the ways out.

Therefore, considering the results of the author’s survey and suggested changes, one can make a conclusion that the development of multilingual competence may be achieved with the help of educators as well as students. The survey showed that three forth of the respondents of both nationalities use the three languages outside of classroom. It means that with mixed groups and team building activities students tend to communicate with each other during breaks, so there is a possibility of stimulus to study other languages except English outside of the class (Russian and Kazakh).

All the suggested measures require further experimental research; however, it is obvious that such a brand new approach to education is likely to develop a high sense of tolerance and empathy, ability to stay out of conflicts along with academic skills required for multiple language acquisition.

The result of the proposed changes in EFL teaching is to design multilingual competence as an ability to learn a foreign language independently meaning feeling for language and desire to acquire foreign languages with the cultures they represent.


1. Ministry of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan Committee on Statistics. Secondary schools in the Republic of Kazakhstan 2015. Retrieved from stat.

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7. Kusainova G.T. Polijazychnoe obrazovanie uchashhihsja kak faktor jeffektivnosti mezhkul'turnogo obshhenija Retrieved from http: // library. wksu. kz/

8. Zhetpisbaeva B.A. Teoretiko - metodologicheskie osnovy polijazychnogo obrazovanija Avtoreferat dissertacii na soiskanie uchenoj stepeni doktora pedagogicheskih nauk Respublika Kazahstan. - Karaganda, 2009

9. Rasporjazhenie Prezidenta Respubliki Kazahstan ot 15 ijulja 1996 goda № 3058 «O Koncepcii jetnokul'turnogo obrazovanija v Respublike Kazahstan»

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №7 - 2015

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