Activating Linguistic Diversity in the Classroom

Developed by Kyueun Kim

CUNY’s classrooms are famously diverse, a reality reflected in the vast number of languages spoken by undergraduate students. Have you thought about how this language diversity will impact your teaching, and specifically how they how language dynamics impact classroom communication? How do we as instructors (especially international students and non-native English speakers) address the politics of language in the classroom? What strategies are there to make our classrooms more inclusive of non-native English speakers, and what are the benefits of seeking to “activate” the multiple linguistic identities of our students as elements of our learning? 

This workshop will expose attendees to activities and assignments that empower multilingual learners and foreground diverse modes of classroom engagement including verbal, written, and non-verbal communication.

Learning Goals

  • Reflect on our linguistic identity and practice (positionality as an international student)
  • Critically consider how language and power work together in college instruction and how might it influence the dynamics of class communications and evaluations
  • Design a lesson plan, activity, or assignment to address and activate the multiple linguistic identities of CUNY students


The New York metropolitan area is one of the most linguistically diverse urban centers in the world. According to a detailed map (currently a zoomable PDF) released by Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) in December 2019, some 650 languages and dialects are spoken in the New York metropolitan area. CUNY NYC Language Mapping Project shows that more than 40% of the languages spoken within one mile of CUNY campuses are not Standard English in average and the percentage goes up to 70% in the cases of Bronx Community College or Lehman College. The Tools for Clear Speech Program at Baruch College maps that more than 100 languages are spoken on the Baruch campus and up to 40% of all undergraduates identify as non-native English speakers. Academic language, however, is predominantly Standard English, and students have less or almost no opportunity to present themselves in other languages (unless they take language courses).

How might one’s linguistic identity—as much as other social factors such as gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality—facilitate, hinder, and/or challenge the dynamics of intentional classroom communication? The matter of language, or more accurately whether one speaks Standard English as a native language, may play a significant role in changing the dynamics of communication in the college classroom. 

In her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks describes “languages and domination”:

In the classroom setting, I encourage students to use their first language and translate it so they do not feel that seeking higher education will necessarily estrange them from that language and culture they know most intimately. […] These lessons seem particularly crucial in a multicultural society that remains white supremacist, that uses Standard English as a weapon to silence and censor. (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 172)

How can we as instructors at CUNY recognize the different languages in the classroom and actively bring them into classroom practices? How can we design a lesson plan, activity, assignment, or assessment rubric to activate the multiple linguistic identities of CUNY students? 


Warming Up

Before jumping into an activity, spend at least 15-minute to reflect on your own linguistic identities and practices, and if relevant, your positionality as an international student. Below is the non-exhaustive list of questions that might guide your reflection. 

  • What are the languages you teach in? Do you teach in national languages, vernacular speech, gestures and movements, or visual images?
  • What does Standard English mean for you? How does it relate to your teaching and learning?
  • What are some feelings associated with your linguistic identities and practices? 

When ready, share your reflection here (collective writing and reflection space for the workshop participants). You are encouraged to think and write in any form of language (i.e. national languages, vernacular, visual images, emoji, etc.) that you feel comfortable with. When sharing, please list the languages you can speak or understand, and if you are willing to participate in “speak in your first language activity” (see below in step 3). 

Step 1. Read & Think

Read bell hooks, Chapter 11. Language: Teaching New Worlds/ New Words from Teaching to Transgress. Below are the guiding questions:

    1. How might language shape or reinforce the explicit and/or implicit dynamics of power and hierarchy in the CUNY classroom?
    2. How might one’s language, as much as other social factors such as gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, influence the dynamics of classroom communication? 
    3. How might the intentional acts of speaking in and listening to a different, “foreign” language in the classroom address and/or challenge the issues of power and hierarchy? 
    4. Can different languages forge different modes of speaking, thinking, and performing knowledge? Can it lead to alternative, resistant, counter-hegemonic ways of communication and knowledge production? How might we as instructors facilitate it?
    5. How might we help empower non-native English speakers or international students by demystifying the power of standard English as the only legitimate mode of academic thinking? 

Step 2. Collective Summary and Reflection

Participate in writing a collective summary/reflection of the chapter here (same google doc). 

Step 3. “Speak in your First Language” (Attentive Listening) Activity (optional)

Inspired by bell hooks’ book chapter, I have designed a “speak in your first language” activity. For those of you who signed up for this activity, I have made groups to do the activity together. I will send out an e-intro and connect you via email. Note that you are doing it synchronously only with the assigned group or pair. 

  1. Freewriting (3- 5-min): Set a discussion topic – you may talk about your research project or the course you will be teaching, or something else both of you are interested in. Think and write in your first language(s). 
  2. Presentation (5mins): Building on the freewriting, each presents a short speech in their first language; then briefly translate it to English. The other person listens attentively focusing on verbal and non-verbal signs. Share how we feel.
  3. Discussion: Reflect on the activity and share how you felt while speaking in and listening to the languages that you may not understand.
    1. How can we use “the moment of not understanding what someone says as a space to learn” (bell hooks)? 
      1. This activity gives a chance to focus on how one speaks (non-verbal, tone, movement, confidence, attitude, sound, ambiance) rather than what one speaks (content, grammar). How might this shift in focus change our evaluative practices? 

Feel free to share the summary of your discussions or any further questions in the workshop here.


By the end of this workshop, participants will:

  • Critically consider what roles do languages play in our teaching and learning and how might it influence the dynamics of class communications and evaluations.
  • Design (or re-design) a lesson plan, activity, assignment, or assessment rubric to address and activate the multiple linguistic identities of CUNY students. 


Further Reading 

Visible Pedagogy

Lee, E., & Canagarajah, A. S. (2018). The connection between transcultural dispositions and translingual practices in academic writing. Journal of Multicultural Discourse.

Ofelia Garcia (The Graduate Center, Urban Education) on translanguaging 

  • Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective (2009)
  • Bilingual Community Education and Multilingualism: Beyond Heritage Languages in a Global City (2012)

CUNY-NYS Initiative On Emergent Bilinguals