Bringing language home

The  importance of home languages

Much has recently been written highlighting the importance of a child’s mother tongue (or “home language”).  Susan Stewart, describes the advantages of putting home languages at the centre of a school’s curriculum. 


Gone are the days, in the not too distant past, where you might have seen a sign in the school building or playground with the stern words “English only”.  Today, children should hopefully not feel the need to ‘park’ their home language outside the school at the start of the day.  Walking around most schools today, we might see the physical evidence of the range of home languages present in the student and staff body. There might be greetings in a variety of languages or a display in a specific language.

Learning-focused displays might feature work in a number of languages spoken by the children in the class. We might hear languages other than English being used between children in the playground and the classroom. Parents are now being actively encouraged to use the home language exclusively at home.  There are many ways in which schools can now take an additional step forward in supporting their students in maintaining their linguistic diversity.

Integrated-into-the-curriculum home language

There are a small number of schools globally which places home languages at the heart of their curriculum.  All children are given the opportunity to develop their home language to an academic level.  Over the school week, children from age 5 spend around 13% (5 x 45 minutes) of the weekly timetable in home language lessons.  Language and literacy is developed across both English and the home language using a common scope, sequence and assessment, with home language and classroom teachers encouraging children to make links in terms of literacy and content.

All children are considered English language users (not learners) who are using their full repertoire of languages to develop on a cognitive, linguistic and social level.

What are the advantages of an integrated-in-the-curriculum home language model?

  • Children see their home language as central to their academic success
  • The school has a global view of the child in terms of their ability across all languages
  • Children are more motivated to learn their language when is does not interfere with their weekend plans or after school clubs
  • Home language teachers are a part of the school staff and can be a good resource of knowledge about student backgrounds
  • Children connect with other speakers, both peers and adults, of their home language
And the challenges?
    • Recruitment of teachers
    • Related staffing costs

Not all schools are able to prioritise home languages in the way described above, but many still do a great deal to promote literacy and language development.  This might be in the form of lessons within the school day, but offered by peripatetic teachers.

Alternatively, some schools offer after-school language lessons, organised by either the school or parents.  Some schools use older students to be an additional source of the language, within the curriculum.

Bilingual secondary qualifications

Many international schools, in particular those offering the IB Diploma, allow multilingual students to take a Language A in their home language, either taught within the school or as a self-taught subject.  Without preparation for this over the course of their secondary education, many international students will find that they do not have the analytical skills or level of academic language needed to be successful in their home language.  Very often, the school is also not able to make a judgement on this as they are not able to assess the language, and rely on the student or parent to make this decision.

First steps

If you would like to raise the issue of home languages at your school, there are some important things to think about:

Undertake a whole school language profiling exercise. Having a global view, backed up with evidence is a good way to open the dialogue with senior management. Look at the following:

  • What languages are used in the home? What languages has the child used at an academic level (schooling history)?
  • What is the child’s current dominant language (note that this will change over time)?
  • Which languages does the child need in the future in terms of social and academics?
  • Examine the current structure and leadership of language departments; do the English literacy, EAL, host country language and language acquisition/MFL departments work in unison?
  • Consider using translanguaging as a means to bring home language into the classroom.
  • If you decide to go further, ensure that there is clear messaging to staff, students and parents about the value of home language
Every school is unique

Every international school is unique in terms of their geo-social context, and filled with a range of students, some of whom are multilingual, some not, some of whom are short term at the school and others more long term or local to the country.

It is rare to find a language model which can work equally well across any school. To set up a home language programme requires a multitude of steps, prioritising the understanding of every student’s language profile, and then looking at how to develop all of their languages under an umbrella of multilingual understanding.

Know where you stand

The issue may be complex, but it is important and should be discussed and understood at any school, whether or not it intends to go further.


Susan is the Chair of the ECIS Multilingual Learning in International Education committee.

She has lived and worked in Thailand, the UAE, South Africa, Belgium, Oman and Sweden, and has raised two bilingual global-nomad children. Susan has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics and French and is currently completing an MA in Linguistics at SOAS UCL in London Susan speaks English, French, German, Afrikaans, Swedish and Arabic and is a lifelong learner of languages. Susan is active in the local community in promoting the use of home languages, delivering regular parent workshops around the challenges of raising bilingual children in monolingual environments.