Language in international schools: Moving away from the monolingual monolith
Language in international schools: Moving away from the monolingual monolith
Language in international schools: Moving away from the monolingual monolith

By Eowyn Crisfield, head of Academic Development for LanguageOne


Eowyn Crisfield, an expert on bilingualism in international schools, will lead a workshop at the upcoming CIS Symposia on Intercultural Learning in Amsterdam (9 & 10 March 2017) and Singapore (23 & 24 March 2017). International school leaders and teachers interested in learning the latest research and gaining practical advice on effective language development in international schools are encouraged to attend. More information here.

A role of many international schools is to provide an English-language education for international students from a variety of backgrounds. Underpinning this belief is the implicit assumption that the school is responsible for teaching non-English speaking children to speak English, and to succeed in English-language education. Is this the whole truth? In fact, as research on the nature and interaction of learning and language grows, we can see the inherent flaw in this approach. For every non-English speaking child who walks into an English-language international school, a bilingual child should walk out. Embracing the culture and worldview of all students means also embracing their languages, and the critical role that schools play in helping or hindering bilingual development, as opposed to English-language development.

If schools are to take on this challenge, of supporting the whole learner, how can they proceed? The answer is simple, yet complex. The simplicity lies in accepting that all schools should support the language development of their students. Not only of the school language, but also, by necessity and duty, the home languages/mother tongue as well. And therein lies the complexity. If there is a single uniting characteristic of international schools, it is diversity. Of background, culture and of course, of language. Faced with this diversity, many schools choose to abdicate responsibility for any language other than the school language, as the task seems too great. For schools willing to take up the challenge, where to begin?

Here are three avenues your school can pursue to change the monolingual paradigm:

1. Understanding of language development and bilingualism

One of the main precepts of international schooling is “Every teacher is a language teacher”. In function, this is true – every teacher is a model of language and can be a critical part of the language journey for both native and non-native speaker students. But in application it is not always accurate. Many, if not most, teachers do not have the knowledge to successfully leverage the curriculum for the language development of their students. Becoming an effective language teacher requires developing a certain knowledge base and skill set, which is not present in primary/secondary teacher education, or currently in international teacher education. Pursuing a whole-school development program to meet this need can allow all teachers to better fulfill the role of language teacher.

2. Plan for home language/mother tongue development

There are many ways that schools can provide support for home/mother tongue languages, and in doing so provide an environment that is inclusive for all students. Models for mother tongue teaching range from extra-curricular to integrated, with varying levels of commitment from the school. An ideal mother tongue program would have a formal place in the school curriculum, and allow students to learn across their languages, rather than in isolation. Bringing the content of the classroom and the mother tongue program together permits greater opportunities for content knowledge development, cross-language transfer and full academic development in both languages.

3. Translanguaging

In the vast majority of international schools, the number of languages spoken by students far exceeds the schools’ ability to provide for formal language classes. The pedagogical use of translanguaging can be a window into including other languages and knowledge into the classroom, through carefully planned language integration. Translanguaging pedagogy involves planning for all students to mediate academic content in their own languages, and connect it to the classroom learning and language development through cross-language activities. The benefits of translanguaging are broad, from the socio-emotional aspects of inclusion of diverse world-views and creating safe spaces for language learners, to the linguistic development afforded by scaffolding new language ability onto strong mother tongue ability, and also supporting content learning by improved access to conceptual knowledge and complex themes. Translanguaging is a broad-spectrum pedagogy that allows all students to develop in both the school language and their own language, while maximising learning opportunities across the curriculum.

Whichever pathway (or two, or three) you choose for your school, it will set you on the road to being a school that truly embraces and supports diversity in all aspects, from personal to cultural, to linguistic.

Eowyn Crisfield is head of Academic Development for LanguageOne (global mother tongue education) and director of Crisfield Educational Consulting, providing training on EAL-related issues and Languages Across the Curriculum pedagogy. 

Language in international schools: Moving away from the monolingual monolith
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Language in international schools: Moving away from the monolingual monolith