Wednesday Wisdom

June 16, 2021

Marvellous Multilingualism

By Dr Cassie Rhodes

Marvellous Multilingualism


Did you know that there are currently over one million children in UK primary schools for whom English is not their first language and a further 584,600 in secondary schools, speaking an incredible 300 different home languages? Amazing right?

I was prompted to look up the stats on this because in recent weeks, I have had parents and educators ask about optimal approaches to supporting multilingual children at home and at school.

Whilst ‘EAL learners’ or those for whom English is a second language, are nominally grouped together under one label, they are of course from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds. Their experiences of language and literacy, their personalities, backgrounds and home lives will all be different. Some may have one English speaking parent, and be fluent in two or more languages. Others may never have spoken English before.

They do however, share one huge potential asset; knowledge and fluency in more than one language. This is a strength both for individual children and for their wider classroom environment. 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!


Whilst some children with EAL will struggle at school, as a group, EAL learners have enormous academic potential.

The in depth picture is complex and varied, but a recent report from the Department of Education found that EAL pupils as a group, actually slightly outperform those with English as a first language in standardised school assessments, if they join UK schools at a young age. Supporting children with EAL has been particularly challenging for some parents during the lockdown school closures. So how can parents of children with EAL best help them to both maintain their home language and develop their knowledge of English? Here’s what I learned from my research into this area.

It’s a myth that children ‘soak up languages like sponges’. Just as it takes a huge amount of time for monolingual children to learn one language, so it will take multilingual children a very long time to learn a second – experts estimate that it takes around five to seven years to become fluent in the ‘school’ English that they need to succeed academically.

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 being understood, they then often go through a prolonged period of not speaking at all, using non-verbal communication instead. This is perfectly normal and should not cause parents or teachers to worry. Whilst they might not be talking, they 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. You can find out more about these stages of language development from Professor Victoria Murphy, here.

Whilst there are these very predictable patterns, research by Dr Naomi Flynn shows that parents of EAL learners frequently experience a wide range of worries when it comes to their children’s language development. They worry that their children won’t get a good grasp of English, but are also concerned that, by prioritising English, their home language will suffer and their cultural identity may be lost.

Many parents report feeling pressured to attempt to speak in English with their children at home, in order to support their English language development, even if they aren’t very proficient in it themselves. Actually, the evidence does not support this as a beneficial strategy.There is no need to sacrifice home language development in order to develop good English skills and parents should speak to children in whatever language most enables them to communicate confidently with their child.

Linguistic proficiency in their home language is self-esteem boosting, gives children a stronger connection to their heritage and might mean something as practical as being able to communicate with grandparents. Having a sophisticated understanding of their home language, particularly if they can read and write in it, also improves English skills in the learning environment, which has a positive impact on academic outcomes. Parents should feel confident to discuss school curriculum content, read at home or help children with homework in their home language and not feel pressured to attempt to do this in English.


As children grow, we want to give them a sense of pride in their multilingual identity.

Encourage children to use all of their languages. As the parent of a child with EAL, if you are literate in your home language, read in it where possible. Exposing your children to new and exciting words that may not be used in everyday conversation will deepen their engagement with language.

There are some excellent books and websites for the parents of multilingual children. Bilingual Families: A Practical Language Planning Guide by Eowyn Crisfield is a recently published example. Parents should also check out the Bilingualism Matters website, which is full of resources and blogs to help bilingual parents.

I’d also urge any parents of children with EAL to get involved in their school life as much as possible – this will only benefit your children. If you don’t feel confident about engaging with your child’s school, try to feed this back to them. Help them to improve by letting them know what would help you (perhaps videos with subtitles in your home language, or for important letters to be translated) and get involved in any initiatives that they offer for the parents of their EAL pupils. Schools should also seek to audit what works well and what doesn’t when it comes to supporting the families of EAL learners through their school journey and ensuring that parents have a good understanding of school systems and role in school decision making.

If children become resistant to using their home language, the experts urge parents not to worry and to remain positive. Trying to make them speak their home language at home can increase tensions. Instead, continue to talk to them in your home language, even if they respond in English. This way, they are still listening and understanding you. Children can also become anxious about wanting to please both their teacher by speaking in English, and their parents, but speaking in their home language. As hard as it might be, we need to relax, allow young people to use all of their languages fluidly and be proud of their growing linguistic competence.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Parents of children with EAL in Tooled Up schools can listen to our podcasts with leading EAL experts Professor Victoria Murphy and Dr Naomi Flynn, for some great advice about how to best support both your children’s home language and their English development.

We mustn’t forget that it’s Father’s Day this weekend, and to celebrate, Tooled Up parents have access to a new, special podcast interview with Paul Pomroy, CEO of McDonalds UK and dad of two young boys. Talking of Father’s Day, it’s your last chance to book a place on tomorrow night’s webinar, where I’ll discuss what it means to be a ‘good Dad’ in 2021.

Did you know that ‘Tooled Up’ parents can access any of my public webinars for free? Just look at your school newsletters for your booking codes. If you have older children, register for my webinar with Lucy Haseler, founder of Springboard Learning, about navigating Science GCSEs on 21 June, or if your child is preparing for the 11+, don’t miss my talk with Victoria Olubi-Ademosu on 30th June.