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The School House

How we kill languages and fail our cleverest children

Bilingual kids are the brightest in our schools, why aren’t we encouraging their bilingualism? Flickr/USAG Humphreys, CC BY

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry every time (predominantly monolingual) politicians and policy makers lament the fact that we don’t have enough students in schools studying foreign languages, whilst they simultaneously ignore the fact that about a third of the school population already speaks a “foreign” language at home.

These are our bilingual children - and often they speak even more than two languages. Being bilingual means that, cognitively, they are the most advantaged learners in our schools. Bilingual brains are more flexible, more creative, and better at problem solving.

Yet, too many of these learners occupy the long under achieving tail in our schools. How is it that schools fail so many clever language learners?

Failing our cleverest children

Many of these bilingual students speak English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EALD). In some urban schools, and many remote ones, 100% of the school population are EALD students.

It would appear we are so busy defining them as problems that need to be “fixed” that we have lost sight of the fact that they are the most linguistically savvy learners in our schools.

We give them the same national tests that we give native English speakers, despite the fact they are only part way through their English language learning journey to academic proficiency - one that typically takes seven years. And when they fail to perform at the same levels as their native English speaking peers, we label them failures.

And in our efforts to “fix” them, we ignore the overwhelming evidence that we learn additional languages on the strength of our mother tongue. This means the best way to support their English language learning is to nurture their mother tongues.

The consequences of ignoring bilingualism

Instead, politicians, bureaucrats, and schools simply ignore these children’s bilingualism, and in doing so, not only affect the learning potential of these children, but also other benefits to the wider population.

We waste a precious economic resource.

Through neglect, we “kill” the languages children bring with them into Kindergarten - essentially a free natural resource - whilst simultaneously trying to introduce new languages in the final years of schooling. This strategy is illogical, expensive and has a long record of failure.

When we ignore the languages of our students, we ignore who they are.

We participate in the destruction of their mother tongue, because without the opportunities to develop the language it becomes stunted. It gradually withers and disappears. And there are subsequent social and emotional issues that arise when you can no longer communicate in deep and meaningful ways with your family and community.

We lose the opportunity to make bilingualism normal, the usual, the everyday.

Whilst in the rest of the world speaking only one language is abnormal, we position second language learning as unusual and difficult. We spend millions of dollars cajoling monolingual students to take up foreign language study and ignore our bilingual students.

We fail to make use of these students’ greatest resource for learning.

Children who speak more than one language have increased brain functions and a better working memory which supports their abilities in other learning areas - including literacy and numeracy. Children who continue to learn their mother tongue, also learn English more effectively.

What’s the answer?

Getting monolingual English speaking kids to learn another language is laudable, but has proved to be incredibly difficult even after many expensive efforts over the decades. The more cost effective option is to maintain what you already have - to maintain the mother tongues of our bilingual children.

Research tells us that bilingual education programmes, where instruction happens in both languages, are the ideal. However, when there are many languages in the classroom, as there are in most Australian classrooms, bilingual programmes become logistically difficult.

Nonetheless, it is still possible to support the mother tongues of all children - even when the teacher is monolingual, and the classroom is multilingual.

This is what it could look like.

Put a language specialist teacher in each primary school to advise classroom teachers and support them to implement the curriculum in ways that nurture the mother tongues of the children. The Australian curriculum authority (ACARA) has developed a series of language and culture annotations for each curriculum descriptor, which provide a starting point for such an approach.

Build language awareness into all mainstream teacher education courses, and across all curriculum areas. Teacher education courses are as guilty of ignoring their students’ bilingualism as schools are.

Employ teaching assistants within the school who speak the children’s languages. Their task is to spend time in classrooms simply speaking with the children.

The aim is to make hearing and speaking other languages normal - an everyday occurrence in our classrooms.

By doing so we teach ALL our children that the world is multilingual and having a second language is normal, possible, and meaningful. This will increase the number of students who opt to take up an additional language as a subject of specialist study in high school.

Each school’s language specialist, mainstream teachers, and bilingual teaching assistants would work actively with parents to support them to continue speaking and teaching their children in their mother tongue. Links would be made directly to the many community language schools to access their resources and expertise.

Wasted resources and lost potential

The largest wasted resource in our schools are our bilingual children. As politicians and bureaucrats wonder how we can get more 16 year olds learning to count to 10 in a foreign language, they simultaneously ignore the languages that thousands of children bring into our schools.

When we nurture bilingualism, rather than ignore it, we kill two birds with one stone - we build our nation’s multilingual capacity and improve English language and literacy outcomes.

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