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A Case for Multilingualism in International Schools

By Christian Polizzi
A Case for Multilingualism in International Schools

(Photo source: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

It was my first week at a new international school and I looked around excitedly at my students. I was excited about all the opportunities to celebrate the diverse cultures of my classroom, but worried about what the diverse linguistic abilities meant for my English language arts classroom. The novels and informational texts I had lined up for the first couple of units posed a challenge not only for my students but for me. I wanted to ensure that the students could continue to grow in their English capabilities, but also develop skills that translate to their native or other known languages, such as reading comprehension strategies and writing methods.

In this vein, I wanted to support students’ bilingual or multilingual abilities. I would often run informational texts through a translation website to allow students to first understand the topic in English and then in a secondary language. I would try to push my bilingual lessons outside of just my class and collaborate with the German teacher to understand students’ abilities in that language and create tangential lessons to support their understanding in both classes. Students were encouraged to write their essays in English and then attempt to translate the essays into a secondary language. These steps worked towards supporting my students to develop a language outside of just the language of instruction, but as a classroom teacher, it ended there.

In an interconnected, globalized world, developing students’ ability to communicate across cultures is of the utmost importance. International schools are spaces ripe for developing linguistic skills and a global mindset in students, specifically by developing programs that support bilingualism or multilingualism. To clarify, bilingualism is defined as the ability to communicate in two languages, while multilingualism is defined as the ability to communicate in three or more languages. In international schools, where English is the predominant language, English learners would need to learn one more language to meet the multilingual benchmark. For any English learner, this would require a shift to a multilingual approach instead of just a bilingual approach that would occur for English-only speakers. Both bilingualism and multilingualism have tangible benefits for the students and the community members.

The Case for a Bilingual or Multilingual Approach

Knowing the prevalent difficulties in developing language abilities, why should schools take on this endeavor? Research has shown that multilingual and bilingual students have higher levels of awareness and cultural empathy (Ting & Nakamura, 2020). Likewise, bilingual students are more likely to outperform monolingual students cognitively while doing activities such as task-switching and inhibitory control (Adesope, Lavin, Thompson, & Ungerleider, 2010). Similarly, bilingual programs have been shown to successfully support second language acquisition, with students outperforming those in monolingual programs which take a foreign language class (Lindholm-Leary and Genesee, 2014). Lastly, students who were bilingual in Spanish and English performed better academically and were more developed socially than monolingual peers (Lindholm-Leary & Borsato, 2018). With many schools already offering foreign language programs, a more intentional shift in practice can benefit the students greatly (Afnaj).

Developing a comprehensive multilingual program comes with several challenges. Challenges such as resources, lack of time, and support were shown to be preventative of a strong bilingual or multilingual program (Genesee, 2004) and needed to be properly addressed. For international schools, specifically focusing on developing a bilingual immersion program makes the most sense. Bilingual immersion programs involve students receiving instruction in their native language or, in the case of international schools, English, and a second language. The second language should be a language where the school would be able to hire teachers who can provide instruction proficiently in both of the languages.

Making Bilingual and Multilingual Education a Reality

Becoming a bilingual school requires a dedicated shift in mindset for staff, students, and the community. First, the road to multilingualism needs to be mapped out with the considerations of all stakeholders. The language of the immersion program, the range of students served, and the outcomes of the program should be the top considerations. This can include creating optional bilingual cohorts based on the grade level or student cohort. Likewise, connecting with community partners could benefit the school by connecting with local nongovernment organizations or embassies. Once the vision has been created, communicating with staff, students, and parents about the vision and the importance of the program is key.

Second, devising a coherent bilingual curriculum that works for students and staff is a priority. The curriculum should include instruction in two languages ensuring that students can learn in multiple languages. Teacher training, ongoing professional development, and instructional learning cycles should occur to review and improve the curriculum throughout the process.

Lastly, evaluation and revision of the program should occur regularly. The program should serve the community and should have data supporting its effectiveness. This can be benchmark proficiency data for the second language or achievement data on a standardized test. Likewise, feedback should be solicited from students, parents, and teachers and utilized to improve the program.

Investing in your school’s bilingual or multilingual program can seem overwhelming. Reflecting on the research, the benefits, and the desired outcomes, you will find that the advantages of the program are tangible and warrant the challenges faced.

I would like to think that at the end of the first year at a new international school, students walked away with much more than just a deep understanding of the standards taught, but rather feel that they grew holistically. Although not easy, students and families benefit when teachers and schools support bilingual or multilingual education.

Readers are invited to share best practices and practical examples of: 

1. Mapping the road to multilingualism 
2. Devising a coherent bilingual curriculum
3. Regular evaluation and revision of the program 


Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 207-245.

Genesee, F. (2004). What do we know about bilingual education for majority language students? In T. K. Bhatia & W. C. Ritch

Lindholm-Leary, K., & Borsato, G. (2018). The benefits and challenges of bilingualism and biliteracy for language minority students in the United States. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 17(2), 71-85. doi: 10.1080/15348458.2018.1426756

Lindholm-Leary, K. J., & Genesee, F. (2014). Student outcomes in one-way, two-way, and indigenous language immersion education: A review of the empirical evidence. Review of Educational Research, 84(1), 47-84. doi: 10.3102/0034654313509969

Ting, J., & Nakamura, K. (2020). The effects of bilingual immersion education on student academic achievement: Evidence from a natural experiment in Japan. Journal of Research in International Education, 19(3), 217-231. doi: 10.1177/1475240920942062


Christian Polizzi is the academic coordinator and director of curriculum at Washington Global, a middle school located in Washington DC. Christian has experience teaching social studies, English language arts, math, and working as a special education teacher in both public schools and private international schools. Christian is continuously seeking ways to provide support and equitable access to education for all students across the globe and is continuing to grow by pursuing an educational doctorate.

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06/07/2023 - PG
It's a basic question where majority international teacher/staff gets confused easily.