As immigration to Iceland increased in the past decades, the demography in schools changed as well. Students in compulsory schools speak around one hundred different languages. Large-scale testing shows continuous alarmingly low results of students with an immigrant background and their high drop-out rates from upper secondary schools. The objective of this study was to explore the interplay of plurilingual students’ linguistic repertoires and their school experience. This qualitative research explored plurilingual students’ perspectives about the use, the meanings, and the roles of their linguistic repertoires in their social and academic settings. To answer the main research question, How is the interplay between the plurilingual students’ linguistic repertoire and their school experience?, the study further sought to answer what the plurilingual students reported on their use of their linguistic repertoires, how they described their school experience, to what extent their educators reflected and built upon the plurilingual students’ resources, and what roles family language policies played in the students’ school experience.
The participants were five plurilingual compulsory school students from Iceland who learned their heritage language (HL) in community HL schools. They were nine to twelve years old, the age when they start to explore and shape their linguistic identities, their peers become increasingly important in their lives, and formal studies become increasingly demanding. The students’ perspectives about their school experience and their linguistic repertoires were complemented by the perspectives of their parents, HL teachers, and class teachers in compulsory schools.
Students’ plurilingualism (Council of Europe, 2007; Piccardo, 2017), develops in many learning spaces (Cummins, 2014; Ragnarsdóttir & Kulbrandstad, 2018), and more so when these spaces connect, interact, and inform each other (Gay, 2000). While competencies in the majority languages and foreign languages are developed in school settings and in compliance with national curricula, the development of literacies in HL often lacks the sustainability and support of mainstream establishments (Aberdeen, 2016).
The interdisciplinary research was carried out between 2013 and 2020. The methodology was qualitative and rooted in the socio-constructivist paradigm. The multiple case study design allowed for a close view of plurilingual students’ linguistic repertoires and school experiences. Thematic analysis (Braun et al., 2015) and language portraits (Busch, 2012; Dressler, 2014) were employed as analytical tools. Ethical rules of the University of Iceland, and those generally observed in qualitative research and research with sensitive participants (immigrants, children), were thoroughly observed throughout the whole PhD process.
The findings illustrate that the interplay of the plurilingual students’ linguistic repertoires and their school experience takes place within the plurilingual students, in their linguistic identity negotiations, and in their learning spaces where they strive to experience wellbeing and educational success. The students in the study navigated their social and educational settings and drew on their linguistic repertoires with ease and bravura, cleverly adjusting to circumstances. Highly motivated, proactive parents and HL teachers complemented compulsory schools in supporting students’ linguistic repertoires, thus creating together circumstances that allowed plurilingual students to feel well and do well academically. This study illustrates the importance of all languages for the students, the need to identify appropriate pedagogies and adjust school language policies, and for the families to shape their language policies. The findings suggest recognizing students’ plurilingualism and utilizing their whole linguistic repertoire in their educational and social settings, thus strengthening students’ self-image, a sense of belonging, and participation. The findings further contribute to the understanding of the shared roles and responsibilities of immigrant parents and educators to maintain and develop plurilingual students’ linguistic repertoires.
Students’ plurilingualism is always present and active in their lives. Schools represent a diverse, democratic society and prepare students for their future professions and participation in society. Inclusive, multicultural schools should reflect all students’ voices and linguistic needs. This study establishes links among family language policies, HL learning, and compulsory schools. It suggests further research into plurilingual, empowering pedagogies that build on students’ linguistic resources, a respectful collaboration of educators and immigrant parents, and in a broader sense, understanding plurilingualism as the norm and recognizing the equal value of all languages in schools and societies.