February 22, 2023
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
My social media threads currently seem to be full of accounts of children enjoying themselves; family ski holidays abroad, school and sports’ trips, and half-term visits to interesting places in their local area. During the pandemic, our ability to explore was severely limited, so there is a particular joy in witnessing children venturing off with their peers and teachers. For some this will have been their first time away from home.
I have enjoyed reading headteachers’ accounts of school trips on Twitter and LinkedIn; reflecting on pupils’ resilience as they say goodbye to parents, siblings and teddies, journey by plane for the first time, arrive in a new city and attempt a new food or activity that is tricky and challenging. Skiing, in particular, seems to be much talked about as a resilience booster, providing daily opportunities to literally fall down and get back up again.
Being without day to day carers and taking sole responsibility for one’s own belongings is an integral part of school residential trips and undoubtedly provides necessary life experience for the years ahead. It can be hard to watch from the sidelines as a parent back at home; to let go, allow things to go wrong and trust the process. I had personal experience of this last year when my son went on an excursion to Hadrian’s Wall with his summer school and forgot the only thing that instructors insisted he bring: hardy walking shoes. After an unpleasant stint on the bus alone and an hour of brainstorming, he negotiated heavily with his teachers and site staff to be able to walk the wall in flip flops! Being the parent of a child on a school trip requires having a degree of faith in them, a calm resignation that something will definitely go wrong (and to be ok with that) and a deep trust in the bravest of all professionals, teachers.
Children who arrive back from trips might seem different; changed by the experience. They might be more appreciative of their own bed and home facilities, for starters. They might be more articulate than usual, regaling you with funny stories, anecdotes and insights about friends and teachers, and tales of their personal bravery. Teachers are very good at nudging children to try something that might be a little bit scary at first and scaffolding them through the process, and I think that is one of the reasons why school trips can be so beneficial. Cautious parents aren’t present to assess risks, anxiously warn against participation or tell children to be careful. Educators have a special ability to encourage children out of their physical comfort zones and into the zone of finding out what they are truly capable of. Those ‘give it a go’ nudges are integral to growing up and getting on.
Another fantastic asset of travel is seeing and meeting people who are completely different to those we come across in everyday life. Travel teaches us that the world is vast, expansive and nudges us towards a cognitive flexibility that helps develop empathy, respect for others and resilience. As one headteacher documented last week from his school ski trip, “pupils learned that you need to get on with people who might not be the same as them, either on the slopes, or in the hotel and even just out and about.”
Hearing people speak a language different to our own is a rich experience too. Listening to your teacher speak fluent French or try their hand at German provides new insights and understanding into the value of language learning in school. I spent last weekend in Paris and had to dig deep to retrieve my GCSE French ‘shopping’ vocabulary, not to mention move past the social embarrassment of trying to use it. Being understood when using a foreign language in a shop in a strange city is a surprisingly exhilarating experience. As you speak a new language, something else happens, you morph into someone slightly different. In my case, when talking French, I sound timid compared to English-speaking me, but tend to gesticulate slightly more than usual! Practice definitely leads to improvement and the gains can be great when using a language in situ, as opposed to studying it from a book.
When in Paris, I met up with a teacher friend, who is British but speaks fluent Mandarin, French and Spanish. He speaks a particular dialect of Chinese at home with his wife, French with his son and English at work. We talked at length about his son’s multilingualism and spent some time discussing common parenting questions when raising a child in a multilingual household. His son also happens to be a rising star in the musical world as a flautist, which made me wonder whether being raised in a multilingual home had any bearing on his significant achievements. What are the benefits of bilingualism or multilingualism for children’s development, educational and social success?
It was International Mother Language Day yesterday, a day of celebration throughout the world in promoting linguistic and cultural diversity, and multilingualism. This is an annual observance first announced by UNESCO in 1999 and later recognised by the UN General Assembly. What exactly is our ‘mother language’?
‘Mother tongue’, ‘first language’ or ‘home language’ are all terms used for the language that we acquire from birth or the language to which we have the most positive attitude and affection. We become bilingual or multilingual when we know, understand and use two or more languages. Did you know that over 20% of pupils in English primary schools are multilingual? There are currently over one million children in UK primary schools for whom English is not their first language. There are a further 585,000 in secondary schools. Combined, they speak an incredible 300 different home languages. Whilst there are significant evidentially-supported benefits to multilingualism, many expert linguists note that few national educational policies are designed to support children with different first languages.
In fact, there are several common misconceptions around bilingualism, and whilst there is plenty of research that puts them to bed, some persist. I had the pleasure of discussing these recently with academic Dr Rose Drury. In her book, Young Bilingual Learners at Home and at School, Dr Drury provides fascinating insights into young bilingual children’s use of their mother tongue and English. Based on her ethnographic study of three four year-old bilingual children as they begin nursery, the book reveals the ways in which the children use their mother tongue to negotiate their way through early schooling experiences.
It’s vital for all early years practitioners to understand the predictable features of language development that emergent bilingual children experience. When young children are new to UK schools, it’s common for them to use their home language in the classroom. If they are not understood, they then often go through a prolonged period of not speaking at all, using non-verbal communication instead of words. This is perfectly normal and should not cause parents or teachers to worry. Whilst they might not be talking, these children are listening and accumulating knowledge of English. Once children make attempts to use English, they will make many predictable mistakes, switch between languages and use languages in different ways. Multilingual children tend to use their two (or more) languages fluidly, often moving adeptly from one to another. This is called ‘code-switching’ or ‘translanguaging’ and is part of normal development. You can find out more about these predictable stages of language development from Victoria Murphy, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Oxford University here.
One common misconception or myth is that to help children become proficient in English, we need to promote only English. Dr Drury’s work evidences the sad fact that children’s bilingualism can unfortunately be silenced at school. In a 2014 study of bilingual practitioners in early years settings, Dr Drury and her co-researchers found that educators didn’t feel in a position to use their home languages, or engage young learners in using home languages, to support their learning and develop academic competency. The data identified a tension “between what can be seen as two opposing forces, that is learning English and maintaining mother tongue”. At the time of the report, the authors found a gap between the rhetoric of early years policy, which stated a commitment to bilingualism, and the reality, where practitioners felt they were being urged to promote only English (something which risks endangering the development of the mother tongue). This ‘monolingual view of mind’ was impacting on their pedagogic practice.
Perhaps because of these tensions and myths, parents raising children in an English-speaking country might feel unsure if talking in their mother tongue at home is the ‘right thing to do’. Might it potentially hold their child back from academic success in a predominantly English-speaking school? In short, no! We know that children benefit from learning language from their parents if parents are confident in that language. It might feel counterintuitive, but a whole raft of research shows that children who develop good use of their mother tongue are more likely to develop good English. In his book, Jim Cummins, a Canadian expert on multilingualism, reiterates the importance of an established mother tongue and emphasises how cognitive and literacy skills developed via one’s mother tongue will transfer across languages. If parents use English instead, there is a risk that children will lose their mother tongue and with it aspects of their cultural identity and heritage. There is also a risk that, if parents who don’t really feel confident in English only speak English, neither language progresses, leading to potential language problems.
Learning two languages won’t confuse children. Quite the opposite! Colin Baker, in his excellent book, A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism, states that when learning two languages, a child may actually become more sensitive and aware of language itself. Having two or more words for each object, idea or concept can expand their mind, their thinking and enrich their understanding of the world. Multilingualism helps children’s learning because they can consider ideas in two or more languages. They can communicate with members of their community, their wider extended family and understand different cultural worlds of experience. They can feel deeply rooted in cultural identities and better able to move into the world with a strong sense of self.
For those of you raising a child in the early years, you will be pleased to know that there is also no evidence to support the common belief that bilingual children learn to speak later. Some children, whether bilingual or monolingual, will learn to speak later than others, and that’s perfectly normal. There is also no evidence that bilingualism makes it harder for children with speech difficulties to develop speech. On the contrary, children with speech difficulties need to be surrounded by positive language role models and people who feel confident in their use of the spoken word. Stopping use of the mother tongue at home can actually exacerbate issues for children with speech problems and might make them feel more isolated. Research shows that, for bilingual children with speech challenges, seeking professional advice from someone with bilingualism training is important.
It can often be a source of irritation or bemusement to parents of bilingual children that they refuse to speak their mother tongue at home and at school. Children might quickly learn that English is the most powerful language in their world and pick up the message that their mother tongue is less valuable. Dr Drury suggests that parents continue to speak their mother tongue, even when their child responds in English. Additionally, teachers can support parents and families by showcasing their pride in pupils’ linguistic heritage and by viewing bilingualism as an additional ‘fund of knowledge’ or asset for any school. As hard as it might be, relaxing and allowing young people to use all of their languages fluidly will help to engender pride in their growing linguistic competence.
How many times have we heard adults complaining their parents didn’t speak to them in their mother tongue when they were little and how much they regret that? Let’s celebrate multilingualism. Being multilingual gives children an awareness and agility with language which is advantageous for long term employability and can open doors that aren’t available to monolingual children. Helping them to develop all of their languages by providing them with a rich linguistic experience is crucial! In fact, whilst the in depth picture is complex and varied, a report from the Department of Education found that, when taken as a whole group, pupils with English as an additional language actually slightly outperform those with English as a first language in standardised school assessments, if they join UK schools at a young age.
There are many simple and effective ways that we can support children and young people’s bilingualism at school.
Firstly, schools should ensure that bilingualism is actively encouraged and supported. This needs to be a whole school endeavour. Like most things, we know that effective support is “dependent on information, coordination, support and communication”. Why not audit what is currently working well (or not) at your school when it comes to welcoming families with different mother tongues and evaluate relationships with existing parents and young people? Ask parents of current pupils in older year groups to provide feedback (or take part in a brief focus group) about their journey through school life (an effective way of assessing what you might need to improve on). Do they feel they have a good understanding of the school system? Could they be better supported? Do they think that anything works particularly well? How accessible do they find school communications? How would they like to receive information? Aim to ensure that all staff are trained in best practice for both pupils and parents.
Dr Naomi Flynn, Associate Professor in Primary English Education at the University of Reading, suggests an important first step in welcoming multilingual families into school is recognising that they are not a homogenous group. A detailed profiling system when admitting bilingual learners will help schools support them optimally and kickstart a wonderful parent partnership. Asking the right questions can ensure that children receive effective support and means that staff can fully appreciate new families joining their community. What languages are being used at home? In what context? Some families may arrive into school as refugees. What were the circumstances? What sort of schooling have children received and did they learn English? Schools can assess English proficiency using well-established scales such as NASSEA or those recommended by The Bell Foundation. It’s vital to proactively find out which languages children understand, speak or are learning to be literate in at home.
Diverse, multilingual classrooms benefit all children. Schools can engage with families by asking for examples of songs, stories and rhymes that children enjoy at home or in the community. Perhaps these can be recorded or made into books to make the languages visible for all children in your setting? Asking parents to come to school to show dancing, artwork, read stories in home languages, or showcase anything from their culture, is a powerful way to forge strong links. Where possible, try to involve bilingual members of staff or members of the community who share some of the children’s languages. Plan for a whole-school focus on multilingualism, create opportunities to explore different strategies and make sure that this commitment is made evident to parents.
Perhaps most importantly, schools can assure parents and carers that they should focus on their mother tongue at home. Parents’ confidence about supporting their children’s learning in their first language may be dented by the mixed messages that they receive. Data from Dr Flynn’s project, Languages in Lockdown, shows that parents experience a wide range of worries when it comes to nurturing their children’s bilingualism. They worry that children won’t get a good grasp of English, but are equally concerned that their home language will suffer and their cultural identity will be lost. Schools should encourage families to speak to children in whatever language most enables them to provide a rich linguistic environment. Children can learn curriculum content, read at home and discuss homework in their home language. For example, if a child is preparing a report for a particular subject, they might use their home language to consider the subject, make notes, write a plan and discuss with peers, before writing their final piece of work in English. Their mother tongue acts as a scaffold or support and is used fluidly along with English.
If you want to learn more, why not take a look at language education charity, The Bell Foundation’s website for further advice? Dr Drury highlights many strategies which will help school staff in her book, which we highly recommend, and parents can find helpful resources and blogs on the Bilingualism Matters website. There are some excellent books written to support parents in raising children bilingually. Bilingual Families: A Practical Language Planning Guide by Eowyn Crisfield is a recently published example. The NALDIC website is a fantastic place to start for school staff looking to improve provision for multilingual pupils. Their journal is published three times a year and the site also features a really useful forum for teachers. Above all, we can support bilingual learners, as all children, by advocating for them and being interested in their wellbeing, as well as their learning. As Professor Victoria Murphy said to me when I interviewed her, “We live in a multilingual world. Let’s not impose a monolingual mindset on how we educate and support our multilingual students”.
One final thought! If you are interested in taking part in some primary research, or know someone who might be, Kiera Schul, an undergraduate psychology student at the University of Edinburgh, is seeking bilingual, autistic university students to participate in a study on what it is like to camouflage autistic traits when you can speak more than one language. It will involve a short, online questionnaire, plus a one hour interview about personal experiences with camouflaging as an autistic bilingual person. If you, or someone you know, would like to participate, or if you have any questions, please contact Kiera: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
We have two fantastic podcast interviews in the Tooled Up library from leading experts in multilingualism. Professor Victoria Murphy and Dr Naomi Flynn both give some excellent advice on how to support children in developing mastery of both their mother tongue and the English language. Teachers and other school staff can also benefit from our list of 30 top tips for creating a supportive school environment for families with different mother tongues. You might also like to listen to our interview with Professor Mina Fazel on supporting refugee children at school.
We’re also very excited to be planning interviews over the next couple of months with Professor Florence Myles and Professor Suzanne Graham, both renowned experts in the benefits of learning foreign languages for children. Keep your eyes peeled for further information if this piques your interest.
Since tickets were released last week, we’re really thrilled to have had over 100 Tooled Up parents and educators sign up to our first ever conference, being held on 21st April: Support for Children with Autism: An Exploration of Practical and Evidence-Based Ideas for Parents and Educators. It is an online conference which will cover topics like optimal learning environments, autism and mental health, partnerships with parents and ambition, aspiration and employability. Sign up for your free tickets now. Speakers will be scheduled between 9am and 4.15pm but you can dip in and out of the day as you please!