By Samuel David, Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the College of Education and Human Development, and Mabindra Regmi, graduate research assistant


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People are on the move. The forces of global commerce and connectivity have conspired with the disruptions of conflict and climate change to make this an era of human migration on a scale our world has not seen before. Here in the United States, as debates rage around border controls and immigration policies, our schools are at the forefront of the effort to effectively integrate culturally and linguistically diverse youth into the social fabric of America. Within the United States, Minnesota is poised to become a model for the development of approaches to foster students’ academic skills while acquiring the linguistic and cultural knowledge to participate in wider society. As Elaine Tarone described in her history of Minnesota’s multilingualism, our state has long been a place of linguistic and cultural contact, despite its lingering reputation as a bastion of homogeneous Mid-Western whiteness. Furthermore, concerns about persistent achievement gaps between students from different national, racial and language backgrounds are creating urgency around the search for policy solutions. In the past decade, education agencies have begun to prioritize policy planning for educational equity and access for English learners (ELs). The passage of the Learning English for Academic Proficiency and Success Act (LEAPS) in 2014 demonstrates the newfound focus on closing the achievement gap through comprehensive reforms aimed at improving academic English proficiency, grade-level content knowledge, and first language skill development. The Minnesota Department of Education (2019) also recognizes the incorporation of students’ home language in core instruction as one of seven evidence-based practices for supporting ELs’ development.

Incorporating student languages into a lesson
Figure 1: Incorporating student languages into a lesson

Despite these positive policy changes, evidence suggests that instructional practice in schools is slow to change in ways that positively affect student outcomes. What is needed now are models of effective instruction that build on Minnesota’s progressive educational policies to positively transform curriculum and instructional practice for EL students. In Tarone’s words, “Minnesota needs language learners to achieve high levels of English but also to maintain and develop their home languages to have a high level of bilingual competence — especially essential now in the 21st century’s globalized political scene and economy.” Our work is aimed at developing such models in collaboration with Minnesota teachers, with a specific focus on creating instructional approaches that allow students to use the languages that they know to more deeply engage with content knowledge and literacy skills.

Project Background 

Culturally and linguistically diverse students in Minnesota schools bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be (though often aren’t) leveraged as learning resources. Many young immigrants have experience as language brokers — unofficial interpreters who help their parents navigate English-speaking institutions in order to meet their family’s needs. These experiences not only increase their understanding of how different languages encode meaning, but also develop their intercultural awareness and ability to navigate complex social situations. Project TRANSLATE (Teaching Reading And New Strategic Language Approaches To Emergent bilinguals) is an instructional intervention designed to capitalize on ELs’ unique linguistic and cultural strengths by incorporating home language translation into their English literacy activities. In TRANSLATE, students are taught to use selected cognitive, linguistic, and social strategies to facilitate translation and comprehension of grade-level, English language texts. After students create translated texts, they compare and evaluate their translations (see Figure 2), and then summarize their newfound understandings. This activity leads students to engage with content area texts in a deeper way through multiple readings and collaborative sense-making, and to analyze language structures and new conceptual information by making comparisons with their knowledge of other languages and their lived experiences. During the 2021-22 academic year, we worked closely with a group of ESL teachers at a linguistically diverse middle school in the Twin Cities metro area. These teachers attended professional development sessions to learn about the TRANSLATE approach, and worked with the research team to adapt the collaborative translation activity into the curriculum.

Figure 2: Comparing translations
Figure 2: Comparing translations

Minnesota has been a center of refugee and immigrant resettlement since large Hmong populations began arriving in the 1970s, and now hosts the largest Somali population in the U.S., among a very linguistically diverse student population that includes Karen, Nepali, Vietnamese, Oromo, Arabic, Angaric, and Burmese speakers. For this reason, we wanted to look closely at how a group of students from a less commonly spoken language background respond to the TRANSLATE approach; what linguistic and cultural knowledge they reveal through the collaborative translation activity; and what instructional features appear to make a difference in the quality of their engagement in the learning activity. With support from CURA’s Faculty Interactive Research Program (FIRP) grant we looked specifically at one focal group of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugee-background students in order to develop recommendations for future efforts to tailor multilingual classroom interventions to students from less commonly spoken language backgrounds. Data collection included video recordings and artifacts from two social studies units (15 lessons) incorporating the TRANSLATE approach. 

Nepali-speaking Bhutanese (referred to in Dzongkha as Lhotshampa) people were originally invited to settle in Southern Bhutan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where they cleared what had been undeveloped wilderness for farming. Over generations, they retained their language, religion and other aspects of traditional culture, and in the 1950s began to organize for more political rights. After a brief period of accommodation, the 1980s saw Bhutan’s government turn toward nationalistic rhetoric and policy, requiring the Lhotshampa to conform to ethnically Bhutanese forms of dress, and disallowing the use of Nepali language in education. They also began branding many Lhotshampa as illegal immigrants and expelling them from the country. Through the late 1980s and 1990s more than 100,000 Lhotshampa people were forced out of Bhutan. Most of these refugees ended up in camps in Eastern Nepal. Starting in 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees began resettling Lhotshampa people in countries all around the world. Around 92,000 Lhotshampa have resettled in the United States since 2010, with an estimated 1,142 residing in Minnesota. The Lhotshampa people became displaced because they fought to hold onto their language and culture in the face of xenophobia and discrimination, and now that they have found a new home, they are still fighting to hold onto this patrimony against the pressures of cultural and linguistic assimilation. Instructional interventions that value and tap into the experiences of students like these can help them forge identities as a valued part of the American mosaic, and simultaneously engage them more effectively in developing new academic skills and concepts.

Table 1: Student participants
Student*GenderPhase(s) participatedBirthplaceLanguage broker?**LOTE***Years of schooling outside the U.S.
SabinM1, 2NepalYNepali Hindi5
AshishM1, 2NepalYNepali5
SantoshM1, 2NepalYNepalind
KopilaF2NepalYNepali2 or 3

*All names for students and teachers are pseudonyms
**Student indicated that he/she translates for parents or other family members on a daily or weekly basis.
***Language(s) other than English – as claimed on the student survey and/or demonstrated during lessons.

The teacher in this study, Kathryn (a pseudonym), worked with the five Nepali-speaking focal students in a sheltered social studies class in the spring, 2022. Sheltered content instruction is an ESL model in which students cover the same standards as their grade-level peers, but with more explicit scaffolding of their language skills. Kathryn integrated the TRANSLATE approach into her whole class instruction, which also included students from Spanish, Arabic, Hmong, Karen and Burmese backgrounds, during two units covering Russian history and the current war in Ukraine. Each of Kathryn’s units began by eliciting student’s background knowledge about each country and the conflict between them (see Figure 3). Each lesson began with class discussion of a short video clip, usually from a recent news report. Kathryn would then have an activity prepared that included short and accessible texts, which she would often reread over multiple days — once to focus on helping students understand the meaning and make connections to their background knowledge, and a second time to highlight unfamiliar vocabulary and work on reading strategies. Finally, at the end of each unit Kathryn had the students engage in the TRANSLATE activity using key lines from the text she had been reading with them (see Figure 4). At the end of each unit, student translations were incorporated into a summative assignment showcasing both their content knowledge and multilingual skills (Figure 6).

Table 2: Ukraine Unit Overview
DateTopicMain activity
2/28/22Introduction to unitIntroduce Language of War poem Elicit students’ background knowledge on the topic
3/1/22Geography of UkraineComplete worksheet and quiz
3/2/22Language of War IRead poem, brainstorm vocabulary related to war
3/3/22Language of War IIDefine and practice vocabulary
3/4/22Initial translationCollaborative translation
3/7/22Complete translations and compareCompare and discuss translations (whole class)
3/8/22Final project work timeWork on summative project 
Compare and discuss translations (Arabic group)
3/9/22Final project work timeComplete summative project 
Compare and discuss translations (Nepali group)


Figure 3: Ukraine unit posters
Figure 3: Ukraine unit posters
Figure 4: Translation worksheet
Figure 4: Translation worksheet



The findings presented here highlight two key benefits we saw of using the translation activity with students from less commonly spoken language backgrounds. Namely, that it created opportunities to engage them in metalinguistic discourse, and to help them connect with the Social Studies curriculum through their home language and culture. Such benefits are not unique to students from less commonly spoken language backgrounds, but it is noteworthy because it is so rare for these students to have such opportunities, even in classrooms that validate and value their backgrounds. We also found that, across these benefits of the approach, the teacher played a key role as a facilitator, creating connections through her lesson design choices and pushing them to think more deeply about the language they were producing. 

Engaging  in metalinguistic discourse

One important outcome of the translation activity was engaging in metalinguistic discourse. Metalinguistic discourse describes deliberate conversations about how the English and Nepali languages differ from each other in terms of grammar and vocabulary, and helps to make students’ understanding of the structure of both languages more explicit and concrete. During the observed sessions, there were several instances where the teacher and the students engaged in metalinguistic discourse, two of which we will highlight here. 

The first instance is related to the use of the definite article “the”. The students were asked to translate the sentence, “The stores are empty. No salt, no matches.” (See Figure 1). Because the definite article “the” is not present in Nepali, the translation of a phrase like “the stores” would simply be dokanharu, the plural form of the word for “shop”. The expression “the stores are empty” was translated as  दोकान मा केहि नि छैन।Dokan ma kehi ni chhaina (there is nothing in the shop). In the transcript below, the teacher seems to notice the lack of the definite article and asks the students whether they need it. The students reply that it is not needed, indicating an implicit awareness of the lack of the definite article in Nepali, and solidifying the knowledge of particular aspects of both English and the students’ heritage language.

Excerpt 1

  1. Kathryn: Dokan means store, or the store?
  2. Sabin: You put Dokan only.
  3. Kathryn: You just put Dokan. You don’t need the Dokan?
  4. Sabin: It won’t make sense. 
  5. Kathryn: It won’t make sense… dokan are empty…

The second instance of metalinguistic discourse we will highlight concerns the comparison of subject verb position in English and Nepali. Nepali follows a subject-object-verb (SOV) structure where the subject is followed by the object which is in turn followed by the verb. This is in contrast to English which follows subject-verb-object (SVO) structure. For example,

Nepali:            Moola (radish-subject) Seto (white-object) hunchha (is-verb)

English:           The radish (subject) is (verb) white (object). 

As the teacher and the students were discussing the translation work and comparing their translations (see Figure 5), Kathryn, the teacher, noticed that the students had translated the phrase “no salt, no matches” as नून छैन, माचिस छैन- noon chhaina, maachis chhaina. Once the students clarified that chhaina meant “no,” Kathryn noticed the difference in word order between the English and Nepali languages, and subtly invited the students to articulate the rule to describe this difference. 

Excerpt 2

  1. Kathryn: I’m noticing something interesting though. In your language, (pointing at their translation) no…matches no.  You have salt, salt no. But in English, how do we say it? 
  2. Santosh: No salt
  3. Kathryn: No salt.
  4. Santosh: Yeah!
  5. Kathryn: Isn’t that kind of interesting?
  6. Santosh: Yeah.
  7. Prabin: Yeah, OK, no, we should go like, no go first in English. 
  8. Kathryn: No goes first in English.
  9. Prabin: And salt go first in Nepali.
  10. Kathryn: Salt goes first- that is very interesting!
  11. Prabin: Although we can say “Chhaina noon” (no salt).
  12. Kathryn: “Chhaina noon?
  13. Prabin: Chhaina noon.
  14. Kathryn: Chhaina noon.
  15. Prabin: Yeah, we can say like that, too.
  16. Ashish: Chhaina noon, nooo! That’s not right. 
  17. Kathryn: That’s not right. Really, the (object) comes first in Nepali. 
  18. Prabin: Chhaina noon.
  19. Sabin: Noon Chhaina.
  20. Kathryn: Aaah! That’s very interesting! Yeah, other languages have that too. 


Figure 5: Comparing Nepali translations
Figure 5: Comparing Nepali translations

The teacher ignited the discussion by highlighting the fact that “no” comes before “salt” in English, whereas it is reversed in Nepali. She also asked if the word order can be reversed in Nepali. Initially, one of the students indicated that it could be, but after a short discussion, they agreed that Nepali followed a different subject verb pattern than English. 

These excerpts highlight how translation activity can be an effective tool for comparing grammatical structures in both languages. As we will discuss further below, in both the instances the teacher played a catalytic role to trigger such metalinguistic interaction indicating an important role the teacher can play to facilitate such conversations. 

Language, culture and negotiations of meaning

While engaging in the translation activities assigned by the teacher, the students often used Nepali to negotiate their understandings of new concepts by building on their shared experiences. This negotiation process became especially vibrant when the concept was outside the collective experience of the students. 

For example, as part of the unit on Ukraine’s culture and history, the teacher introduced the Ukrainian dish Borscht, a soup made with beets. The students were not familiar with this food, so the teacher showed them a picture, which the students then connected to their own prior experience, mediated through an extended conversation in Nepali. 

First, one student asserted that the object was a radish, which seems to be culturally closer to their experience. Then one of the students interjected that मूला त सेतो हुन्छ- Mula ta seto hunchha (Radish is white). Another student confessed his ignorance थाहा छैन यो के हो। Thaha chhaina yo ke ho (I don’t know what this is). Yet another student negated the assumption of the previous student; मूला होइन यो। Mula hoina yo (This is not radish). But the initial meaning was reaffirmed by another student; मूलै त हो यो। Mulai ta ho yo (This IS radish). There was an agreement when the previous student agreed that it was radish. अँ, यो मूलै हो। An, yo mulai ho (Yeah, this is radish).  Finally, there is a sense of negotiation among the students to agree that this is a different kind of radish than that they are familiar with. अर्कै खालको मूला हो। Arkai khalko mula ho (It’s a different kind of radish). 

At this point, the students turned to the internet to help them translate the word “beet,” but they were not able to decipher the word they received from the online translation. From their conversation, it appears that the answer received was शखरखण्ड shakharkhanda, a word used for sugarbeet primarily in rural Nepal. However, it seems that this word was not part of their collective cultural or linguistic experience, and they disregarded it as a possible translation. 

Later, this food item triggered a conversation about how pickled spicy radish is savory, and how they use radish to make the dish दाछी, Dachhi

Excerpt 3

  1. Ashish: Achar ajhai mitho hunchha (The pickle is more tasty). 
  2. Santosh: Ani tyo, dahi, ani tyo halera pakaunchha ni, Dachhi (The thing that they make by putting yogurt, Dachhi).
  3. Ashish: Daachhi, an (Oh! yeah, Dachhi).

This short exchange is interesting, in part, because it underscores the specific geographical background of the students. Dachhi is a Bhutanese dish, highlighting the unique background of the students as Bhutanese, even though they are speakers of the Nepali language who were likely born in refugee camps and may never have set foot in Bhutan. Furthermore, it accomplishes the teachers’ objective of connecting students to the content of the lesson by helping them understand the cultural importance of a particular dish. Interestingly, the difficulty that these students experienced finding a direct translation for the unfamiliar food item led to a richer and deeper engagement with the larger point of the lesson, and arguably a more memorable experience of the target language. 

Teacher’s role

While it’s possible that some students will make the kinds of linguistic and cultural connections to classroom content described above on their own, research tells us that many do not. As such, the teacher’s role is crucial, and Kathryn was especially adept at creating opportunities for these connections, both in her design of lessons and in her responses to students’ contributions. In this section we will highlight some of the key decisions Kathryn made that drove the metalinguistic and metacultural insights of students in the previous examples.

Excerpts one and two show how Kathryn’s careful attention to students’ written translations allowed her to uncover structural features of Nepali, a language she does not speak. By asking students to back translate (translate their Nepali translations back into English, word by word), Kathryn noticed the lack of the definite article and subject-verb-object constructions, and highlighted these for students. It is noteworthy that she then refrained from making these insights explicit, but instead invited students using explicit prompts (Excerpt 1, line 3) and implicit invitations (Excerpt 2, line 5) to articulate the grammatical rules that guide their Nepali writing. She then validated these contributions (e.g. Excerpt 2, line 20), positioning students as agentive and knowledgeable contributors to the academic task. These interactive moves that call on students to use their linguistic background knowledge and articulate their own connections (rather than regurgitate facts and definitions provided by the teacher) make a huge difference to student learning and engagement.

Figure 6: Summative one pager
Figure 6: Summative one pager

While Kathryn does not participate in the interactions around translating “beet,” her influence is apparent in the way that her lesson design choices drove the students’ conversations. Kathryn made sure that, in addition to teaching students the geography, history and current events of Russia and Ukraine as one would expect in a Social Studies class, she also included cultural artifacts and personal stories that connected to the lived realities of students. Then, she gave them time and space to use English and Nepali to collectively make sense of this information, and explicitly invited them to share these connections with the class and, by posting their multilingual final assignments outside the classroom (see Figure 6), with the entire school. By setting a classroom norm that students’ cultural and linguistic knowledge was worthy of sharing, Kathryn encouraged students’ active participation in their learning and pride in their unique contributions to the learning community.

Immigrant students of less commonly spoken language backgrounds, similar to the ones observed in this study, often lack social expertise of the host society which differs from their heritage one. This difference in the social schema that the students possess can give the impression that they lack the knowledge expected of them. Engaging in activities that trigger their cultural and linguistic knowledge not only provides a platform for them to engage in metacultural and metalinguistic discourses, but also provides opportunities for them to be the “experts” during these interactions. 


While this study looks closely at the activity of a small group of students in a single school, we see some important policy implications for schools and school districts that work with students from less commonly spoken language backgrounds.


A century ago, during the last significant wave of of immigration, schools and society were committed to the idea of assimilation, in which new citizens were expected to set aside their former languages and customs and transform themselves into Americans in the model of the Northern European Protestants who had the most cultural capital at that time. Despite this assimilationist ideology, from our perspective in the 21st century it is clear that cultural and linguistic change was a two-way street, and the American culture and economy were enriched through the diversification of its citizenry. Furthermore, current educational research suggests that the idea of leaving one’s culture and language at the door of the school does a profound disservice to young people. We understand the importance of drawing on prior experience to build new knowledge and skills. We also recognize that language and culture play a key role in healthy identity development, and contribute to intergenerational community building. By investing in educational approaches that allow all students to use their linguistic and cultural assets to connect with the curriculum, Minnesota can lead the way in improving educational outcomes for America’s increasingly diverse student body.


The research reported in this article was made possible in part by grants from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs’ Faculty Interactive Research Program and the Spencer Foundation (#201900075). The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CURA or the Spencer Foundation.

Author bios

Dr. Samuel David is Assistant Professor of Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota and Co-PI on Project TRANSLATE. His research focuses on literacy development of emergent bilingual students and teacher learning about translanguaging and culturally responsive pedagogy.

Mabindra Regmi is currently a graduate instructor and a research assistant at the University of Minnesota in addition to pursuing his doctoral degree. He has been involved in several teacher education projects as a course instructor, trainer, researcher, material developer, and writer. He received the Chancellor Gold Medal award in 2012 and Nepal Bidhya Bhushan in 2014 for his accomplishments in education. In addition, he is a founding member of the Shanti Education Initiative, Nepal, an NGO that works to construct schools and promote education in rural Nepal.