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Language Matters

By Jon Nordmeyer
Language Matters

Research, insights, and practical wisdom from the global education community, empowering all teachers to serve multilingual learners in international schools.

Change is a constant for international schools, and our globally mobile students learn to develop as individuals whose identity is continually in flux. Multilingual learners in particular, who navigate school in more than one language, bring an additional layer of complexity—and opportunity—to the already daunting task of figuring out who they are. As 21st-century educators, we need to build on multilingualism and transnationalism as resources as we prepare students for increasingly more complex and more global challenges in the years to come.

Today’s school communities require each of us to explore the connection between identity and worldview. To fully appreciate how our students see themselves, we need to understand how we see ourselves, and ultimately, how a school sees itself. And language matters. We need to recognize how language policies and practices—written and unwritten—might promote or inhibit learning. Understanding this intersection of language, identity, and learning helps us support today’s adolescents to become tomorrow’s global leaders, international scholars, and transnational agents of change.

International school communities are defined by their linguistic, cultural, and national intersections; they are a complex constellation of students, teachers, and families. And while each school is unique, most international schools share one common feature: a multifaceted and diffused cultural identity, somewhat precariously suspended within a host culture.  

Multilingualism as a Resource

Transnational students in English-medium schools are often expected to check their identities at the door and leave their home language and culture outside the school. When multilingual students are forced to communicate only in English, they can experience a real loss of identity. In fact, it is taken from them. Fifty years ago, students and teachers in English-medium international schools were largely monolingual English speakers. Curriculum materials and assessments were published in the U.S. or U.K., and the post-secondary destination for most families was an English-medium university in their “home” country. However, in many of today’s international schools we find an increasingly familiar, if paradoxical, situation: a largely multilingual student body, taught by mostly monolingual educators who, in turn, are led by primarily monolingual administrators.

Today, multilingual students are the norm in many international schools. On one hand, English remains a privileged, neo-colonial language of global power, considered at once a lingua franca, a medium of instruction, and a target language. On the other hand, multilingualism is changing how teachers and students interact in international schools. Three classic orientations posed by Ruiz (1984) explain how language can be viewed:

1. Multilingualism is a problem and thus must be eliminated through English immersion and, ultimately, subtractive bilingualism.

2. Multilingualism is a right for which students can be given special, but separate, classes to acquire English through additive forms of bilingualism.

3. Multilingualism is a resource and a key aspect of global citizenship and intercultural competence, a goal for both students and staff.

Consider the term “translanguaging.” In the past two decades, the term has described the natural use of a student’s full linguistic repertoire, defined as the “multiple discursive practices in which bilinguals engage in order to make sense of their bilingual worlds” (Garcia 2009). Some see translanguaging practices as a threatening, if necessary, linguistic compromise, challenging exclusive language policies within international schools.  

However, this sometimes uncomfortable collision of language policy and classroom practice actually offers a chance for us to develop new perspectives: “in fact these terms with the trans- prefix at once advocate for the appreciation of fluidity and flexibility seen in contemporary society and underscore the very existence of categories, borders, and boundaries that are called into question” (Hawkins & Mori 2018).

English-medium international schools can be defined by exceptionalism against the backdrop of a national language and education system. They may be seen as the most innovative or elite school in a particular city, with education reserved for expatriates as well as the wealthiest or most connected host-country families. We must recognize the inherent privilege created by an elite school that uses a global language of power embedded within a host country community.

In this context, language policy becomes an expression of school identity. Innovative practices for both teachers and learners can transcend boundaries and, in turn, provide an opportunity for international schools to forge new identities.

Language as a Bridge

Multilingualism is an asset, and students who inhabit this liminal space have a transformational perspective. To fully engage with academic tasks, both students and teachers must negotiate multiple language systems, and synthesize multiple cultural perspectives. This development of a complex and multilingual identity is what many schools aspire to for their graduates. In fact, the ability to successfully navigate linguistic and cultural boundaries is one of the core components of being a global citizen.

Consider the unique view of a city that is only available from a bridge. From Istanbul to Dubai to Singapore, port cities and border towns at the intersection of cultures and languages have always provided the potential for innovation and intellectual exchange.

In the same way, transnational students are able to bridge languages and cultures, developing a unique worldview in the process. In her essay “A Letter to a Young Immigrant,” author and poet Mitali Perkins captures this potential:
But don’t get discouraged. In fact, you should feel quite the opposite. There is good news about life in the melting pot. There are gains to offset the losses, if you manage not to melt away altogether. You’re boiled down, refined to your own distinctiveness. You realize early that virtues are not the property of one heritage; you discover a self powerful enough to balance the best of many worlds.

We are fortunate, as 21st-century international educators to teach students who are multilingual and transnational. And we are privileged to be part of their journey to become more mindful, skillful, and compassionate global citizens. Language matters, and multilingual students are the key to helping us build schools inclusive enough to balance the best of many worlds. We will need these students with the cultural, linguistic, and intellectual flexibility to be able to cross borders and bridge communities, to help solve crises we face as a planet—whether climate change, ethnic conflicts, or perhaps the next global pandemic.

Jon Nordmeyer is International Program Director at WIDA, a research center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Portions this article originally appeared in ELMLE Bridge in the Middle, December 2018.

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