Accessing learning in a multilingual classroom: an example using Hungarian

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When discussing EAL provisions we often hear the phrase ‘giving learners access to their full linguistic repertoire’ mentioned, and with good reason. Research has shown that multilingual learners do better when they are allowed to rely on all of their languages (see Further reading for more information). However, it is quite hard to imagine what that is like when you have only ever used one language, especially in education. Or when you have only ever used one language to teach!

Four smiley fingers on a blackboard saying hello in English, French, Chinese and Spanish.

I grew up only speaking Hungarian until the age of 15, when I started attending a dual language school. I have vivid memories of my first ever English lesson, where the teacher didn’t utter a single word in Hungarian. I remember grasping for straws by trying my best to hold onto any and all English words I managed to isolate and translate them for myself. By the end of that lesson I managed to figure out that we were supposed to introduce ourselves in English. Luckily, I was last in line! I remember feeling a mixture of pride in being able to understand anything and utter confusion at the same time.

To illustrate the point of how first languages help accessing learning, I have shared the following activity with my colleagues in a CPD session. Since I knew that nobody on staff speaks Hungarian, I decided to use that as an example. Read along for the steps we took to discuss how L1 use allows learners to access learning in our classrooms.

Step 1

Imagine that you are a Year 5 primary student who has just moved to Hungary. You are not familiar with the country or its customs and neither do you speak the language. You are fluent in English, as that was the language you have attended school in so far but your mother tongue is different. However, the Hungarian education system is almost entirely monolingual and you will have to attend lessons in Hungarian. Therefore, you are an HAL (Hungarian as an Additional Language) learner. This means that you will receive some support in certain lessons but not all, and you will have some withdrawal sessions as well with an HAL specialist who will help you learn the basics of the language.

In your groups, please discuss the following questions:

  • How do you feel about the move?
  • How do you feel about starting a new school where you don’t speak the language?
  • Are you worried about anything? What in particular?
  • Do you have any questions before your first day?


My colleagues have all shared that they’d feel anxious as they know next to nothing about the country and do not speak the language. They wouldn’t know who they could ask for help and they all had plenty of questions ranging from who is going to greet them and show them their classroom through practical issues of finding toilets and the canteen to how they will be able to participate in any activities without speaking the language. One of them even mentioned anxiety over being able to pray when they are supposed to as they wouldn’t be able to explain what they needed and why.

As you can imagine, similar thoughts are going through the heads of all new arrivals, except they are often very young and might have trouble verbilising any of it even in their first languages. However, we so often see new arrivals in school who have only been in the country for a few days at best. This happens for many reasons (visa applications, flight delays, last minute decisions, etc.) and it puts an incredible amount of pressure on the learners, their families, the school administration and the teachers. All in all, it is not good for anybody, yet we have to make do.

Raising awareness is step one! Once we have at least imagined walking in their shoes, we are better equipped to anticipate problems new arrivals might have. So having these conversations with your team when you learn that you have a new arrival is essential.

Step 2

You are in a Maths lesson and you see this on the board.

Image from Matematika 3.o. TERÜLETSZÁMÍTÁS – YouTube

In your groups, please discuss the following questions:

  • What do you think the topic is?
  • What makes you think so?
  • How confident are you?


My colleagues were quite good at guessing that the topic of the lesson has something to do with calculating the area of something. They based this on the images they could see but their confidence levels were widely different. What is clear, though, is that visuals can be immensely helpful to learners because they are able to communicate ideas without a need for words.

Step 3

accessing learning in Maths - annotation
Annotation with keywords in English

Now the teacher shows you this image instead. Can you figure out what the task is asking you to do?


Most of my colleagues have found the key words in English helpful, although they were only able to figure out the task to a varying degree. All of them were closer to the solution than without the key words previously, which shows that even simple annotations like this can help move the learning forward.

Step 4

accessing learning in Maths
Annotation, glossary, colour coding

What if the teacher showed you this instead? Can you figure out the task?


The majority of teachers got the idea that they had to find ways to cover the rectangle by using the shapes above (A, B, C and D). The bilingual glossary and the colour coding helped them tremendously. Some of them, however, were still confused about the second part of the instruction that says they could only use the same shapes in each rectangle. So at this point, I clarified what they had to do speaking Hungarian only, referring to the image and using gestures to direct their attention. This way they could all solve the task in their groups.


Through this activity, my colleagues and I have gained a deeper understanding of the importance of allowing multilingual learners to rely on all of their languages in the classroom. As someone who grew up speaking only Hungarian, I can relate to the confusion and difficulty that can come with being in a new environment and having to learn in a new language. This activity allowed us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a student who is not familiar with the language and culture of the country they have just moved to. It highlighted the importance of raising awareness and having conversations with colleagues to anticipate problems that new arrivals might face. It also demonstrated the value of using students’ first languages as a tool to access learning in the classroom, which can have a positive impact on their academic success. Overall, this activity has been a valuable learning experience for every staff member that has reinforced the importance of creating an inclusive learning environment for all students.

And the bonus: these simple ideas do not take long and can be applied to your already existing planning. Remember, good EAL teaching is good for everyone!

Further reading

Sharples, R., 2021, Teaching EAL: Evidence-based Strategies for the Classroom and School. Multilingual Matters.

English in the Multilingual Classroom course by the British Council

de Oliverira and Jones, 2023. Teaching Young Multilingual Learners. CUP.

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