Developing a culture of multilingualism at International School Carinthia

James Brightman and Karin Martin, from International School Carinthia

James Brightman and Karin Martin, from International School Carinthia

This article describes the evolution of multilingualism in a school where three different cultures intertwine.

International School Carinthia is located in a stunningly beautiful, little-known part of central Europe referred to in German as the “Dreiländereck”, where Austria, Italy and Slovenia meet. In former times, the languages from these regions intermingled as much as the cultures did. Despite wars and revised borderlines over the centuries, multilingualism and multiculturalism still abound here. This setting forms the context for the founding of ISC in Austria in September 2013.

One of the many working areas that arose immediately after the school’s founding was the opportunity to develop a multilingual culture right from the start. Although the main language of instruction at ISC is English, ninety percent of the 55 students who began in PYP 1-4 last year were not native English speakers. Our faculty was faced with the challenge of helping our students acquire English while simultaneously celebrating and supporting their mother-tongue language development.

Thankfully, the IB has many supporting documents that speak to the theory and practice of multilingualism, but as many IB educators are so aware, they do not always ‘translate’ seamlessly to every school’s context. Many of the ISC founding team members had taught in other international schools where multilingualism was only paid lip-service in policy documents with which the faculty only became familiar prior to accreditation visits, never to be seen again once the visiting team left the building. Some of us had also experienced imperialistic language policies where students’ mother tongues were denigrated in order to support English language acquisition and learning. We had also seen that many of our students who were receiving no formal academic instruction in their mother tongue languages were foundering in all other taught languages in the school. How could we live the multilingual dream espoused by the IB and ISC’s mission?

Enter Dr. Karin Martin. By chance, Karin, a linguist specializing in multilingual development in children and adults, settled in Carinthia at roughly the same time ISC was founded and was blogging about multilingualism on the Carinthian International Club blog. Based on ISC’s affiliation with the Carinthian International Club, Karin and I became acquainted and developed a workshop series for teachers and parents to dispel myths about multilingual education and development, discuss best practices to foster and support multilingualism and develop the ISC Language Policy Philosophy. We followed up this workshop series with a parents’ evening where Karin shared the latest research with parents, answered parents’ questions about their children’s language development, and discussed the path forward for ISC’s language policy development.

She explained that, in spite of the amazing results coming from the research of different centers around the world, a serious lack of information can be found in schools and families. We discussed the following myth among many others: if you want a child to speak a second language, you should stop speaking your home language. Studies on the role of maintaining the first language in contexts of migration agree on the positive effect of this choice, which affects outcomes in school. Students who keep their first language show improved proficiency in both languages. The mother tongue definitely plays an important role in the overall development of a child. It is connected to emotional and mental growth, to cultural identity, and it provides the basis for learning another language.
We agreed that encouraging multilingualism means to promote the learning of more languages at the same time, and not at the expense of the first language. This is in line with a huge amount of research evidence, also showing that being able to communicate in different languages on a regular basis brings both linguistic and cognitive benefits to children.

Based on the positive outcomes of this process, and the many myths that still abound regarding multilingual development in IB schools, Karin and I presented the latest research and our journey at ISC at the IBAEM Regional Conference in Rome in October and received a lot of positive feedback and great ideas about how to nurture and foster a multilingual community right from the start at International School Carinthia. Now, Karin is a member of the ISC Language Policy Steering Committee as we turn the philosophy into policy and strive to put the theory into practice in a meaningful, coherent way moving forward. We look forward to sharing our progress in a future post here and welcome any ideas you may have to support us!

James Brightman is the founding Director of International School Carinthia in Velden am Wörthersee, Austria. ISC is a candidate school for the Primary Years Programme in its second year of operation. Prior to his post as Director of ISC, James was the Secondary Principal at Strothoff International School in Frankfurt, Germany — a young IB school now offering the IB Continuum. With over 15 years of educational experience, James has taught every level from Kindergarten to university in the United States, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Austria. He is also happily married and the proud father of two multilingual boys, Johan and Aidan. www.isc.ac.at

Karin Martin gained her PhD in Linguistics at the University of Verona (Italy) in September 2013. She works at ISC as a member of the Language Policy Steering Committee and as Italian Mother Tongue teacher. She is self-employed in Austria, putting on conferences, training courses and consultant services on the topic of multilingualism. In her conferences she helps educators and professionals to appreciate the benefits of bilingualism and to find useful strategies to manage and promote it both at school and in the family. She underlines the importance of maintaining the mother tongue and she teaches effective strategies for learning other languages. www.karinmartin-linguist.com

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2 Responses to Developing a culture of multilingualism at International School Carinthia

  1. John Nairn 17 March 2015 at 10:29 am #

    I’m all for supporting the mother tongue which is hard to do if you are constantly being told that the language of instruction is English, but not for the sake of learning another language but from the point of view that if you smoother the mother tongue it also hinders the possibilities of student initiated inquiries, something that I see on a daily basis, mother tongue, which I don’t know but my co-worker does, questions about what is going on in the learning environment around them that lead to some fascinating new discoveries and connections for the others..

  2. John Nairn 17 March 2015 at 10:32 am #

    I’m all for supporting the mother tongue which is hard to do if you are constantly being told that the language of instruction is English, but not for the sake of learning another language but from the point of view that if you smoother the mother tongue it also hinders the possibilities of student initiated inquiries, something that I see on a daily basis, mother tongue, which I don’t know but my co-worker does, questions about what is going on in the learning environment around them that lead to some fascinating new discoveries and connections for the others within the classroom.

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