Posted in Introduction

Welcome to my blog


EowynFrom here on my sofa (I always blog on my sofa…) in The Hague, The Netherlands, I welcome you all from wherever you are reading. So far I have had readers from 166 countries and I am always happy to welcome more!

You may be here because you are already raising your children to be bilingual, you may be here because you are thinking about raising your children to be bilingual, or you may just have an interest in bilingualism. Whatever your reason, I hope you find here some answers to your questions, and some questions for your answers. I have an academic background in child bilingualism and bilingual education, and I am also raising three children, with three languages.

My blog is an effort to combine my two worlds, incorporating both important theoretical aspects about bilingualism but also practical aspects, and even sometimes political aspects. With my company, Crisfield Educational Consulting, I do training for parents and teachers on bilingualism and bilingual education, and I also do research on integrating language learners in mainstream schools and classrooms.

So settle in on your sofa, preferably with a cup of tea, and read along. If you have a question that I haven’t already answered, or a clarification, please feel free to comment – I am happy to do blog posts inspired by reader questions, and I promise to answer yours too!


Posted in General

The Secret Life of an Independent Academic

(This is an article I wrote on LinkedIn, sharing it here as I am not connected to many of my blog people on LinkedIn)

I’ve just spent the last four days at the 11th International Symposium on Bilingualism, at the University of Limerick. It was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and colleagues, browse through a lot of new research, make new connections, and, as always, answer the perennial question “What university are you at?”. As is almost always the case at research conferences, I was the only person (at least to my knowledge) to not have a university affiliation on my name tag. Reactions to this lack of official connection vary from dismissive to incredulous to envious. But always, surprised. The Independent Academic is a rare creature, and often misunderstood. Well-meaning fellow delegates express sympathy that I can’t find a job (not true!), that I must be there only to listen and learn (also not true – I presented a paper!). So here is some insight into the world of independent academics, we may be small in numbers now, but I expect that will start changing.

Once we get over the initial confusion about who I work for, the next question is always “why?”. I can’t presume to speak for every independent academic, but I will share my own reasoning for choosing this path. My first venture into working for myself came about because I moved, and there were no universities within commuting distance that were involved in the type of teaching/research I was interested in doing. Newly qualified in Applied Linguistics, I wanted to develop programs to support bilingual/multilingual children, from a family and school perspective. Because there was nowhere I could turn to embed this in a university-based job, I just started doing it myself. After several years, my consulting work brought me to the attention of a university looking for a sociolinguistics lecturer. Eager to be part of a team again, and to delve back into “real” academia, I accepted. But the bloom was soon off the rose – yes, I loved teaching sociolinguistics. But of course, an academic job doesn’t come with the privilege of only teaching the one or two courses you really love – you also have to be a part of a larger effort, and take on courses you are less interested in, and attend meetings, and do paperwork, and all the myriad other tasks university-based academics do these days. So once again, I flew the nest and went back to working independently.

Obviously, there are significant challenges to working independently and trying to remain a connected academic and researcher. For one, no funding body that I have found will allow independent academics to apply for research grants or other funding. So you need to make partnerships in order to continue being a part of a research environment. And that’s not always easy either, as many academics view independents with suspicion or disinterest – we don’t bring a name to a project, or a department and sometimes we are often seen as being “lesser” in terms of knowledge and skills. I’ve been lucky, and have met great people along the way, who have been open-minded and collaborative, but it’s been a lot of work finding those people! A second challenge is professional reputation. Because being an independent academic is so unusual, there is often a perception that it must be your fault, rather that your choice. Unfortunately, at conferences (including this last one) I do meet people who give me the brush off as soon as they find out I’m not attached to a university. The academic world, like most other fields, has its innate snobbery as well.

On the flip side, there are many benefits to being independent. I set my own agenda, and only have to work on projects I am interested in. One of the reasons I left my last job was because I simply wasn’t finding enough time to continue working on the areas that are important to me – the connections between SLA research and teaching practice is where my heart lies, and I believe, where my talent lies as well. Working independently means that all my time and energy (and book/journal budget – I don’t have access to a university library…) can be focused on this one topic and developing my expertise in this area. Having this time to fully immerse myself in my key topics (second language acquisition, bilingualism, language policy and practice) means that I can keep up to date on a vibrant and growing field, and still have time to take all this knowledge and apply it to my own research projects, and to the professional development and school consulting that forms the practical part of being an independent academic (no, there is no money in being an independent academic!). So I get the best of both worlds; I get to continue to do the school-based work that I love, and still have time to engage in key research (both applied and desk) to make sure that I am always up to date in my field.

If you are an independent academic I’d love to hear from you about how you are making it work.

Posted in Bilingualism in education, Spotlight on good practice

Identity language – what’s that? (Spotlight on Good Practice series)

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

First language, home language, mother tongue, family language… all these terms are used in international education, to try and talk about the languages students bring into schools. But what is implied by all these terms, and how does that affect the language possibilities of students in international schools? When international schools offer programmes designed to support the other languages their students speak they generally designate the mother tongue of the child as the language to support. They may use any of the terms I listed (and they may even have found another term that I didn’t list!) but the bottom line is usually that they set out to support a language that is spoken in the student’s home – usually linked to their passport country. Families are normally required to declare one language as the dominant language or most important language, to be supported by extra classes.

So what’s wrong with that? I write all the time about the importance of schools supporting home languages, so I should be happy when they do, shouldn’t I? Technically, yes. And technically, I am! But I’ve learned something valuable from the EAL/MT team at the International School of The Hague recently, and I’d like to share it as an example of good practice, and how paying attention to the learners in your schools will make you a better school.

At the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year, the EAL and Mother Tongue (MT) staff at ISH hosted their annual meeting for parents of bilingual students. This meeting was informational in nature, to present the programmes that ISH offered for language support for learning English, as well as the MT programmes . At the time, ISH was offering after-school MT programmes for some languages, and had a one-hour a week integrated period, where students came together in language groups and worked on accessing classroom learning through their MT. The idea of supporting MT in schools was one that ISH had always firmly believed in, but in practice it was difficult. The after-school programme was run by the school, but was not inherently connected to school learning. The one-hour MT slot in the schedule was unique and working well, but each child could only have one designated mother tongue. In addition, the designation mother tongue didn’t mean that it was the child’s strongest language (and often it isn’t), and so there were varying levels of fluency in groups as well. Nonetheless, they knew they had a better programme than most schools, and were addressing the language development needs of as many students as they could manage.

But at this particular meeting, a parent was to raise an issue that would lead to a year of discussions and ultimately, the creation of a completely unique approach to languages in international schools. The parent in question was American, but had lived in France with his children for many years and therefore they were fluent French speakers. However, by the school’s definition of mother tongue, and indeed  by any traditional MT definition, his children did not qualify for the French MT programme.  It became clear during the meeting, and the “after meeting” with concerned parents, that this was not a one-off issue, and was going to become more common, not less. In an increasingly globalised education sector, trying to categorise children’s language abilities and priorities by their parents’ passports is becoming both limiting and often irrelevant.

ISH formed a working group that included senior management, the EAL managing team (Sue Tee, Mindy McCracken, Nikki Welsh), and the head of MT (Lara Rikers). Together, this group spent a year investigating the profoundly complex issues relating to languages generally, and MT language specifically, guided by the powerful Jim Cummins’ quote:

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

At the end of this journey, they had new names for languages in their school: home languages, to replace the insufficient term mother tongue, and identity language, to represent languages that are important to children, but not related to their parents or home. In the renewed programme, students can choose up to three languages from these two definitions per year, rather than the former structure of “mother tongue hour”, which was one language per child, chosen when they entered the school. If students choose more than one language, they can switch each term, or between projects. In this way, each student can potentially have support in maintaining both parental languages, as well as an identity language that they have acquired elsewhere.

In March 2017 McCracken and Rikers presented the ISH approach to languages in international schools at the ECIS ESL/MT (now ECIS MLIE) conference in Copenhagen, with the support of Jim Cummins. Now that the ISH Identity Language has been launched in international education I hope (expect!) more schools to start having critical discussions about the language profiles of their students too.

Posted in Bilingualism in education, Bilingualism Myths

Wondering about translanguaging?


I’ve been promising for years to write a post about pedagogical translanguaging. In fact, probably about five years! But I always get stuck in the details… I want to present it accurately, and really show how it works. So I created (with the help of Ollydave) this short explainer video, so people can have a 2-minute introduction to a complex topic. Click on the picture above and enjoy!

Posted in Bilingualism benefits, Bilingualism Seminars, Family Language Planning

Raising Bilingual (or multilingual!) Children: 6 building blocks for success (May 18)

Next parent seminar in Amsterdam coming up! If you are raising your children with more than one language (or thinking about it), come along and find out the six building blocks for a successful Family Language Plan. This seminar has been developed over a decade of working with bilingual/multilingual families and packs in theoretical background as well and practical planning. Looking forward to meeting my next group of parents!

Our host is the Jacaranda Tree Montessori, registration through this link: Raising Bilingual Children

Posted in Bilingualism in education

Spotlight on good practice: Multilingual Poetry




With respect to ELLs, there is undeniable and growing evidence that the home language of ELLs is of considerable benefit to their overall academic success.

  • Fred Genesee (Professor of Psychology Department at McGill University, Montreal and  recipient of the Canadian Psychological Associate Award for Distinguished Contributions to Community or Public Service)

This is the first post in the new “Spotlight on Good Practice” series. The goal of the series is to get teachers and schools talking about critical issues in supporting language learners in their schools. This first profile spotlights Jennifer, a Grade 3 teacher at the European International School Ho Chi Minh City.

I visited the school mid-March to provide three days of professional development for the staff of the school, primary and secondary, and for parents. On the first day we did two intensive sessions, the first was “Bilingualism in Education: Understanding your learners”, and the second was “Languages in the Classroom”. As with most schools I visit, the staff were mainly English-speaking, and their training and experience for working with language learners ranged from very little to fully trained EAL teachers. For staff with little training (and, let’s be honest, for monolingual staff) the content of these first two sessions can be challenging. We debunk quite a few myths about language learners in schools (no, children are not sponges!) and look at the critical relationship between home language development and school language development, and how the former can scaffold the latter.

The second morning, Jennifer arrived in the library to show me a poem a student had brought to her. She does a poem a week activity with her students, but this student had taken the initiative and brought in a poem written in his home language (Taiwanese) and translated into English. Connecting to the content of the previous day’s sessions, she wanted to show me the poem, and discuss her impressions of his work. It was a beautiful example of languages in connection – the Taiwanese writing with English translation at the end. The translation itself showed clearly the influence of his thought patterns and expressions in his own language, which led to an inflected yet clear English poem.

In the meantime, teachers and students can’t wait for these policy debates to be settled before deciding how or whether to draw upon ELLs’ home language. The question arises how can schools and teachers, even those who are monolingual, act on evidence that clearly shows the personal, cognitive, linguistic and educational value of using the linguistic resources that ELLs bring to school.

  • Fred Genesee

Rather than just admiring the student’s work and moving back to her teaching, Jennifer took this poem, and turned it into a whole-class celebration of poetry and languages. The students were all asked to find and bring in a poem in their own languages. They began the process in class, and then continued with their parents at home. The parents were contacted by email about the project, and responded enthusiastically. The children all arrived with their poems the next morning, some translated already, some ready to display. Each student had the opportunity to present their poem to the class, and show their skills in their home language. You can imagine the impact on the students who are less confident in English, to be given place at the front of the class to use the language they are best at, and show their expertise to their peers. It also gave the children the opportunity to see and discuss the wide variety of writing systems used by their peers.

So one small poem, which could have been easily set aside or forgotten, became the basis of a unit that celebrated the diversity of the class, that promoted the importance of home languages, and that connected the strength of home languages to the task of producing a poem in English, therefore functioning as a language-development exercise as well.

Hats off to Jennifer, for being a brilliant and reflective teacher, and to Iain Fish, Head of School, who creates an environment in which teachers are also enquirers, in this case, on the topic of language learners in their school.

Poetry. exhibit

The two quotes from Fred Genesee are from this excellent post: The Home Language: An English Language Learner’s Most Valuable Resource

For more information about the Spotlight on Good Practice series, the introduction can be found here.

If you’d like to share a good practice story, from your class, your child’s class, a colleague’s class, please email me at:

Posted in Introduction

What is research and who is it for?

This is such an important issue – and this blog explains exactly (perhaps without meaning to) why few teachers engage in research, either actively or as a consumer. There is so much out there, from poor research to great, and from poor events to great, and teachers have such limited time (and budgets) that trying to weed the chaff from the wheat must feel overwhelming. Thankfully, there are more and more researchers now like Victoria Murphy who are making the bridge from research to practice and to make the critical work they are doing accessible and applicable to the teachers and schools it should be helping!

EAL Journal

In the last of our mini-series of research blogs, Victoria Murphy asks what counts as research and whether everything that teachers are presented with should be given equal weight.

Victoria Murphy

Research comes in many forms, from reading reports of previous studies to carrying out randomised control trials (RCTs), and everything in between. There’s often an implicit hierarchy at work, and we are told that only large scale studies are more reliable, for example, or that only action research can capture the truth of teachers’ everyday experiences. The truth, though, is that the quality of the research cannot be determined simply by identifying the nature of it. For example, a systematic review (which takes a well-defined, systematic approach to reviewing the research literature to address a particular research question) is very different from, for example, a study where teachers are interviewed to determine their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs about a specific issue…

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Posted in Bilingualism Myths

The Perennial question – can children with SEN become bilingual?

… the real issue is not whether they should become bilingual, but how to best support them in their life with two or more languages. (E. Kay-Raining Bird)

I’ve written about the topic quite a few times over the years, because it is one that causes parents great concern. It is also a topic where misinformation is rife – one of the most common pieces of poor advice that parents get is from speech and language therapists, telling them their child is language delayed because they are bilingual. This is an incorrect presumption, but all too common. The following advice is almost always to drop a language, and of course, the language to be dropped is one of the home languages. The potential consequences for a child losing access to a language they have been exposed to all their life range from social isolation within the family to insufficient cognitive development, but they are always significant and avoidable. The article linked below is an interview with Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird, who has been researching bilingualism in children with three different profiles: SLI (Specific Language Impairment), Down’s Syndrome, and ASD (Austism Spectrum Disorders).

The full article is on Francois Grosjean’s great blog Life as a Bilingual. 

Supporting Bilingual Children With Special Education Needs

Posted in Bilingualism in education, Spotlight on good practice

Spotlight on Good Practice: New blog series


In the month of March, I had the privilege of presenting at three international events. The first was the ECIS ESL/MT conference (now the ECIS MLIE group). There I presented on using pedagogical translanguaging to support learning in international education. The second event was the CIS Symposium on Intercultural Learning (Amsterdam), where I presented in the Language as a Pathway to Intercultural Learning strand. My presentation at this event was focused again on translanguaging, this time as a way to bring students’ culture and prior knowledge into the classroom. The final event was the second CIS Symposium, Singapore, where I again presented (for LanguageOne) in the Language strand, with an analysis of models of MT/home language support in international schools, and ways forward for schools who want to engage better on this critical topic.

A recurring point of interest across all three events was the overview of audience members at language-related sessions. On the whole, the audience at these sessions was the “language people” from schools: EAL teachers, language teachers, MT/home language teachers, and mid-level coordinators: EAL coordinators, PYP coordinators, etc. So this leaves the question: Where are the school leaders? Where are the principals and heads of school? They are certainly at these events, but for some reason rarely choose the language-related sessions. This was especially apparent at the CIS Singapore event, which was in a strand-format – all participants stayed in their chosen strand for the two-day event. The strands on global citizenship and developing culturally competent leaders were the two strands where all the leadership-level participants were to be found.

So what’s up with that? Are the language-people not informative enough, funny enough, insightful enough to draw the school leaders? Everyone who attended our strands knows that this is of course not true! What is true, however, is that language is often thought of as a specialist topic in education (international and national). School leadership is often caught up in broader topics that seem to have more importance for the whole than EAL, home languages, other languages. This is a dangerous position to take however, as language is at the heart of everything we do in education; at the centre of identity, culture, communication, and most importantly, learning.

It is hard to argue that we are teaching the whole child when school policy dictates that the students leave their language and culture at the schoolhouse door.

  • J. Cummins et al. (2005)

It is true that language people are not always good at publicity and marketing – we know we have a lot of key information that all teachers, administrators and parents need to know. But we’re not always good at getting our message out there in accessible ways.

In order to do some awareness-raising of the complex and critical issue of languages in schools, I’m starting a new blog series, entitled “Spotlight on good practice“. I’d like to do a regular profile of an activity, teacher, school, leader, program (twice a month), to share what is already happening in our schools that we can be proud of, and hope that this will encourage wider awareness outside the language people of how languages can be used in our schools to either empower or disempower our students, and the resulting effects on culture, character, and learning.

The series will start with examples of good practice from schools I have worked with, but I would be delighted to hear from my readers – parents, teachers, (hopefully) school leaders – about examples of good practice relating to any aspect of languages in schools – EAL/ELL, home languages, host country languages, foreign languages. If you have a story to share, for yourself or for your school or your children’s school, please email me at

Looking forward to hearing about all your success stories!



Posted in Bilingualism in education

What I learned this weekend from Cummins, Krashen, and Genesee

Why are we using the terminology ESL and mother tongue, when for many students English is not actually their second language and they have multiple linguistic identities? How does this term reflect the multilingualism of many of our students?

J. Cummins, ECIS ESL/MT conference, 2017

I wrote this article on LinkedIn two days ago, but just had a request to repost here for those who are not on LinkedIn, so here it is! 

It’s not often that one gets to spend a weekend listening to, and meeting, the textbooks from your bookshelf. And yet that is what I spent the weekend doing. At the ECIS ESL/MT 2017 conference in Copenhagen, I opened the textbooks of my undergraduate and graduate studies, and I heard them tell me their stories.

From Stephen Krashen I first learned about comprehensible input, and “i+1”, and that teachers need to give students a safe space to learn by lowering their affective filters. And Krashen certainly did that for all of us, in his witty, intense, informative, and at times scathing keynote, which reminded us why he is one of the greats, and also, why it’s important to consider for ourselves the message of any speaker, and compare it to our own inner knowledge of teaching and learning. For while he did convince us all of the benefits of reading for learning, and made us all feel good that reading every day will help our brains stay healthy, he also provoked us by claiming that grammar teaching is never useful or necessary. Some had the courage to stand up to him (Mindy!) and some did not, but the discussion was always lively.

From Cummins, many years ago, I learned to think about the whole child, and to consider what it would feel like to be unseen in school, with your language, culture and identity denied. I learned that children do not need teachers to put barriers between their languages for learning to happen, and than we can integrate all of a child’s language repertoire as a scaffold and a guide for learning. And that no, using the home language during school won’t mean kids never learn English. This weekend I learned again what it is to listen to someone who truly believes that they can make a difference, and that teachers can make a difference too. And I learned that being in the speaker slot right after a Jim Cummins’ keynote is a mighty uncomfortable place to be – following in the footsteps of his amazing talk, with three Cummins’ quotes in my presentation, and a room full of people who had just heard “wow”.

From Fred Genesee, whose work I have known and followed since my days as a graduate student in Montreal, I was reminded that yes, children with various language and learning challenges can and do become successfully bilingual. I was also reminded that it is okay to say that bilingualism is not the right fit for some children, if their needs and circumstances don’t require it, and the school setting can not give them adequate support. I’ve been making this point gently over the last years, with the fear of seeming elitist worrying me – I don’t mean to say that bilingualism is only for “smart” children, or for children who speak the “right” languages. But Fred gave me the courage to be stronger in standing up for children who will not thrive in bilingual programs, not because they couldn’t become bilingual, but because the programs are not set up to give them the support they need to become bilingual.

Those were my great lessons of the weekend, but there were many smaller moments as well. From Mindy and Lara from ISH, I learned that passionate teachers who believe in doing the right thing for their bilingual learners can convince a whole school to do the right thing too.

From Susan Stewart from ISL Surrey, I heard new ways of talking to parents about raising children with languages, and of contextualising the discussions we have with parents in different ways.

From Paul Kei Matsuda, I was reassured that being against numerical evaluations for language development and grammar isn’t a radical position that is incompatible with modern education. We can, and do, assess students’ language on many measures that do not correlate to a number or a letter or a pass or fail.

I don’t expect I’ll ever have the chance again to pass a weekend with my textbooks, but I’m certainly exceedingly lucky to have had the chance to do it once.



Posted in Bilingualism benefits

Privilege and Paradox in Bilingual Education

A few weeks ago I sat down with Donna Bardsley at Amsterdam Mamas, to record a podcast on bilingualism and bilingual education. The topics ranged from my own experience raising three kids with three languages, to the more complex, and compelling, issue of how language status affects children who are becoming bilingual. I’ve written about language status here before (like this one) but in this podcast we get a chance to go in depth on a topic that is often overlooked in discussions about bilingualism.

Many of you may have heard me speak over the years at different events, but for those who haven’t, here is a chance to hear me live, on the Web! Click on the logo below to link to the podcast. Interview starts at 3:40.