Mediating BMLs’ Language and Learning Burdens with the Mother-Tongue

Mediating BMLs’ Language and Learning Burdens with the Mother-Tongue

By: Francesca McGeary

“Continue to speak your language at home and we will work on improving your child’s English at school.”

This is the mantra that should roll off a teacher’s tongue when speaking to parents of new BMLs joining English schools. Although many of these learners seem to be starting at a disadvantage—with beginning proficiency in English and high academic standards-the mother-tongue or home language can be an excellent support for BMLs.

How the Mother-Tongue Language Supports BMLs’ English Development

The maintenance and ongoing development of BMLs’ mother-tongue or home language(s) is so important to both their academic AND English development.  Once BMLs are immersed in an English school environment, they begin to acquire conversational English relatively quickly. Common words and social phrases can be easily grasped by new students since this is the language of social interaction and ‘everyday’ communication.

Yet for academic purposes, it’s necessary that our BMLs ‘catch up’ in their English proficiency as much as possible, especially when academic demands continue to grow more and more challenging. While it can take our BMLs approximately 5-7 years to acquire academic language skills, this can be greatly supported when students already have a strong mother-tongue(s). For example, if a German child enters a year 8 class as a new English speaker, they will have a much easier time coping if they already have strong literacy and German language skills. They’ll be able to read about new concepts through their German language and this can be especially helpful when they aren’t comprehending their English textbooks or lessons. Also, when they’re learning new academic vocabulary, they can link a new English word to the equivalent word in their already-existing German vocabulary. This ‘transfer’ of knowledge and vocabulary from one language to another is what professor Jim Cummins has called the Common Underlying Proficiency or CUP.

His theory highlights the advantage that a bilingual or multilingual learner has when learning a new language like English. These students are in a good position to understand concepts in English if they’ve already learned the equivalent in German. A BML who knows how to read and write in German doesn’t have to relearn how to read or write in English, they just transfer that knowledge base through English.

Implications for English Development and Academic Learning

Depending on the age of our BMLs and whether they’re continuing to acquire their mother-tongue alongside of English can have a big impact on their learning trajectories. While young learners entering English primary school might seem to have all the time in the world to catch up with their native-English peers academically, they’ve actually not fully mastered the complexities of their own language yet. This can create difficulties, especially if parents switch to English once the child begins English school. Vocabulary gaps can have these learners consistently struggling to keep up. This is why it’s so important that families continue to maintain their child’s language(s) while they’re learning English. While older BMLs might have fully mastered their thinking and written expression in their own language(s), they often struggle to cope with increased pressures and academic demands that graduation and external exams present. During this critical time, they can greatly benefit from using their mother-tongue to support complex thinking and learning tasks.

Learning as a BML in an English school is quite different to studying a language in a foreign language centre. Our BMLs have an additional challenge compared to those simply learning a new language.  They are required to learn new concepts and skills through English.  The important difference here is that this student has to continue their learning even though they are not fully proficient in the language of instruction yet. They need to do two very demanding tasks simultaneously: 1) learn English as a language and 2) master the curriculum content. They might need to learn the concepts of physics but they also need to learn the language (vocabulary) of physics in English. This is a challenging goal!

Teachers need to recognise this linguistic and academic burden that our BMLs face when attending English schools and they must be a strong advocate in helping parents understand the value of maintaining their home language(s). When BMLs are  young, they need parents to continue to provide them with a strong foundation in their home language, this will support their developing English and will be a great support to their learning. Ultimately, it will also grow their bilingualism/multilingualism.

Both teachers and parents want the very best for their BMLs – that goes without saying.  Sharing the right information with parents and explaining why maintaining their home language is beneficial to their child’s English proficiency, cultural identity and academic success will help them understand how to better support them. Continuing to speak their language at home, discussing academic concepts through the home language and even enrolling their child in weekly mother-tongue language classes will have many positive returns.

How does your school support your BMLs’ home languages? We’d love to know!


The Fabulous ‘Errors’ of BMLs

The Fabulous ‘Errors’ of BMLs

A couple of years ago, one of our bilingual students created this little story book about herself and her pet rabbit.  Her pictures were beautiful and her written message was appropriate considering she’d been in an English school for one year.  She was in grade one at the time and her teacher was concerned that her oral language seemed to be developing but her writing was much ‘weaker’ and had more ‘errors.’

This child came into our after-school literacy intervention group so she could get more access to reading and writing.  When it came time to write each day, she was enthusiastic but did need additional time to think and record her thoughts. She was always happy to share her work once finished. We immediately noticed patterns in her writing and her ‘errors’ gave us clues as to how she was thinking and processing language. These “errors” signaled something deeper than simple mistakes that needed to be corrected.

In the example above, “I want to go at my slap room”  was her way of expressing, “I want to go to my bedroom.”

In the Dutch language (which was her mother-tongue), the word for “bedroom” is called “slaapkamer.” Our student wasn’t able to recall the whole word, “bedroom” in English so she began to pull from her first language and combined it with what she could remember in English. In this way, she tried in the best way she could to come up with a meaningful message. Since Francesca had some knowledge of Dutch, we were able to put two-and-two together to make sense of her story and what was going on in her head.

This is a brilliant example of what often happens to BMLs when they’re learning English. These students often use their own mother-tongue (MT) or other language to think in. They rely on this language to support them when they do not have enough vocabulary in English to start “thinking” in it. Often, they try to apply the grammatical rules from their own language to English since that comes naturally to them; or they might even try to use vocabulary from their own language to “fill-in-the-blanks” when they don’t know a word in English. It is important to encourage our BMLs to do this if they need to, so that it can help to bridge their gaps. It will also allow them to gain confidence in expressing themselves. Sometimes BMLs become afraid to write if they worry that their work is “incorrect” or might be marked wrong.

Teachers can support BMLs at every stage of their development by allowing them to use their MT or other language to support their English. Try to understand your BMLs and why they might have made a particular kind of “error” in their writing.Get to know a little about their home language and maybe even a little about its structure. If you have a staff or adult around who speaks the same language, let them take a look at the work and give you some insights about what the child might have been thinking.

Even just knowing that it’s perfectly okay for your student to think in or use their mother-tongue (or other language) to support their growing English can give you confidence as a teacher. It can also help you explain to parents why they shouldn’t worry if their child is making these kinds of mistakes. When parents see that you have the answers and can reassure them that their child’s development is normal, they’ll trust you. Then as your BMLs gain greater proficiency and knowledge of English, you are likely to see less of these kinds of “errors.”