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!

 

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