Top 5 tips for learning about your new students when you can’t talk to them…

Every year, all around the world, teachers welcome into their classrooms students that they can not communicate with at all. While it’s obviously extremely difficult for the students, it’s also hard for the teachers. Every teacher wants to make their new students feel comfortable and happy and ready to learn. And that’s really hard to do when you can’t communicate with them. Over the years I’ve developed systems and resources for schools to use to structure the process of getting to know new students, but schools and teachers can do this themselves as well. Here are my top tips for getting the new school year off to a great start, for all your students (and for you!).

  1. Ensure that your school collects proper data from incoming families. They need to know the dominant culture/s of the family (not to be presumed as the passport country!), as well as an accurate language profile for each new student. This will help teachers in building knowledge about incoming students who are just starting with the school language. This data should also include information about likes/dislikes, both in terms of school subjects but also about hobbies etc.
  2. Do some research on the cultural background of incoming students. Many aspects of the classroom and teacher/student relationship are different from one culture to the next, so having an idea what your new students are expecting and are comfortable with may help you avoid uncomfortable moments. Topics to look for include typical adult-child interaction patterns, classroom practices, and potential sources of cultural conflict (shoes off inside or shoes on?). This website is a veritable treasure trove of useful links to help you: The Best Sites For Learning About The World’s Different Cultures
  3. Build a language development profile based on the dominant language of each new pupil. The best resource I have found for this is Learner English. It’s a linguistic analysis of the major languages/language families and how they compare and contrast to English. It looks at phonetics, grammar, sentence composition, and cognates/false friends, in depth. There is also a great section on direct translations and common errors. Although the chapters are very dense, it’s incredibly worthwhile to learn to use this resource. Teachers who understand the language starting point of their learners can better predict progress and problems, and better explain/demonstrate the differences between students’ dominant languages and English (contrastive awareness). This means that instead of marking everything as an “error” they can point out where there has been transfer, and work directly on those points of conflict. I advise schools to make a working group and assign one language per person, and then build a data base for the whole school, as the idea of tackling all the languages in a class would be daunting for even the most dedicated teacher!
  4. Learn to say hello in the the languages of each of your students. Imagine the impact on a child starting in a brand new school, knowing that they will have to learn a new language, to be greeted with one familiar word by their new teacher. It’s an instant way to let each individual student know that you see them, and they matter to you. That little effort can have a big pay-off in lowering the affective filter and helping them be more open to learning the school language right from the start. If you want to go a step farther, make a bulletin board with greeting in all the languages of your class, and use them with the class every morning, so all the students can learn to greet each other appropriately.
  5. And finally, help all your students get to know each other in non-verbal and non-threatening ways. We are all used to planning first day activities to help the class bond and get to know each other, but all too often (especially in after the early years of primary) these activities are language-based. Be creative, and find language-free ways to break the ice in the classroom, and let the students get to know each other without the filter of language/ability in the school language/accent. It levels the playing field and allows all the students a chance to shine, not only the ones who are strongest in the school language.

So with this I sign off, wishing you all a fantastic start to the 2017-2018 academic year!

(Cross-posted from LinkedIn for readers who aren’t connected to me there).

International Mother Language Day: Why is it important?

On the occasion of this Day, I launch an appeal for the potential of multilingual education to be acknowledged everywhere, in education and administrative systems, in cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General

Every year I write a post about this day, but it’s important to remember that “Mother language” isn’t about a day in a year, it’s about a lifetime of language. Like so many of these celebratory days, we take a moment in time to consider an issue that impacts children every day, all year. Here are some facts about why “mother tongue” is important:

  1. A child’s mother tongue/home language is their primary vehicle of cognitive development in the early years. This is why changing language at school-entry is difficult, and often detrimental to, young children. When you take away their strongest language for cognitive processing and put them into a new language, you set them back significantly in terms of what they can understand and learn.
  2. This fact correlates with educational research that demonstrates that children who are schooled in a second language, with no access to their mother tongue/home language tend to do less well in school and have lower rates of school attendance in many parts of the world.
  3. A child’s mother tongue/home language is also an integral part of their character and culture. Not allowing them to use it at school essentially sentences them to who they are within the limits of their second language development, rather than who they are as a whole person.
  4. There is no different in value between languages and dialects. No one language is superior to any other, in grammar, vocabulary or expression. Any language with a written script can be used for education, even if it has not traditionally been used in this way. Languages can be developed to meet educational needs if the will (and the funding) is available. Consider all the words that English has had to invent to keep up with the technological revolution: computer, internet, mouse, googling, blogging, vlogging…
  5. It is possible to design and implement a broad spectrum multilingual curriculum, in which children can access learning in their own languages, while simultaneously developing a new school language for further use. It takes time, effort and leadership (and money…), but it has been done and can be done again. A brief example is the growth of Mother-tongue based, multilingual education (MTB-MLE) in the Philippines, where diverse communities have been making every effort to provide for community languages to be used in the early years of primary education, rather than an abrupt submersion into English and/or Tagalog at school age.

All of these factors also apply to children in international schools, not only to minority language speakers. There is often a mistaken perception that children in international schools who are in language-immersion situations, without the presence of their mother tongue/home language are somehow exempt from the complications that can arise from going to school in a language you are only learning. This, of course, is not true, and even in high-status international schools children benefit from accessing education in their own language, if not as medium of instruction then by way of robust multilingual classroom practices.

We all – parents, educators, administrators, policy makers – need to start paying more attention to our own participation in the dialogue about, and progress towards, a more inclusive education system for all students.

100 Words for a children’s endangered language dictionary is a project I recently supported, let me know if you know of others.

Happy Mother Language Day 2017!