Migrant children buck the trend when it comes to mother tongue teaching

Parents and guardians play a vital role in a child’s academic success. Shutterstock

School success amongst immigrant children is not the norm. However a small percentage do manage. Some even outperform locals. What can we learn from their experiences?

Language skills are generally regarded as being critical in an immigrant’s integration into the new countries they move to. And research has shown that better language skills lead to better performance. A good example of this is the finding from many first generation (those who migrate with their parents) and second generation (those born in the new country) comparisons: that school outcomes do typically rise between these two generations.

However, one particular phenomenon called “immigrant paradox” contradicts this. “Immigrant paradox” refers to the fact that achievement often reaches a plateau – or even declines – from the third generation onwards. Research conducted in the US shows that this paradox is more pronounced among the children of Asian and African migrants, is stronger for boys than for girls and more consistent in secondary schools than in primary schools. It’s prevalent even after improved social economic status or language ability.

To understand this, we did an extensive literature review on how migrant children overcome language barriers and succeed. In the review we identified factors that explained these children’s success or failure. We focused specifically on what strategies families used to overcome language barriers and other inherited factors such as social economic status.

In addition to reviewing international migration literature, we also examined literature about school effectiveness in South Africa. We found that most South African literature studies continue to emphasise conventional and tangible factors, such as school resources, teacher qualifications and experience, class size and language of instruction for academic success. Factors such as aspirations and expectations are seldom explored.

Our findings point to a need for schools and parents to pay greater attention to non-conventional factors such as aspirations and expectations.

Against the odds

Language skills have helped to improve school performance between 1st and 2nd generation migrants. But when language skills are no longer a barrier, what else sustains or hinders academic performance?

Immigrant paradox suggests that language might be a necessary but insufficient factor for academic success. Alternatively, there’s a limit to what language competence can contribute. Other factors can either compensate for insufficient language capability, or may even become more important than the language ability.

What we found through the literature review is that parental involvement, especially in the form of parental expectation, plays a huge role. This applies to 3rd generation, but also 1st and 2nd generation parents. The huge impact of parental expectation is even more salient for parents with lower social economic status, or those unable to get directly involved in school related matters due to language or cultural barriers.

Although these parents may not be able to attend school meetings or read school reports, they can still be supportive of their children’s academic progress and instil high education values and aspirations in their children. It is this consistent insistence on educational value and aspiration that propels children to succeed, and to keep succeeding.

Examples of possible strategies

Often, the motivation children need is someone showing interest in their schooling and listening to their challenges. Parents can facilitate home learning by allocating time and space for homework, ensuring homework is complete and setting limits on watching TV.

Homework help proved to be useful but not essential. Instead support could also take the form of supervising homework or establishing explicit expectation of which grades a child must aim for. Some parents also turned their own experience to teaching the children the importance of hard work and endurance.

Another strategy is reading. If parents can’t read themselves, they can ask the children to read to them.

Sometimes more extreme single-mindedness in pushing performance was used by parents. This included, for example, reducing all non-academic related activities such as household chores, TV watching and other extracurricular activities unrelated to academic performance.


Migrants, despite difficulties in adapting to a new environment, tend to see their adjustment as temporary. And this might be different for poor local families who have become disillusioned with the educational system and have given up on the dream. However, the same can precisely reinforce the importance of having a different mindset that any changes have to start with believing that things can change. Expectation and aspiration matter.