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Power of Multilingualism – Home Language as a powerful learning tool

By Andrea Strachan, Primary School Curriculum Coordinator, Dover Campus
22 August 2022

“Language stands at the centre of the many interdependent cognitive, affective, and social factors that affect learning.” - David Corson

We have many bilingual/multilingual learners at UWCSEA who bring with them rich language resources upon which we can build and from which we can learn.

In many international schools, the term “ELL” (English Language Learner) is often used to describe a child who is acquiring English as an additional language. Another way to describe the same student is “BML” (Bilingual/Multilingual Learner). The term ELL suggests that the child is lacking English, and needs to acquire it (which might be true). At UWCSEA we prefer to use the term BML because it focuses on the fact that, while the child may need to acquire English as the school’s language of instruction, they bring with them rich language resources in their home language. This is an important point to make, and one I hope to build on here.

Home Languages - Junior School German

Young BML children quickly present as “fluent” English speakers. While their social language may be well-developed, their academic language may require support.

The language that young children engage in during regular conversations with peers is often repetitive and simple, especially in a Kindergarten context (e.g. “Can I play with you?”).

Once students are able to communicate and hold a social conversation with comfort and ease, it is easy to believe that students have a much higher English language proficiency than they actually have. 

Your child might speak like a native speaker of English, have the same accent as a native speaker of English, and even be able to function with ease in the classroom environment. Their level of English vocabulary, however, might be significantly different than their native English speaker classmates. This is important to pay attention to, as vocabulary is the strongest predictor of reading comprehension beginning in Grades 2 and 3. Children require a different kind of vocabulary to access academic learning than they need for social conversation. We often refer to social language skills as Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) and academic language skills as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALPs).  Your child's BICs may be strong, but all young children will need support with developing CALPs.

Children new to English are often playing “catch up” in terms of English vocabulary from the very start, when compared to their English speaking peers, which is why we provide ELL support in our Primary School. What is important to note, however, is that BMLs may already have a rich and age-appropriate vocabulary in their home language that they can draw upon, in addition to the new words they are learning in English.

Your child’s Home Language is one of the most powerful learning tools they have at their disposal.

Our K1 students at UWCSEA must be 4 years old by the time they begin school with us. By around the age of 4, a child will have nearly mastered the fundamentals of their home language. By around the age of 5, they will have consolidated about 80% of the grammar and more than 90% of the sound systems in their home language. Your child brings all of this understanding of language, in their home language, to school! What an amazing learning resource!

There is a complex relationship between language and our ability to think. When children are faced with a new problem, they can benefit from using their home language to process it. When children are faced with a new word, they can use their vocabulary in their home language to help make sense of it. Language concepts transfer from one language to another.

Once a child has learned to read in one language, many of these skills transfer to new languages. Once they know about a topic in one language, they don’t need to relearn it in the new language (e.g. a child who knows all about dinosaurs in Japanese, does not need to relearn what they know about dinosaurs in English -- they only need to make connections to new vocabulary).

In order to learn concepts fully, it is essential that children understand to a high level -- the language they do this with does not matter. The language they are the most proficient in is the one that can best facilitate their thinking and understanding. We refer to this as their 'dominant language'.

If your child is new to learning English, insisting on English for all learning limits them to engaging with the most simple of vocabulary and concepts. Why not support them in engaging with their Home Language so that they may process deeply new information, concepts and ideas by accessing the rich and complex language skills they already have in place?

Student at the front of class answering a question

Some common language learning myths:

MYTH: Children only have the capacity to process one language at a time and will get confused if they are processing more than one language.

TRUTH: Speaking more than one language benefits the brain and other cognitive functions. As children process multiple languages, they begin to learn how languages work and are organised. They begin to actively translate, reinforcing their vocabulary and linguistic flexibility in BOTH languages.

While a focus on phonics instruction can support a child in learning to decode words in English, research shows that this approach alone does not result in commensurate gains in reading comprehension. Strategies focused on developing reading comprehension are more powerful overall in developing strong readers -- and these strategies can be done in any language and in any script (e.g. focus on character development, plot, storyline, etc.). Be sure to read to your child in your Home Language!

MYTH: If a child attends school in English, it is important for parents to start speaking English to their child in order for their child to better adjust.

TRUTH: The greatest factor in predicting achievement in an additional language is the amount of time in the first language -- a strong language foundation is the key!

Language concepts transfer. A strong Home Language will help your child to learn English faster, and other additional languages. To be clear, focusing on maintaining a strong Home Language at home is the best way to help your child learn English at school (it’s true!), and just about anything else!

MYTH: My child’s Home Language is not as important as English.

TRUTH: Your child’s Home Language is key to helping your child acquire English and learn in a powerful way. Your child’s Home Language helps him/her to access complex content and concepts. Your child’s Home Language connects him/her to your family and culture. Your child’s Home Language is an important part of your child’s identity. You might need to move back to your home country at some point -- what level of language will your child need to be successful? Children can lose the capacity to communicate in their mother tongue after 2-3 years of not engaging with it (having a long-term impact on family and cultural relationships). This is called language attrition.

There are MANY advantages to being a Bilingual/Multilingual Learner:

  • access to different cultures and diverse experiences

  • benefits to the cognitive functioning of the brain

  • ability to absorb new information more easily

  • wards off dementia in old age (why not start early?)

  • improves mental flexibility and problem-solving skills

  • allows you to see and use information in new ways

  • results in better rhyming, blending and segmenting skills in reading

  • results in the ability to learn additional languages faster

Students in bilingual settings outperform students in monolingual settings in all subject areas after 4-7 years. If you are able to maintain your child’s home language, they will be essentially functioning in a bilingual setting and enjoying all of these benefits!

We also know that ALL students benefit from being in multilingual settings even if their home language is English, because it helps them to understand that their language is just one of many, and this increases their intercultural competence.

Language Buddies

When creating our class lists beginning in K1, we work to place your child (where possible) with a "language buddy".  A language buddy is another child who shares the same Home Language as your child.  By having a language buddy in the class, your child has the option to communicate in their Home Language when connecting to new conceptual understandings introduced in the class.  This is an example of one of the many ways we are using the data that you have shared with us through our language survey to help strengthen our programme.  Thank you for your support!

If you have any questions, comments or concerns regarding your child’s language development, please do not hesitate to reach out to your child’s classroom teacher. We are here to help.

Yours in learning,
Andrea Strachan
Primary School Curriculum Coordinator