Language Profiling

Establishing a profile

Susan Stewart was Head of Languages at the International School of London (Surrey) and believes that students should not be expected to ‘park’ their languages at the door. By developing an academic level of their mother tongue language, in addition to English, these students are able to keep their future options open.

Complex needs

Globally-mobile students frequently have complex linguistic needs determined by previous schooling, current needs and future academic requirements. Linguistic diversity is evident within the same family, with siblings displaying the traces of previous language exposures. Children are rarely carbon copies of their own parents, who might not have acquired another language until adulthood. A language profile is dynamic, with languages dominating at alternate times.

In order to tailor language provision to every student, it is vital to understand the student’s current language profile, including their levels of English and other languages. The first consideration should be an understanding of the parents’ language profiles. In the case of multilingual families, which language is each parent using with the child and why? Which language is used between the siblings? Are there nannies, grandparents or extended family members who speak different languages with the child? Previous schooling and future academic needs need also to be considered.

Basic profiles

Working with the students and families, we have found three basic language profiles:

The ‘new-to-English’ student

For this student, and possibly the parents, it is likely to be their first experience away from their home country. They will be immersed in English at school and, depending on the location, possibly another language in their new home community.

Central to the success of a student’s language development is ensuring that all stakeholders (students, parents and teachers) are on the same page in terms of expectations and in understanding the process of language acquisition.

The ‘never/rarely-live-in-home-country’ student

International schools are also frequented by ‘veteran’ expat families. Many of these students have had limited experience of living in their home countries. They might also fall into the ‘third culture kid’ category of expats who do not have a link to any particular culture, particularly if their parents come from two different cultures with differing languages. They might have fluency in a language but are unfamiliar with the culture of the home country. By developing an academic level in their mother tongue language, in addition to English, these students are able to keep their future options open.

The ‘monolingual-Anglophone’ student

Much attention is given to the multilingual students within the international schools circuit. In many international schools, monolingual English speakers are in the minority. Without previous language experience, monolingual speakers can find a second language challenging. A multilingual child will, for example, inherently have an understanding that different languages use different structures and sentence order to compose phrases.

By overtly teaching some linguistics basics to monolingual students, they can go on and apply this understanding to the study of a second language. Using native speakers in game-based activities can provide monolinguals with authentic language exchanges.

Mother – tongue enrichment at school
Literacy in a child’s mother tongue language is developed side-by-side with literacy in English, with the child’s home/mother tongue language providing a foundation of support for the development of other languages. Mother tongue lessons take place within the curriculum in parallel with English; this begins at age 3 and lasts until the end of their schooling at age 18. Currently there are seventeen mother tongue languages offered and languages are added as needed with the arrival of new students.

Students should not be expected to ‘park’ their languages at the door. By bringing their diverse languages and experiences into the new school, the linguistic web of the school is strengthened and students are given the opportunity to develop their languages to an academic level, which will open so many future doors, be they personal, academic or professional.


Susan Stewart

Susan has lived and worked in Thailand, the UAE, South Africa, Belgium, Oman and Sweden, and has raised two bilingual global-nomad children. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics and French and is currently completing an MA Linguistics at Birkbeck College, UCL. 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.