Bridging cultures: Bilingual and multilingual international schools on the move

The number of bilingual and multilingual international schools has increased over the past five years. No longer a left-field option, multilingual schools provide lifelong benefits for every learner and meet the needs of today’s more mobile and culturally diverse families.

Intl Guide 22 Bridging Cultures - Bilingual
A multilingual or bilingual education means much more than learning how to order cake with cream in German or parsing a verb. To write, speak and understand another language is to have a unique window on and appreciation of the country’s culture.
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“Language above all is a culture,” says Françoise Zurbach, Head of French-English bilingual international school, EIFA, based in Marylebone, London, in a recent Relocate Global webinar on the subject. “It’s the whole block: the language, the culture, the emotion. How we speak to people changes according to the language.”With global citizenship front of mind and internationally mobile families frequently blending more than one cultural identity and heritage, the ability to speak and learn in multiple languages builds cultural awareness and sense of self – a critical aspect of healthy transitions for third-culture kids.Bilingualism and multilingualism also nurture understanding of different perspectives and create valuable connections that would otherwise go missed.“Often parents are multiple passport holders and languages,” says Johanna Mitchell, Director of Lumos Education, an education and relocation consultancy. “They want their children to have a sense of global mobility and global awareness. Being bilingual or multilingual gives their children opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Benefits of a bilingual and multilingual education

Bilingual and multilingual education is therefore an increasingly relevant and accessible option for international families in our more mobile world where we code-switch between cultures many times a day at home, work and in education.Data on international school trends published in August by international school researchers ISC credits the rise of bilingual and multilingual international schools – whether in English, French, German, Mandarin, Japanese or the multitude of other home languages – to the increasing number of local families choosing an international education in their home country.This trend in international education honours the local, as well as the multicultural context, as educators and school communities nurture the next generation of globally aware leaders.“As international schools have become the domain for many more host children, language learning has shifted from English only to bilingual and multilingual offerings,” ISC comments. “International schools have a duty to promote internationalism, and for many schools that means starting with the promotion of languages.“Recent research by ISC Research into international mindedness highlights how bilingual and bicultural learning is increasing amongst international schools as a way of supporting a multicultural context that values the host country of the school.”The International School of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia (ISKL) has long been known for its community and where people of all backgrounds find a place to belong.“Bilingualism and multilingualism are assets that are celebrated at ISKL,” says Head of School, Rami Madani. “ISKL welcomes linguistic diversity and promotes the development of English academic proficiency alongside the development of the home language.”Language specialists and classroom teachers work together to ensure the best academic outcome possible within a happy, social framework. ISKL's EAL team works in partnership with students and parents to support multilingual learners and help them fulfil their potential.In Europe, Salem is one of two boarding schools in Germany that offer an English-speaking track and the IB programme. “So-called international schools can be found in the bigger cities all over Germany, but usually do not provide a boarding facility,” says Dr Stephanie Nau, Head of Admissions at the Schule Schloss Salem International Boarding School.“Salem’s student community consists of 45 different nations. About 60% of our children speak German and about 40% of our children study German as a foreign language at Salem but follow our lessons in English. Their mother language is fully accredited in the German curriculum, replacing our second foreign language.”

Achieving potential and maintaining rootedness

The International School of London (ISL), which has schools in the UK and Qatar, is another well-established and highly respected international school group that has multilingualism at its heart. It teaches 22 home languages and 80% of students graduate with a bilingual qualification, “One of the purposes of education is to prepare a child for the future,” says Susan Stewart, Head of Multilingualism at ISL. “For an international child, who may be moving from one assignment to another, keeping all their language options open is crucial."As well as supporting families as they make transitions in their host country, a truly bilingual and multilingual education at an international school has other highly sought-after bonuses. Academic Ellen Bialystok reviewed the effects and consequences of bilingual education on young children in a 2016 paper in the ‘International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism'.Among the key conclusions drawn from research was that, irrespective of socio-economic background, bilingual instruction at school had long-term benefits for children’s literacy and language. They showed higher levels of executive function, which is a predictor of academic success.Being fluent in two languages develops all-round cognitive skills and higher executive function, builds confidence, as well as fosters global mindedness and cultural awareness – highly transferable skills valued by prestigious universities and employers.

What is a bilingual or multilingual education in practice?

But to deliver these clear benefits, teaching and learning has to go way beyond simply having languages on the curriculum taught in the classroom. How children are immersed in the language-learning experience as they acquire a second, third or fourth language is critical.“Successful true bilingualism requires that both languages themselves be the medium of instruction,” says Francoise Zurbach, not just its subject. “This is why at EIFA its balanced English-French curriculum is delivered five days a week. Some bilingual schools teach a second language only part of the week. But if a child doesn’t speak the language at home, then this means they can go four days or so without speaking their second language.”There has also been much pedagogical and academic study into the concept of translanguaging. The original meaning is understood to mean “the planned and systematic use of two languages in the classroom by specifying and varying the language of input and output.” However, because of its significance and relevance to healthy transitions – the process enables children to relate their previous learning experiences to language acquisition in their new setting and interactions with other students – translanguaging has grown to encompass these and other aspects.In most truly bilingual and multilingual international schools, language learning therefore takes place in the subject lesson itself – be it English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, German for example – as well as in other subjects, with the language the curriculum taught in dependent on the day of the week or timetable.

School leavers’ exams and bilingual qualifications

Given the clear benefits – and often necessity – of a bilingual or multilingual school option for families on the move, curricula and examination bodies around the world have adapted over decades to award qualifications that celebrate and support bilingualism. For example, the International Option of the French Baccalaureate (OIB) accredited by Cambridge Assessment International Education, is a Franco-British educational collaboration based on the French Bacc. Similarly, in the US, the French Ministry of Education has partnered with College Board to create American Section OIB exams.The International Baccalaureate Diploma also supports bilingual identities through its Bilingual Diploma. Candidates awarded a grade 3 or higher in two languages selected from the DP language and literature courses will receive this certification. Students attaining a grade 3 or higher in an individuals and societies or science subject, completed in a different language, will also be awarded the accolade.With employers paying a premium for people proficient in more than one language, investment in a bilingual or multilingual education is a good and increasingly popular option.

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