‘When it comes to multilingual students, words matter’

Careful choice of words can help nurture a sense of belonging for English learners in international schools, writes Adam Beeson

Adam Beeson use language of identity, English class

It is Friday morning, and two students are speaking excitedly to one another before class. They are my students, and I know them well. The first one was born in Venezuela, spent ten years in China, and has been living in Costa Rica for the past three years. She speaks Mandarin, Spanish and English. The other student is Costa Rican and has family roots in Korea and Germany. She speaks Spanish, English, and she is learning Korean in her free time.

They call out to me. “Profe! When do you think we will be ready to join the normal class?”

I put on my best expression of shock and dismay, as if they had been hurling insults at a close relative. “Is my class not normal enough for you?”

“You know what we mean,” they reply, and walk away rolling their eyes the way only middle school students can.

Sadly, I did know what they meant.

These students are part of my MYP English Language Acquisition class. That “normal” class they were referring to? That is MYP English Language and Literature, the course that most of their peers in the seventh grade attend.

As students at Costa Rica’s first IB continuum school, they are aware that a chief goal of their learning is to be balanced bilinguals in both English and Spanish, and they strive to be effective communicators in both languages, paying particularly close attention to the language(s) that are not their “best” language(s).

So why, in the minds of these multilingual students, is English Language Acquisition class abnormal?  The answer, I believe, rests in the daily, often unintended, messages that they receive from peers and adults at school. When it comes to language acquisition, words matter.

The Language of Identity

In his 2015 book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, Harvard University researcher Ron Ritchart posits that the hidden power of language is its ability to “subtly convey messages that shape our thinking, sense of self, and group affinity.” In other words, how we communicate with students is often more significant than what we communicate to our students. The way teachers use language, and specifically our word choice, can reveal a deeply rooted set of beliefs that signify to students what we value and expect from them as learners.

“How we communicate with students is often more significant than what we communicate to our students.”

One of the “seven language moves for learning” that Ritchart identifies is the language of identity, or using words which communicate that authentic learning matters more than simply studying a school subject or discipline. How does the language of identity work? Consider the labels we assign to our learners. Are we teaching students who are studying mathematics, or are we facilitating learning for mathematicians? Are high school kids collecting stream samples for a biology lab, or are field scientists testing the quality of water on campus? The research shows that when we use the language of identity in our classrooms, we invite students to take ownership of their learning, resulting in increased engagement, motivation and a better sense of belonging.

Multilingual Inclusion and Belonging

Let’s revisit the case of my multilingual students. According to ISC Research, they are two of 5.68 million learners attending an international school in 2021 and, like most of the 12,373 international schools around the world, one of the target languages in their school is English. This means that English is both a language of instruction and that their peers largely interact in English.

However, while multilingual, the language these students are least proficient in is English, which raises concerns for their academic and social inclusion and success. Like other international school students, it was determined upon enrollment that these two learners should enter a tailored program to meet their linguistic, academic, cultural and affective needs. This was English Language Acquisition and, in the minds of my students, this was not the “normal” English class.

“What can teachers learn from the language of identity to ensure multilingual students feel a sense of worth and belonging?”

What subtle messages did the students receive when the adults in the room communicated their course schedules? How has the word choice of their peers and teachers shaped the students’ thinking and senses of self? Most importantly, what can teachers learn from the language of identity to ensure multilingual students feel a sense of worth and belonging?

I suggest three simple moves teachers and school leaders can add to their playbooks to improve inclusion for multilingual students.

Move Beyond ESL

Consider the language of identity when referring to multilingual students, and be consistent with your word choice. To nurture a sense of belonging, move beyond labels like the ESL students or the ELLs that “other” multilinguals from peers who may have improved proficiency in the target language, and move toward words that celebrate identity and foster group affinity. When students enter my classroom, they are linguists. When I talk about students with colleagues or other learners in the school, I refer to them as multilingual students.

Move Past Pull-Out

The course titles schools use for their language acquisition classes matter. When students are told they are going to English pull-out, English B, or ESL class, the message communicated is that they are being separated from their peers due to a lack of language proficiency, despite the fact that many speak two or more other languages at home. Along with the separation comes a social stigma that works against community goals of inclusion and belonging. I suggest calling the course what it is: English class or Language Acquisition class.

Move Policies Closer Together

School policies cannot operate in silos, particularly when it comes to language and inclusion. An international school’s language policy cannot exist without a unified inclusion policy, and ensuring that barriers to learning and belonging for multilingual students are identified and removed should be central to both. Creating a common language of identity across all school policies helps to convey to students that their multilingualism at any proficiency level is valued and that they belong in the school community.

The words we use have the power to mold beliefs and shape behavior. Becoming more deliberate about the way we communicate with and about multilingual students like mine can have a profoundly positive impact to transform learning and lead to more inclusive classrooms and schools. Perhaps that can be our linguists’ new normal.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of Wellbeing in International Schools magazine, out now.