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Challenges of teaching English to basic level students in multilingual classrooms: A narrative inquiry

Raju Yonjan


Nepal is a multilingual, multicultural, and multi-ethnic country where different people dwell with their own identities in terms of culture, tradition, and language in society. As per the data of 2068, there are 126 ethnic groups and 123 languages. Multilingualism refers to the condition in which more than two languages are used in the same setting for similar purposes. (Poudel, 2010). This research aimed to explore the challenges and problems faced by English language teachers in multilingual classrooms. The study further aimed to discover some pedagogical approaches they employ to tackle the challenges. Research questions for the paper were; What are the challenges and the problems faced by English language teachers in multilingual classrooms? How do English language teachers express their experiences implementing pedagogical approaches to tackle challenges and issues faced in a multilingual classroom? I have followed Narrative inquiry as my research design. The data collection tools are interviews and observation. I have thematized the data. The study found that students feel comfortable learning via a language exchange. Translanguaging is an appropriate pedagogy for teaching English language in a multilingual classroom.

Keywords: Multilingualism, Multilingual, Pedagogies, Medium of instruction, Translanguage


Nepal is a multilingual, multicultural, and multi-ethnic country where different people dwell with their own identities in terms of culture, tradition, and language in society. As per the data of 2068, there are 126 ethnic groups and 123 languages. Every person has their language and culture. (Chand, 2020) stated, “our community is mixed up with people from these diverse cultures.” So are in the classroom. In addition, multilingualism includes people with competencies in several languages or places where many languages are used. It is useful to bring the Council of Europe’s concept of multilingualism as the characteristics of a place – city, society, nation-state, where many languages are spoken, and plurilingualism as the attribute of an individual who has a ‘plurilingual repertoire’ of language competences (Council of Europe 2007 cited in King, 2018).

Furthermore, King (2018) stated was the fact that multilingualism can be seen in a geographical area, large or small, of more than one ‘variety of language,’ i.e., the mode of speaking of a social group, whether it is formally recognised as a language or not; in such an area individuals may be monolingual, speaking only their variety. In Sindhuli, the majority of people are indigenous, according to the 2011 census. According to the National Data Profile (2011), 48% people in Sindhuli speak Nepali language, 26 % citizens speak Tamang language which is nearly the half of the speaker of Nepali language. Similarly, there is also a number of people from Magar community dwell in the different geographical areas in Sindhuli district. We can probably say that we can behold pupils from different cultures and lingual backdrops even in the classrooms.

Statement of the problem

Multilingualism refers to the condition in which more than two languages are used in the same setting for similar purposes. (Poudel, 2010). As Poudel said in his definition, I used more than one language in the classroom for similar purposes. When I was teaching in the school, I found multiple backgrounds students whom I had to deal with different mindsets in the classroom. I found various problems, such as writing, reading, speaking, and listening. There is a problem with language aspects, too, like pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.

Furthermore, students can’t understand only one language. The experience that I have in the use of other languages rather than English has motivated them to learn. In this regard, Atkinson (1987) states that the theory that the students’ mother tongue shouldn’t be completely ignored in the English classes, ever since the use of mother tongue (L1) can be very effective in terms of the amount of time spent explaining.

But we teachers are bound by the language policy of the government. Can we be successful in producing students with proficiency in English? Does Using a foreign language in an unfamiliar subject help to figure out the problem? Similarly, Nepal is bound by diverse languages and cultures. How do English Language teachers struggle to overcome the multilingual classroom? Will they find the perfect strategy to penetrate the various phenomena of the classrooms?

Objectives of the study

This research aimed to explore the challenges and problems faced by English language teachers in multilingual classrooms. The study further aimed to discover some pedagogical approaches they employ to tackle the challenges.

Research questions

The research questions for the study were;

  • What are the challenges and problems English language teachers face in multilingual classrooms?
  • How do English language teachers express their experiences implementing pedagogical approaches to tackle challenges and problems faced in multilingual classrooms?

Literature review

Medium of instruction (MoI) policy in Nepal

Language issue, among others, was one of the major agendas in the policy reform discourses. The policies focused on promoting the monolingualism of Nepali. Indigenous communities resisted the existing monolingual policy and demanded for a ‘mother tongue’ education (Phyak & Ojha, 2019). For example, Nepal National Education Planning Commission (NNEPC) (1956), called Wood Commission, was the first commission in Nepal for policy recommendations, led to the assimilation, restriction, destruction, possession, and perpetuation of one language Nepali in the education system of Nepal (Awasthi, 2004). Ninth and Tenth Plan, National Education Commission (1990) showed the willingness to promote non-Nepali languages as a medium of instruction in non-Nepali speaking schools. It encouraged the children from multilingual communities to learn the local language and recommended priority to the candidates who knew the children’s mother tongue while recruiting teachers (Awasthi, 2004; cited in Rai, 2021). High-Level National Education Commission (1998) again focused on promoting mother tongue-based education in Nepal. After considering the suggestions and recommendations, the Education Act (1971) was amended in 2002, ensuring mother tongue-based education.

Translanguaging as pedagogies

Translanguaging as pedagogy refers to the various methods in which bilingual learners and teachers become employ to get involved in “complex and fluid discursive practices to make meaning of teaching and learning, to communicate and appropriate subject knowledge, and to develop academic practices” (García & Wei 2014, p. 112). There are two types of translanguaging: teacher-directed translanguaging and learners-directed translanguaging (Lewis et al., 2012). The former refers to pedagogical translanguaging (Cenoz, 2017) or official translanguaging (Williams, 2012) that uses planned and structured teaching strategies to build on multilingual learners’ diverse linguistic practices flexibly (García & Li Wei, 2014). This approach can facilitate learners to understand complex academic texts and content and the target language learning and develop new linguistic practices.

García and Wei (2014) suggests the translanguaging pedagogy that can help teachers to accomplish their teaching goals; to differentiate and adapt instruction to meet the needs of diverse students in the bilingual/multilingual classroom (e.g., through translation); To build background knowledge in order to help students to make meaning of the lesson content (e.g., through collaborative dialogue, collaborative grouping, reading multilingual texts, and multilingual listening/visual resources); to deepen understandings, extend new knowledge, and develop critical thinking and socio-political engagement (e.g., through multilingual writing, and inner speech); to enable cross-linguistic transfer and metalinguistic awareness to help students to fulfil their communicative needs (e.g., through vocabulary learning, and comparing multilingual texts); To build cross-linguistic flexibility in order to help students to use language practices competently (e.g., through interchanging languages and media, and translanguaging in writing and speaking classes); to engage students through identity investment and positionality (e.g., through multilingual writing) and to examine linguistic disparity and disrupt existing linguistic hierarchies and social structures (e.g., through project learning, thematic units, and research) (García & Wei, 2014, pp. 120-121).

The learner-directed translanguaging takes place ‘when learners self-regulate their learning by using linguistic practices and meaning-making resources that are not explicitly included in the classroom or lesson’ (García et al., 2011). Within the classroom, learners use learner-directed translanguaging for metafunctions such as negotiating for understanding among each other, co-constructing the meaning within themselves and between self and others and exhibiting knowledge (García et al., 2011).

García and Wei (2014) further propose translanguaging strategies for monolingual and bilingual education. They are in three categories (ibid., pp. 121-122): The teacher should pay attention to meaning-meaning by teacher-directed translanguaging and learners-directed translanguaging. The teacher should employ and create classroom resources for translanguaging based on the multilingual and multimodal texts’ availability and production (e.g., textbooks, references resources), technology (e.g., computers, Ipads), and multilingual/multimodal classroom landscapes (e.g., visual texts, technology-enhanced media, multilingual word walls, and sentence starters). And the teacher should create the curriculum and classroom structures for translanguaging based on learner grouping in the home language, project- and task-based learning, research tasks, thematic curriculum units, and language-inquiry tasks.

Major challenges in multilingual classrooms

Dhakal (2015) states two challenges in the multilingual classroom setting and parents’ preference to teach their children a language with broader application. Firstly, parents don’t want education in their language as it doesn’t cover the wider area. Secondly, the local language is confined to the local communities. They feel that learning the local language limits the children only to their communities (Annamalai, 2003, p. 126). Rai et al. (2011, p. 33) also noted that the parents doubt whether MLE schools will sustain. They further state, “The most crucial challenge is that parents, teachers, children, and other stakeholders are still resistant and suspicious about the sustainability and effectiveness of the policy” (ibid). It is commonly claimed that all participants of MLE- planners and policymakers, educationists, community leaders, and almost all community members want their children to be taught in English (Phyak 2012, p. 42). Parents’ concepts, community leaaders, members, and even other educationists’ beliefs can be the significant challenges of multilingual classrooms.

Empirical review

Dahal (2020) researched “Teacher experience on using mother tongue in second language classroom: a narrative inquiry.” The study’s objective was to explore teachers’ opinions on using MT in terms of teaching grammar and vocabulary, classroom management, content delivery, and student motivation in secondary English language classrooms. It also found the role of MT in the second language classroom based on teacher experience. It suggested pedagogical recommendations based on the findings. She selected four English teachers and conducted typical semi or unstructured interviews. The result of the study indicated that MT is best for explaining the meanings of abstract nouns and can help teach grammar items. It also found that most classroom activities include learning new vocabulary items and studying grammatical rules. Likewise, Mother Tongue (MT) can be best used in ELT classrooms for pedagogical management. And particularly, it helped to develop rapport with the students.

Likewise, Sherpa (2016) has conducted research entitled “The Use of MT in Teaching English at Primary Level.” The study’s objective was to determine the role of using MT for teaching English and the advantage and disadvantage of using MT in a classroom. She selected 20 parents and 20 primary teachers from Taplejung district. The two sets of questionnaires were used as a tool, and the research finding showed that primary teachers mainly use the first language for cultural translation and to break the monotonous of the students.

Next, Madrinan (2014) conducted a research study involving kindergarten students of an English immersion program in the first year in Colombia to investigate whether the use of MT increases comprehension and facilitates the second language acquisition process. In her action research, she designed the lesson plane – using only English as the language of instruction, and both Spanish and English, respectively. The result revealed that the students did better involving the latter patterns, especially for transferring concepts from l1 to the target language.

Moreover, Ghimire (2016) carried out research entitled “Use of l1 Facilitation in Developing English Vocabulary” in the Gorkha District to find out learners’ progress in vocabulary with the use of the first language. It was experimental research. He collected data from 40 secondary students with purposive non-random sampling. He used test items (pre and post) as a research tool. His works’ findings revealed that using the first language in a classroom greatly helped students learn target language vocabulary.

Methods of the study

Interpretive research paradigm

A paradigm is a prototype and plays the role of assistant to describe the purpose of an investigation. Guba and Lincoln (1994, p. 105) point out that a basic system or worldview that guides the investigator, not only in choices of method but in ontologically and epistemologically fundamental ways. Moreover, the paradigms we build in our minds have a powerful effect as they create the lens through which we see the world (Covey, 1989). As my study aims to explore the challenges of teaching English language in a multilingual classroom, I was bonded with an interpretive paradigm. It believes in the inseparability of understanding from interpretation. I choose interpretivism as my research paradigm for this study because it attempts to bring the views of realism, naturalism, and humanism approaches that believe in reality, not imaginary. Furthermore, it helps me to understand my participants’ experience and the actual situation in the field.

Narrative inquiry

Narrative inquiry combines storytelling and research by using stories as research data or as a tool for data analysis or presentation of findings. It narrates the lived experiences of participants as a story. There are two terms in Narrative inquiry: “analysis of narrative” and “narrative analysis.” According to Polkinghorne (1995), analysis of narrative refers to the research in which stories are used as data, while narrative analysis refers to a study in which storytelling is used as a means of analysing data and presenting findings. I choose the analysis of narrative because it allows me to collect the stories from the participants and interpret them for meaning-making. So, I used analysis of narrative under the narrative inquiry.

Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world. Storytelling is the way to sprinkle ideas that are inside you and be able to reach near the truth, knowing the reality of the phenomena. Bruner (1990) argues that it is through telling ourselves stories about ourselves and others that we understand who we are, who they are, and the relationship between us. Clendenin et al. (2006) equate teachers’ ‘‘personal practical knowledge’’ (p. 7) to the stories teachers live, tell, re-live, and re-tell. In contrast, stories of teachers are shifting stories that others hold or expect of teachers. In my studies, I aim to explore the challenges and problems faced by English language teachers in multilingual classrooms. The study further aims to find some pedagogical approaches they employ to tackle the challenges. Human experiences happen in a sequence that we call a story, and they emerge with the collaboration between researchers and participants. (Clendenin and Connelly, 2000).

Sampling procedure and research participants

The study explored the challenges of teaching English to basic-level students in multilingual classrooms. I used purposive sampling to select participants to collect reliable and detailed information on their experiences for this study. Furthermore, this study was based on a qualitative design that followed narrative inquiry. The total participant of this research were two basic-level English language teachers.

Data collection and story generation

The only tool for data collection of the study is an in-depth interview that included some guideline questions in an open structure to obtain lived experiences of English language teachers. An in-depth interview helped me to acquire detailed information on the lived experience of the participants (Johnson & Rowlands, 2012). I met the two participants who were from basic-level community schools. I collected their lived experiences through the open-ended questions (interview) I had made. And I narrated it to make meaning.

Meaning making process

Clendenin and Murphy (2007) opined that meaning-making is a process of understanding lives as they unfold temporally, as specific events within a particular individual’s life. This study followed the narrative inquiry that brings lived experiences of the individual from the floor for a meaning-making purpose which I found essential for my paper. After I interviewed, I kept them in a table for coding, categorizing, and thematizing. I used words or phrases from the informants’ language as codes. Coding helped me organize and group into categories of similar characters and patterns (Saldana, 2016).

Similarly, I categorized them after coding their lived experiences based on commonalities and distinctions. Then, I thematized it concerning English language teaching in a multilingual classroom. I related them to the existing theory and literature to make the study more authentic. Based on the themes, I transcribed, coded, categorized, and analysed the themes to make meaning.

Findings of the study

Difficulties in the multilingual classroom

There can be many difficulties in a multilingual classrooms. In this regard, one of my participants, Samiksha says; in my area, most of them are Magar, and some of them are sunuwar, bhujel and dalit. They don’t seem to motivated toward English language. Motivation in teaching and learning activities is the overall driving force within students that raises, ensures continuity, and provides direction for learning activities so that students’ learning objectives are expected to be achieved (Handayani et al., 2020) Samiksha further shared,

They don’t have a strong underpinning in English language they do not have the environment for reading it at home. They don’t understand even a single word. They can’t even write properly in the notebooks. The classroom is totally teacher-centred. The teacher have to explain the readings in Nepali and their mother tongue sometimes, which makes my class delay in proceeding the lesson further. In this regard my next participant Krishna shared;

Students have to perform many activities at home instead of reading books and doing homework. They have to cut grass, cook food, and sometimes have bring firewood from the near jungle. A few students complete homework. According to one of my students, they have very little room for doing and reading the lesson. He said, “haamile school maa jati padhyo lagvag tetinai ho, sir”.

Trans-language to comprehend contents

In multilingual classroom contexts, using mother tongues permits students to understand the concepts of teaching by utilizing their existing linguistic knowledge (Cummins, 2006). When she shared her teaching experience, she said, “one of my students told me, Miss, hamro English subject ni Magar basa maa vaako vaye haamlai yo ni aauthyo hola hai?”. Similarly, Krishna said, “It is challenging to make them understand via the English. I have to teach most of them in Nepali. I also ask some of them what we call it in your Magar language. They became shy in front of me. But later, after making it easy, they used to say.

The local education policy forces teachers to teach English in English. But it seemed insignificant in the multilingual classroom. According to Samiksha and Krishna, they had to teach English in Nepali as given below; Samiksha who was teaching in Class 5, tought the word meaning in this way.

Hillock (hil-lak) – Dado

Gardening (gar-de-ning)- Phul ropnu, Bagaichako rekhdekh

Interested (in-te-res-tid)- Ichha

Similarly, she teaches sentences also in the say as she teaches word meanings in Nepali. She has to translate every English sentence into Nepali.

Jhuma lives on a hillock. she translated it in Nepali, “Jhuma dada maa baschha.”  She did translate other sentences of the story “Jhuma”

The situation with Krishna was also the same. He entered the class, and took attendance, and a few students were absent the students who were absent the day before were called in front and asked why they were absent. They stayed quiet, and he advised them to be regular. He said, “Take out your books and turn page no. 36. Sabaile book nikala. chhatis page number paltau.”

After that, Krishna told the students to read the lesson “Some festivals of Nepal” and picked up some new words in the notebook. Before teaching the lesson, Krishna told the meaning of all the words in Nepali. We knew from him that he always used to do that.

Decorated (de-co-re-tid) – Sajaaunu

Commemorate (com-me-mo-re-ta) – Samjhanu

Deceased (di-sis-ed) – Mareko

Exchanging (ya-chen-jing) –  Satasatat

Combination (com-bi-ne-san) – Samyojan

Observed (ab-ser-v-d) – Hernu

At first, Krishna told the students to read the text after him. Students did it accordingly. They didn’t seem to read correctly the text as their teachers did. After finishing that, he started to translate those all into Nepali. For example;

Lhosar combines two words; Lho means year, and sar means new. Lhosar is one of the most popular festivals of Nepal, celebrated by different communities on different days. Tamu Lhosar is celebrated amongst the Gurung community, whereas the Tamang celebrates Sonam Lhosar.

(“Lochhar” due wota Shabdaharule baneka chhan. “Lo” bhaneko “Saal”. “Chhar” bhaneko “Naya”. Lochhar Nepalko prakhyat chhadharu maddhe yek ho, jun bhivinna samudayaharu bhivinna tarikale manauchhan. Tamu Lochhar Gurung samudayale manauchhan. Sonam Lochhar Tamang samudayale manauchhan.)

When I observed his class, the class found teacher-centered. He translated every word to the students in Nepali and pronounced the works in chunks for their easiness. I found that students were quiet in his class. He later freed the students to ask the question in Nepali. The students in the second desk were whispering to each other, requesting to ask the meaning of the word “community”. One of them stood up and asked, “Sir, caamunity vaneku k ho?” He said, “Samudaye” in Nepali. Furthermore, he gave an example, “jasto kunai yeuta jaati ko vid athaba basti hunx ni teslai samudaye vaninx. Samajik bisayemaa padheko hola ni hoina?” Such a quiet class seemed interactive now when they were permitted to speak both Nepali and Magar languages.

Talks in Multilingual Classroom

“Pedagogy must evolve to make education more experiential, holistic, integrated, inquiry-driven, discovery-oriented, learner-centered, discussion-based, flexible, enjoyable” (NEP,2020). She used Nepali and Magar language in the classroom interaction. She once read the text in English, and then used Nepali and Magar to interact in the classroom. for example;

Teacher: Ese jafre (do this)

Student: ‘hillock’ eski English sang hidele? (What is it written, sir?)

Teacher:  sabdau artha ‘dada’ ho lai aale (the meaning of the word is dada.)

Many researchers have found that the classroom must be interactive and student-centered. Whenever she asked the question in English, they all remained quiet. They didn’t even utter a single word. Krishna’s condition was also the same. There was no interaction if he spoke English for a long time in the classroom. For example;

Teacher: What is this? Say in English

Student: he stayed quiet.

Teacher: ese Nepali aang hi aale (Can you tell it in Nepali?)

Student: sir chake garo chhana (I feel quite difficult, sir.)

Teacher: Magar aang? (in Magar language)

Student: rewa (Crab)

However, the class seemed interactive when they were allowed to speak in their comfort languages. Both seemed good enough to engage the students via Nepali and Magar. Such practices are translanguaging pedagogy (García and Kleyn, 2016; Probyn, 2015).


It can be concluded that teacher has faced various difficulties while teaching English language to basic-level students in a multilingual classroom in Nepal. Teachers must teach in different languages to make them understand the content. Like Samiksha and Krishna, teachers have to teach English via Nepali or Magar, sometimes in the ELT multilingual classroom as a medium of instruction. In this regard, the pedagogies and perspectives of the teachers in this paper imply that any policies, be it EMI or English language teaching, that impose a monolingual approach lead to silence. It creates barriers to epistemic access (e.g., content knowledge) and meaningful participation in teaching-learning activities (see Makalela, 2022). Translanguaging is not just for teaching English and practices. However, it is also about building critical and ideological awareness to challenge hegemonic language policy in multilingual classrooms (Davis & Phyak, 2016).

Multiple languages must be allowed in the classroom to enable students to interact freely and wholeheartedly. Finally, this study found that there should be a plethora of space for multiple languages in the classroom to ease the students, which doesn’t only help them interact and collaborate in the classroom. It also helps to protect their language, culture, and identity.


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About the author: Mr. Raju Yonjan is an English teacher at Shree Kalikadevi Basic School, Phikkal Rural Municipality, Sindhuli. He is pursuing a Master’s degree in English Language Education at Kathmandu University.