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What are the challenges for teaching language in today’s schools?

Multilingualism as a concept

The idea of multilingualism has garnered a lot of positive attention over the past few years. A generation ago, bi/multilingual parents were frequently advised not to speak their own language with their children as it would ‘confuse them’ and hinder the acquisition of the language of the community. Today, multilingualism is not only desirable, but many parents are actively looking to enable their children to acquire multiple languages both at home and at school. This is evident in the number of private and state schools that use language offerings as a marketing tool for their school, including a variety of models of bilingual education. The challenge for schools today is to recognise that every student’s path to becoming multilingual is unique to them, as it is built on their other languages. Teachers need to tap into the existing linguistic resources that a student has at their disposal to maximise the impact of their language learning.

Different language programmes

“The challenge for every teacher, regardless of which programme they are teaching, is to resist the temptation of teaching their language in isolation.”

A distinction should be made between language programmes that aim to develop a child’s existing fluency in a home language, immersion programmes where children are being schooled in a new language and second language lessons as an ‘additional’ language. Each of these language programmes have their own associated challenges. The challenge for every teacher, regardless of which programme they are teaching, is to resist the temptation of teaching their language or subject in isolation, and ignoring what the student might know in terms of language, knowledge or skills in other languages. The IB helpfully distinguishes between a students’ personal language(s), functional language(s) and language(s) of instruction.

Language of instruction

There are three official languages of instruction: English, French and Spanish. Ideally, the written school language policy would state that all languages in the school community should enjoy equal respect. How the language of instruction is enacted in the practices of the school and possibly within the curriculum is not always straightforward.  The IB regards multilingualism as a right and a resource, however as soon as languages are perceived to have hierarchy, we can start seeing one of the languages as a ‘problem’.

Home languages

Home language programmes might encounter challenges of delivering courses within named languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Dutch (to name a few), as varieties of these languages sometimes carry varying degrees of status and perceived use.  Parents’ views on the suitability of a teacher teaching these languages might lead to situations where the school is inadvertently not giving due respect to all languages, and by extension to all language varieties. The IB Language and Literature curriculum recognizes all dialects and variations of languages. For example, a Portuguese exam paper might include literature from Africa, Europe and South America.

“Language learning is a slow process and one where it is not easy to observe progress.”

The importance of biliteracy

Biliteracy (the ability to read and write to an academic standard in two languages) is a very desirable and realistic goal for many IB students. Bilingualism and literacy (the two components of biliteracy) are two complex processes. Any planning for biliteracy in a school necessitates reflective planning grounded in research, as well as in-depth understanding of every student’s language portrait.

If the languages used in the wider school community are different from the language of instruction, they are often relegated to the margins of the curriculum. This could offer a unique opportunity to acquire a new language and use it in a meaningful manner by adding it to your linguistic identity. These languages might well be the dominant language for a large proportion of the school population, but might not enjoy an equal status in terms of being a vehicle for academic progress.

What is the goal of learning an additional language within a school setting? Is it to communicate in the language? If so, what would you like students to be able to communicate? Who is the intended audience and to what level? School language policies that build on curricular aims need to ensure that the school, teachers, students and parents are on the same page on the purpose of these language lessons. As language curricula continue to move the focus away from ‘form’ (grammatical accuracy) to ‘meaning’ (communication), we need to ensure that pedagogy and learning materials also reflect this shift.

Recent research initiatives have been looking at how linguistics (i.e. an understanding of language) can be incorporated into additional language classrooms, to stimulate interest in learning the language as well as increasing motivation and uptake in language studies post-secondary school. Technological initiatives, such as the use of location services on a smartphone, highlight opportunities beyond the confines of school walls to use language in real-life situations.

Language learning is a slow process and one where it is not always easy to observe progress; this can sometimes affect the motivation of both students and teachers.  Having a clear focus and associated goals, which might vary from course to course, and from student to student, can ensure that language learning is a positive and impactful experience. The language development course in the Career-related program (CP) lends itself to a learner-centred approach, placing its focus on personal goal setting coupled with its pronounced valuing of cultural understanding, to ensure it is flexible and relevant in any context.

If you are interested in participating in the curriculum review for language development, please email for more information.

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 Susan Stewart is part of the International School of London’s Middle School Research Institute and chair of the ECIS MLIE (Multilingual Learning in International Education) special interest group. Susan has lived and worked in Thailand, the UAE, South Africa, Belgium, Oman and Sweden, and has raised two bilingual global-nomad children. Susan has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics and French and an MA in Applied Linguistics and Communication from Birkbeck College, University of London. Susan speaks English, French, German, Afrikaans, Swedish and Arabic and is a lifelong learner of languages. Susan is active in the local community in promoting the use of home languages, delivering regular parent workshops around the challenges of raising bilingual children in monolingual environments. Susan supports a group of heritage language schools in the local community and is interested in the interaction between (international) schools and local language communities.  

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