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Language matters – Supporting and celebrating our community of multilingual learners

Ellie Alchin and Kate Woodford
10 August 2021

A selection of posters being installed on our campuses as part of a linguistic landscaping project.


Respect for diversity lies at the heart of the UWC mission and linguistic diversity is an important component of how we define diversity. A growing body of research shows that bi- and multilingualism brings cognitive, linguistic, socio-cultural and emotional benefits and that all members of a community benefit from being in a multilingual environment because it provides increased opportunities to develop intercultural understanding.

As we have come to further understand the value of promoting multilingualism, we are working intentionally to ensure all languages are equally valued by our community. Annual events, such as Mother Tongue Language Day, have become important annual celebrations that raise awareness of the rich diversity of culture and language in our community. The changing make-up of the expat community in Singapore and other external factors outside our control have also prompted some shifts.

At UWCSEA, we strive to develop both intercultural understanding and communicative competence in our students. We also know how important it is for students to have a strong first language for learning and wellbeing. Because English is the lingua franca of our community and we are an English-medium international school, our challenge is to ensure we are proactive in supporting our bi- and multilingual learners to build and develop the vital connection to their culture through their home language. Particularly as there are now more families in our community who speak at least one language other than English at home than there are those who speak English only at home.

We also understand that our bi- and multilingual students are facing the challenge of a school day in which they are learning English in tandem with the challenge of learning the concepts and content of our learning programme. Not working in a dominant language can be both tiring and stressful, and so we are actively developing our classroom practice, our available resources, and our learning environment to support students to use all their available languages while learning.

Our focus on better supporting a students’ first language development has seen far-reaching long term programme development, through initiatives such as the Home Language Programme (HLP), which supports learners as young as K1 to maintain their home language through lessons in small classes with a qualified teacher.
In the Infant School, we have begun surveying all incoming families about their child’s language profile so that we can, where possible, place incoming students in the K1 cohort with a ‘language buddy’ in their class. Whether the student speaks English fluently or not, the presence of a peer who speaks the same home language can be leveraged by the class teacher to help our youngest learners to retain their home language skills—and their self confidence and identity—by providing them with opportunities to use, and reinforce, their learning in their home language.

We have now extended the language survey to all families, so that we can better understand our students linguistic profile and the aspirations and goals that parents have for their child’s linguistic development while at UWCSEA. This survey data will help to inform future planning for language provision and teacher recruitment. For individual students, it means class teachers will be able to identify opportunities to encourage students to utilise their dominant language to support their learning when planning lessons. This ‘translanguaging approach’ is not delivered as a whole class lesson to all students. Rather, it is an intentional strategy that teachers draw on as necessary in personalising the classroom experience for each student, helping them play to their strengths by allowing them to access and process their learning by using their home language. This enhances their conceptual understanding of the subject, whilst helping them maintain and develop their academic knowledge in, and of, their home language.

We have also undertaken some exciting curriculum development work this year in the High School. A new first language course for those Grade 9 and 10 students who are speakers of Dutch, French, German, Japanese and Korean, co-created by our first language teachers, launches this August. The decision of Cambridge International Examinations board to discontinue IGCSE First Language courses in Japanese, Korean, French and Dutch provided the initial impetus for us to create this bespoke first language course, which has been several years in careful development. The result is a course for our first language students that not only better prepares them for their IB language courses, but allows a more academically rigorous and explicitly mission-aligned course. It is organised into six core units, which are common across all languages. The two skills-based foundational units, covering linguistic and literary competence, are integrated with the remaining four units which are organised around the themes of identity and language, culture and contexts, sustainability and environmental issues, and global citizenship. All students are working to attain the same conceptual understandings and skills, but do so through learning in their own first language.

Across our campuses, the first stages of an extensive linguistic landscaping project will be installed over the long break, in readiness for August 2021. Linguistic landscaping refers to how public spaces ‘feel’ and includes both what we see and hear. It is important both functionally and symbolically; even what appear to be small changes, such as installing multilingual signage, send a significant message that the linguistic identities of all community members are important to us all. In the long term, by paying attention to our linguistic landscape at UWCSEA we are challenging prevailing notions of which languages have high status, and increasing the likelihood that our bilingual students will feel proud to speak their home languages at school. In turn, increased opportunities to use their language in authentic contexts will encourage all of our students to develop stronger linguistic identities.

Some of the more visible signs of all this activity will include installation of multilingual signage, including functional and mission-aligned messaging. The translation of the new signage gathered input from the student councils and staff. A collective effort to translate the selected text was followed by student-teacher discussion to ensure each translation captured the meaning in our context. In the coming year, we hope to provide additional multilingual materials for families.
And what about monolingual students? Well, the good news is that research has shown that there are immense benefits for all members of a community who implement positive approaches to bi- and multilingualism. In this environment, our monolingual students develop greater cross-linguistic awareness and intercultural understanding, which in turn supports their development as bilingual learners of a new foreign language.

All of these changes are guided by our five-year UWCSEA Strategy, which aims to bring our practice into greater alignment with our mission. We realise, as a College, that some practices no longer support the needs of our students and that by adjusting aspects of our programme which were rooted in monolingual assumptions, the College will move closer to achieving our mission: to use education as a force for peace in the world.