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Understanding a Language all their Own

Kids reading in the Primary School

The instructional language of FIS is English, yet a walk through the corridors reveals the school to be a complex linguistic lattice, with many students speaking a language other than English at home and with their peers. What impact does this multilingualism have on students?
 
Fluency in more than one language has been shown to be highly advantageous to cognitive development, through improving the brain’s ability to switch quickly between tasks, ignore distractions, and hold information in the working memory. Making connections with people of different linguistic backgrounds strengthens cultural empathy and open-mindedness, and engaging in intercultural experiences on a daily basis hones one’s observation skills as children navigate unfamiliar scenarios.
 
These linguistic, social and cognitive advantages can lead to increased career prospects. Nevertheless, children learning in a language different to their native tongue face substantial challenges. It is estimated that it takes six to eight years of education to develop the literacy and verbal proficiency required for optimal academic achievement in a second language. Furthermore, language loss can occur, whereby learning a second language can be detrimental to the first language.

Fluency in more than one language has been shown to be highly advantageous to cognitive development, through improving the brain’s ability to switch quickly between tasks, ignore distractions, and hold information in the working memory.
 

These issues can be lessened through the development of a child’s mother tongue. Research has found that increased linguistic competence in a child’s first language supports their development and learning in a second language. Making links between native speakers of the same language is one way that FIS seeks to promote their linguistic, cultural and academic development.
 
In Grade 1, mother tongue sessions introduce young learners to new vocabulary and ideas at the beginning of each unit of inquiry. Supported by parent volunteers, students are grouped by language and set a challenge. Most recently, they learned about structures, shapes, stability, purpose, materials and environment through building a 30cm freestanding tower from marshmallows and toothpicks as part of their unit of inquiry, “How the World Works.”
 
Primary School English Support Specialist, Anne Ballweg, says, “The students and parents did a great job communicating these concepts in their mother tongues.” Roughly 20 nationalities are represented in each session, and introducing the unit in this way prepares students for a deeper understanding of the new concepts.
 
Many Grade 1 students also have the opportunity to be paired with a mother tongue mentor from Grade 8. Last semester, native speakers of Korean met once per cycle to read together. Primary School English Support Specialist, Bonnie Winn, explains why the experience is so valuable: “[Our Korean children] are often new to English, and can’t share their knowledge in English as well as they can in Korean.”
 
For the Grade 8 students, being a mentor provides an opportunity to develop their leadership skills. This semester, the project has been extended to include native speakers of Hindi and German, and there are plans for further expansion as the process is refined. Furthermore, in addition to reading, the students will do activities such as art or origami projects, and playing with PlayDoh or Lego.
 
Projects such as these give FIS students the opportunity to develop social and linguistic connections with speakers of their home language outside their immediate family. This supports their education by mitigating against the challenges of learning in a different language, and develops in children an appreciation of their mother tongue.
 
Leila Holmyard
FIS World Writer

  • curriculum