Two languages are better than none

In the course of your professional development there are moments when you listen, hear but don’t really believe something. If that something is from a colleague that you respect and value it is likely that it has more sticking power than a statement from a stranger, but still you are not quite with them. You are not ready to implement what they are saying with a passion that takes it to the heart of your practise.

This became clear to me a number of years ago when a colleague was leading a training session on working with our EAL children. We had many. A governor had been amazed on a school trip when the children had been shown a large scale map of the world and asked to stand where they or their parents had been born. “They covered it all. ALL!” he said in wonder. I was not surprised, I had more than ten nationalities represented in my class. Beyond that, the simple label, EAL, hid the fact that some were on their second language, some their third and a small minority were on their fourth language. I taught Year 2 so we had 6 year olds on their fourth language, having had an enormously varied schooling experience with a large helping of trauma and insecurity thrown into the mix.

Thinking back to that training session there were, as usual, many gems to take back to the classroom, all rooted in research. So when she told us how incredibly important it was that children continued to use their home language to speak and read to their parents and carers, I heard the message but was not totally on board with the idea. Even five years ago the pressure was high to push those levels up quickly, more so in a school where the starting points were often low. As the school with the lowest results in the borough we were constantly and closely scrutinised.

Encouraging parents to speak and read in their home language did not feel like pushing forwards and the parents agreed. Most of them wanted to engage in school work in English if they could. This was made more likely because of the very small number of dual language books and the diversity of the school. If all EAL pupils had been Somali then there would have been a case for spending in a particular way – but they were not. It just was not that simple.

As time went by, however, two children specifically showed me how critical this approach is. Both children were failing to make any level of acceptable progress even accounting for the challenges they faced as EAL pupils. We wrestled with the issues around possible special needs: Was the language barrier masking a separate issue, or was a communication problem causing the delay in improving their English?

The parents in both cases were confident that there was no problem at home or in their home language. However, one child spoke the same language as a member of the teaching staff who was in regular contact with her through an informal lunchtime club. She approached me with the information that the pupil was having difficulties in her “home” language and was neither fluent nor able to communicate effectively. This was the key to the problem, which now became clear although much more alarming. She lived with one parent whose English was poor and very hard to understand. However, her mother was so concerned that she learn English that this was what they spoke at home. She was not learning a second language…. she did not have one language to use as a starting point. Her experience and understanding of communication did not have structure or form and so her learning had to include a lot of “unlearning” if she was to change any peculiarities she had established as acceptable English.

A year after teaching this pupil I had a boy in a very similar situation. Again raised by one parent who found English difficult, he had no exposure to his mother’s first language, only her version of English. He was easily lost in a conversation and had become a master in covering his confusion.

For both these children the challenge of learning English had been made harder as they needed to establish what was acceptable usage and what was not. The parents in both cases had been unreliable in reporting their language skills and practicality had meant we had not challenged this. Often the nature of teaching children English when it is not their first language is that you need to allow them longer to become confident and so problems are not always immediately obvious. Finally this is hugely sensitive. If you decide that a child is not competent in any language you are making a massive statement about how they have been raised and judging the parent’s choices. At this late stage is it really going to help anyone to damage the teacher-parent relationship and imply blame?

The issue of language choice is enormously political and the messages around it are not straightforward. Angela Merkel has announced all refugees must learn German. I am not questioning that, but the messages around how their children should be introduced to their next language are complex.

After these experiences I nolonger just pay lip service to the importance of a strong first language. Not only have I been told this is the case, but now I passionately believe it as I have seen the consequence of teaching a child who is not trying to learn two languages but struggling with the consequences of not having one.