English as a second language? Schools need to stop treating it as an obstacle to success

The Telegraph reports that when columnist Andrew Pierce tweeted earlier this year that 1.3 million children “do not speak English as a first language, underlining strain immigration puts on schools”  he understandably caused something of a social media stir.

Alongside some tweets of support, others were quick to point out that not having English as a mother tongue need not correlate to a student’s ability to learn in their second, or third language. Even the author JK Rowling, a former teacher herself, joined the argument to point out that “second and third languages can be fluent”.   

With over 300 languages spoken in classrooms across the UK, and many schools in big towns and cities such as London and Birmingham, it is understandable that many will wonder how schools will be able to cater to all pupils and students equally. 

However, as an educator who has taught in international schools across Europe, I strongly believe that such language issues needn’t be a problem. In fact, if embraced they can stand to benefit all students, and by extension aid in supporting better understanding in areas with culturally diverse populations.    

Today, I’m the Principal of UWC Atlantic College, an international college which each year educates around 360 students, who represent over 90 nationalities. English isn’t even close to the first language for the majority of my students: at last count over 53 languages and dialects could be heard on campus. Yes, it can be a challenge, but it also represents real opportunities for students to learn from one another.

Across the world the stereotype of Britain is a nation that isn’t interested in learning a second language. For the rest of Europe, the idea of only speaking one’s mother tongue would be a distinct disadvantage both socially and economically.

Over half of students in the European Union will study two or more foreign languages and International Baccalaureate students must study at least one other language in addition to English. While there is an argument that Europe’s multilingual cultures stem from historically open borders, the UK shouldn’t let the fact that it is an island nation allow it to slip into a linguistic monoculture. 

The backlash that resulted from Mr Pierce’s tweet is just one example of how divisive the topic of language in schools can be. This is sadly ironic when you consider that the ability to converse with one’s neighbours is the foundation of understanding. Fostering those conversations should take place in schools, and in multiple languages.

Read the full article English as a second language? Schools need to stop treating it as an obstacle to success 

Is the number of pupils speaking English as a second language in your school growing every year? How are you helping newcomers? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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