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Language Policies Should Be a Part of Our DEIJ Conversations

By Alysa Perreras and Matt Hajdun
Language Policies Should Be a Part of Our DEIJ Conversations

As many international schools respond to or reinvest in the call to engage in the work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, one area that must be included in the conversation is that of linguistic equity. In many cases, international schools were designed with the purpose of providing expat students and families with experiences parallel to those within their country of origin (Hayden & Thompson, 1995). However well-intentioned, it brought forth an initial value statement of “our country’s educational system is superior.”  Even if schools did not begin with this purpose, many continue to operate with a lens towards the Western world, as seen in the dominant language of instruction at the school (Nordmeyer, 2020).

In examining the complex relationship between language, culture, and identity, it is vital that we understand that the three truly cannot be separated. Therefore, deconstructing a school’s language policy and, the inherent value system within, is an essential part of the work around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. A common claim amongst international schools is the perceived celebration of diversity, the existence of a wide variety of cultures and identities learning together. Yet, research demonstrates that many international schools fall short when it comes to intentionally creating the conditions for people of diverse linguistic identities to actually thrive and exist in totality (Russo, Islam & Koyuncu, 2016; Sprio & Crisfield, 2018). Diversity is allowing space for languages and identities to be present on our campuses. While this is important (and can and should be celebrated) we must not stop short and must also explore linguistic equity, inclusion, and justice:

  • Equity: What are some of the scaffolds and supports that should be provided to all students so they are able to demonstrate what they can do in their language(s) when instructed and assessed in the target language(s) of the school?
  • Inclusion: How are students invited to maintain their language(s) by being provided spaces to share, connect, and celebrate their linguistic assets and multilingual identities?
  • Justice: In what ways do we ensure linguistic equality and give space and value to all of the linguistic assets students and their families bring to our schools? How are all community members held accountable to promote, model, and uphold these beliefs and challenge linguistic discrimination whenever it appears?

Below, we employ the lens of the four I’s systems framework, ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized, to unpack manifestations related to linguistic equity within international schools from the perspective of various community members (Chinook Fund, 2015). We provide some questions that might support conversations in our schools to shift mindsets and courageously confront the historical realities of international schools that operate as barriers to true linguistic equity. To simplify this complex issue, we will share possible questions with an assumed context of a bilingual international school in a host country where Spanish is the predominant and recognized official language.


Despite claims of global mindedness in many international schools, colonization, both as a historical and continued practice, creates conditions for linguistic hegemony; the notion that the English language is of superior value to the language(s) of the host country (Eidoo et al., 2011). Rooted within this ideology of English as superior are equally harmful notions that position learning English as the only necessary neoliberal outcome to being competitive in the “global market;” little regard is paid to the critical thinking and cognitive advantages of multilingualism as a whole (Abdi et al., 2015). Additionally, the work of Kimberle Crenshaw (2002) and the concept of intersectionality highlights how ideologies that position English as superior also create pathways that position whiteness and westerners as superior. These ideologies and their manifestations must be clearly named and examined if linguistic equity is the desired outcome of any school.


Possible Manifestations 

Questions to Shift Mindsets


The beliefs or ideas we hold

  • English is the language of power, of influence, and/or of status.
  • One language is better than another.
  • Speaking with an accent is stigmatized. Accents are a sign that you are not intelligent.
  • If you don’t speak a language with correct grammar/pronunciation, you must not be smart.
  • What are our beliefs about language and identity?
  • How do we value all languages?
  • How do we define language proficiency outside of accent?
  • How does “native speaker” favor certain nations, races and identities and how can that be re-examined?


Benefits and pay structures are often the most sensitive and controversial aspects of international schools. Recruitment is a factor in salary structure. Generally speaking, educators coming from outside the host country might be used to higher salaries or may be accustomed to certain benefits and supports related to being hired as “native” English speakers, a problematic term that again centers on whiteness. While these realities are complex, we must make space for such tension and acknowledge that, for various reasons, attaching a monetary value to the cultural and linguistic origin of a teacher or administrator has consequences. Those values are, in fact, passed on to families and other stakeholders. We hear it when two teachers of equal qualifications are compared and the host-country teacher is seen as inferior or when families ask for a teacher who is a “native” English speaker.

Additionally, in many international schools, the target language of instruction is English. Schedules are built and hiring is often prioritized to allow for the majority of a school day to be provided in English. However, Genesee (1983) found when exploring French immersion schools that there was a limited difference between students who spent 40% or 80% of the time in the target language. What made the difference? Teacher training and practice! Therefore, it wasn’t simply about the language instruction, but rather the skills of educators.


Possible Manifestations 

Questions to Shift Mindsets


The use of laws, policies, and systems to maintain the ideology

  • Expat teachers, as native English speakers, are given greater benefits and contractual value within the system.
  • Our brand is that we are the best school for English in the city. Therefore, classes with a target-language of English should dominate the instructional day.
  • As an English-centric school, communication sent to families should be in English.
  • What messages might we be sending by our policies for hiring and retention?
  • What programmatic decisions might be affecting the perception of which language is valued more?


When the manifestations of language hegemony go unexamined with institutional practices, they inevitably impact how members of the community relate to each other. In teacher interactions, the structures that maintain the English language as superior can translate to a lack of immersion into the local language and culture, which may later manifest in cultural and national segregation within the school. In the classroom, it can be seen how educators enforce English-only policies in a way that may cause students to feel “less than” as they acquire a new language, which in turn can lead to bullying amongst peers in their own language development and accent.

Anytime a hegemonic ideology is embedded institutionally, it gives rise to those in the dominant culture to disrespect or demean those in a marginalized group; this occurs both consciously and unconsciously. A failure to examine hegemonic language policy results in a hierarchy that harms the identity and culture of members of the community. Educators or learners may in turn struggle to fully engage when parts of their identity are under threat in interpersonal interactions.


Possible Manifestations 

Questions to Shift Mindsets

Interpersonal: The manifestations of the ideology in how one group treats another

  • Team meetings of local and expat teachers are always conducted in English and translation into the home country language is provided only in cases of misunderstanding.
  • Calling community members lazy if they use Spanglish.
  • If you speak a language not from the western world (like English, French, or German), you are less smart.
  • How do we create interpersonal language exchanges that value multiple languages, not English alone?
  • How do we engage students in appreciation of language acquisition, regardless of errors and/or accent?


When local teachers question whether or not they can use their language(s) in school or students question their own value/intelligence because they are struggling to demonstrate their knowledge in the school’s target language(s), the policies, practices, and beliefs have taken an unintentional hold on the identities of whom they are designed to support and empower. We want the members of our school community to not be asking themselves the binary question, “Do I belong here?” but rather, “What are all the ways that I can share my assets within this learning community?”.

If education in international schools gets simplified down to “how you say it” versus “what you say,” we run the risk of devaluing the whole purpose of learning a new language. Learning a language is more about deepening an understanding of your own identity, and your ability to communicate and engage with others. Having a goal to produce the next generation of “native speakers” is unattainable and should be undesirable. Rather, we should seek to allow students to have the autonomy to use all of their languages with flexibility, intentionality, and inclusivity.


Possible Manifestations 

Questions to Shift Mindsets

Internalized: How people begin to view themselves as inferior or superior in relation to the ideology

  • I am not intelligent because I don’t speak English and/or Spanish well.
  • I am not valued because I am not fluent in the target language of the school.
  • I’m not going to put the effort into learning English because I will have an accent and therefore won’t be “good.”
  • I am superior to others who do not speak English at my level.
  • How can we build structures to support students to see their multilingualism as an asset?
  • What do systems of accountability look like when ideas of language hierarchy emerge and are used to cause harm?


For many international schools, our history involves oppressive linguistic ideologies based on the imperialist belief that the language(s) of the host country were inferior to English. We recognize that confronting these histories is not simple. Indeed, it is a process filled with nuances and complexities. It requires schools to educate, advocate, and engage all community members. This work may also bring up fears and discomfort. However, we know this work is also important. We can no longer rest on our histories and accept them because “that’s how it was done.”  We humbly welcome you into this space and invite you to join us in these conversations - en cualquier idioma en que te sientes más confortable.


Abdi, A. A., Shultz, L., & Pillay, T. (2015). Decolonizing global citizenship education. SensePublishers.

Crenshaw, K. W. (2002). The first decade: Critical reflections, Or "A Foot in The Closing Door.”

Eidoo, S., Ingram, L.-A., MacDonald, A., Nabavi, M., Pashby, K., & Stille, S. (2011). “Through the Kaleidoscope”: Intersections Between Theoretical Perspectives and Classroom Implications in Critical Global Citizenship Education. Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne de l’éducation, 34(4), 59–85.

Genesee, Fred. (1983). “Bilingual Education of Majority Language Children: The Immersion Experiments in Review.” Applied Psycholinguistics. 4. 1 - 46.

Hayden, M., & Thompson, J. (1995). International Schools and International Education: a relationship reviewed. Oxford Review of Education, 21(3), 327–345.

Nordmeyer, J. (2020, September 30). Language Matters. The International Educator (TIE Online).

Russo, M., Islam, G., & Koyuncu, B. (2017). Non-native accents and stigma: How self-fulfilling prophesies can affect career outcomes. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 507–520.

Spiro, J., & Crisfield, E. (2019). Linguistic and cultural innovation in schools: the languages challenge. Palgrave Macmillan.



Alysa Perreras is an antiracist consultant and researcher for international schools and is driven by revolutionary love and radical possibility. She also works as the inclusion manager, Latin America for Netflix.

Twitter: @PerrerasAlysa

Matt Hajdun is the assistant director of learning at The Columbus School (TCS) in Envigado, Colombia working to transition the school to an additive bilingual model aligned with a more inclusive and progressive language policy.

Twitter: @HajdunHomeroom


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02/20/2023 - Karen
BRAVO! Your article fills me with hope!