Inclusion and international education: a multilingual future?

Research into bilingualism is moving conversations into rich new territories. Our latest webinar with leading educators from international schools examines the latest insights and practices.

Sharing their professional experiences on this webinar about the Benefits of Bilingual Education, part of Relocate Global’s spring Great International Education & Schools’ Fair, which offers fantastic resources to parents and employers of globally mobile populations alike, are: 

Honouring cultures and diverse experience at school

Up until relatively recently, bilingualism in education was a controversial subject. People used to think a child growing learning two languages would be disadvantaged by this. But research and practice shows the opposite is true. Speaking multiple languages – and from an early age – lends a unique perspective to individuals’ learning environments."There are advantages to being bilingual and we know it is not confusing," says webinar panellist Susan Stewart, Head of Multilingualism at the pioneering English-medium International School of London. "We know there are economic, social and cognitive advantages." Awareness of the value of multilingualism has grown alongside recognition of the importance of rootedness and connection with family heritage, and developing self identity – especially for children of internationally mobile families and families from multiple cultures.UNESCO – the United Nations’ agency that promotes world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture – is also backing multilingualism as a way of preserving linguistically diverse societies, sustainability and inclusion in education, particularly for all those on the move, as part of its Sustainable Development Goals. 

Talking the right language about multilingualism

Today, people's indivudual language profiles are much more varied. People from families of mixed heritage are far more common, as is international mobility. This, says Susan Stewart, means there are different language and learning needs, both today and in the future, which is changing how we think about education and home languages.“Young people's and adults' language profiles or portraits are far more complex than they were in the past," says Susan Stewart. "Children might have one or two languages they speak at home, another from the community they live in and there might be another language they are requred to use at school."While UNESCO still talks about "Mother tongue" to celebrate linguistic diversity each February, the picture is more complex that the term suggests. "For many, it is no longer their dominant tongue or strongest language," continues Susan Stewart. "Terms such as 'whole language' or 'personal language' can capture the nuances. The term bilingual or biliteral is also a lot more complex. It is more about linguistic diversity.”In education, this perspective ties into another big shift in conversations around understanding the needs of multilingual children. This is looking at individual learning through the lens of more than one language and a dynamic, lifelong process. “When children learn, they are drawing on all languages to build understanding and make meaning,” explains Susan Stewart. “As teachers and parents of bilingual children, we need to be aware of how different language combinations will result in children needing different levels of support as they develop their languages."Linked to this is the hot topic of translanguaging – a term that is used a lot in research and being taken on in many schools, whether international schools, bilingual schools or local state schools. "It is the flexible use of a child’s full linguistic repertoire,” says Susan Stewart.Describing in this context how ISL supports bilingualism and multilingualism while being an English-medium International Baccalaureate school, Susan Stewart says “what we do that is really special in that we strive to support every child’s home language, so we currently have 22 home languages supported in the programme.” 

Parallel lines – finding the space in the middle

At bilingual Collège Français Bilingue de Londres (CFBL), based in Kentish Town, native French- and English-speaking teachers are appointed for their strong interest in languages and their native teaching styles. These culturally different approaches are delivered in the two languages shared equally across the week’s timetable, which follows the French curriculum.Talking about the benefits of a bilingual education, Cecile Denais, Deputy Head Teacher at CFBL, which has around 700 students from nursery school-age up to Year 10/the end of troisième, says, “the bilingual dimension serves students usefully in their future careers and life. CFBL aims to take the best qualities of the English and French education systems to create a unique environment.” This bilingual – and bicultural – approach means “students can take two different strategies to arrive at the same answer,” says Cecile Denais. “This way of teaching allows students to experience two solutions and to choose the one that is most logical and efficient for their way of working. Learning in a bilingual environment or school gives the students mental flexibility, but also enables them to adapt more quickly to new situations as they move to adulthood and beyond."

The benefits of multilingualism

SIAL, a small primary, bilingual and bicurriculum school for children aged 3-11 based in Holland Park, approaches bilingual education in a similar way. Native Italian- and English-speaking teachers follow a recognised Italian and English curriculum, with additional language-learning support when needed.“Our admission is totally inclusive,” says Ines Saltalamacchia. “Child arrive from any background school system and we don’t choose on their ability to understand a language. From a teaching point of view, if you can follow the children's need and rythm in their learning, then you can really get the best out of them because children develop in very different ways. “Definitely more adults are seeing benefits of being bilingual,” continues Ines Saltalamacchia. “The number of people coming to us with no close link to Italy is increasing. Families are interested in a broader education. Studies show that a [bilingual education] gives an extra year to our children’s minds. Growing up in a bicultural and multicultural environment exposes to them to different approaches to life. This is very important to teach our children tolerance and respect in our world community.”Having access to multiple languages and curricula is also helping parents to prepare the next generation for a more uncertain world. “We don’t know exactly what is going to happen with Brexit," says Cecile Denais. Nevertheless, for parents, whether French, English, bi-national or from elsewhere, the combination of the French curriculum and the British approach means they can be more flexible when it comes to future career moves and their children's education journeys.

Bilingualism – a language for uncertain times?

With mobility and international relocation plans on hold or hastily rearranged since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and Brexit adding to uncertainty, schools have a vital role to play in providing stability and support for international families.“The key terms of the moment are for us all to be very adaptable, while helping students and families keep their options open,” says Susan Stewart. “Offering languages is such an ideal way to do so.“We had families who joined us in the last lockdown who were new to English and new to UK. Their first encounter with English is learning online. That’s why having those home language teachers who communicate in first language is so valuable so families can connect academically and socially.” “The connection between family and school is paramount,” agrees Ines Saltalamacchia, where SIAL's bicurricular approach offers flexibility to follow the English, Italian or IB programme in secondary school. As well as supporting children’s learning, connecting families to each other through the school “creates a strong community ” where parents support others who have just moved to the school. “We try to involve all parents as much as possible in school life and communicate in both languages.”At CFBL, “parents organise a lot of activities and are involved in different school bodies, like the board and parent trustees,” says Cecile Denais. “They help us provide the best education, which is not just about academics, but about helping each other.”Clearly, on many levels, there is a growing appreciation of linguistic diversity and understanding of how multilingualism is critical to moving and settling successfully around the world, with educators and international schools having a vital role in this as we prepare young people for the future.

Access more of Relocate Global’s International Education and Schools Guides, Great International Education & Schools' Fair webinar recordings and articles.

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