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A Survey on Second Language Acquisition in International Schools

By Matthew E. Sipple
A Survey on Second Language Acquisition in International Schools

A friend who teaches secondary Spanish at an international school in Tokyo wrote recently to ask me when I believe students should be offered a choice of which second language they want to study. Her school offers this choice starting in Grade 6 and she would like to see Spanish offered in Grades 1–5 as well, where currently only Japanese is offered. Her question spurred me to send out a survey about this issue to the members of the Academy for International School Heads (AISH), and I was happy to receive sixty-three responses.
The survey asked four questions: 1) Does your school offer a mother-tongue program? 2) When do students first start to study a second language? 3) When do students first get a choice of second languages to study (if at all)? and 4) What languages does your school offer?
Interestingly, 78 percent of respondents indicated that their schools offer some type of mother-tongue program, and a whopping 44 percent that they offer such a program at all grade levels. From reading the comments, however, it is clear that most of these programs only offer instruction in the host country’s language, not in all students’ individual native languages, which would clearly be difficult to staff and expensive.
Not so surprisingly, 86 percent of respondents indicated that students in their school begin to study a second language in Grade 1 or earlier. The answers to the main question of when choice is introduced, however, were fairly widespread. Grade 6 was the clear favorite, with twenty of the schools (31 percent) introducing at least one additional second language option at that level.
An equal number of schools offer a choice at an earlier grade level, with first and fifth grades being the most common, respectively. Eight of the respondents indicated that their schools do not offer students a choice at any grade level, as they only offer one second language option.
Finally, in terms of the most widely offered language options, Spanish and French were clearly the top two, with Mandarin coming in a distant third.
While this was not a scientific study by any means, it does raise interesting questions. What, for example, should be the goal of a second-language program? Is it to adequately prepare students for success in a Higher Level IB language course? Is it to teach an appreciation for the host country’s language and culture? Is it to graduate bilingual or trilingual students? Or, is it just to improve brain development and teach transferrable linguistic skills that will benefit your students’ acquisition of English?
Of course, the answers to these questions are going to vary from school to school, depending upon the students they serve and the focus of their mission. Hopefully, however, the answers to these questions will be reflected in each school’s second language programs and languages offered.
Matthew E. Sipple is Deputy Head of School at Oberoi International School.

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