The power of home languages in multilingual education

In both international and dutch schools in the netherlands, students from various corners of the globe bring withthem a wealth of linguistic heritages. While many schools prioritise the language in which they teach, nurturing one’s home language(s) is crucial for effective language acquisition.

As a school we specialise in this area, continually evolving to support students on their multilingual journey.

 A strong emphasis on acquiring the school or host country’s language is evident in schools worldwide. This focus isessential for integrating into the local community, fostering communication, cultural understanding, and insights intosocietal dynamics of the host country.

Programmes such as NT2 (Nederlands 2e taal) in Dutch schools or special Dutch language classes and EAL (English as Additional Language) / ESL (English as Second Language) in international schools, all aim to helpbridge the gap for non-native speakers.

At some schools there is an obligation to only speak the school language, however, a lot of research demonstrates thatthis is not the right approach. Allowing room for students to speak their home language at school plays a crucial role inthe social, emotional and cognitive development of young newcomers.

Importance of development of home languages
When students are still learning the school language, it can be a challenging adjustment, often leading to feelings ofexclusion and isolation. Developing basic interpersonal communication skills, such as social language, can takeanywhere from six months to two years, while cognitive academic language proficiency may require at least fiveyears. This extended language adjustment period can negatively impact students’ motivation as well as their overalldevelopment if they lack opportunities to express themselves.

How home languages help with learning
Recent research in Haarlemmermeer by Verwey Jonker shows that this language gap can affect students’engagement in learning, leading to demotivation. Speaking their home language provides relief and clarity formany students, contributing to their socio-emotional development, progress and achievements in school.

Dr. Jim Cummins, a prominent researcher in bilingual education, also supports this idea. He highlights the positivecorrelation between home language development and the acquisition of new languages. According to him, proficiencyin one language often facilitates the learning of another, maximising a child’s potential.

Furthermore, language and conceptual development are linked. Thematic education with appropriate languagesupport offers numerous opportunities, connecting with students’ experiences and helping them to articulatetheir thoughts.

Language diversity
Fostering language diversity in the classroom promotes mutual understanding, respect and the preservation ofcultural heritage that is embedded in every language.

Embracing diversity is essential for schools, enabling all students to explore beyond their boundaries and gaininsights into different cultures and backgrounds.

Multilingual classrooms
Cummins suggests that classroom instruction should promote a students’ flexible and strategic use of their linguisticrepertoire in regards to their academics. Embracing trans-language learning allows schools to harness multiple languages, enabling students to use various linguistic resources to interact with the curriculum.

Students should feel empowered to express themselves in any language they feel comfortable with as this motivatesthem to utilise their existing language skills. This not only boosts their confidence, but also fosters an interest inEnglish along with other languages.

Many schools are also certified Language Friendly Schools, which is a network of schools aiming to create an inclusiveand language friendly learning environment.

Support and resources
Some students may experience a “silent” or non-verbal period, which can extend up to six months for youngerlearners. In these situations, the parents play a pivotal role and it is encouraged for them to maintain speaking theirfirst language(s) at home, helping students to preserve their parents’ languages while being exposed to theirlearning language.

Technology aids language development; translation apps and earphones enable non- English-speaking students toparticipate in English-based activities. This allows them to express thoughts, produce work and conduct research in their native languages.

Assessing students’ skills irrespective of language offers a deeper understanding of their capabilities. The use ofinstructional methods like “comprehensible input”, TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), andTalk4 Writing are ways to engage students in language acquisition through storytelling, integrating gestures, actions and visual aids.

Written by Anne-Marie van Holst,
Director Optimist International School