This article is in two parts, written by two teachers centrally involved in different aspects of the introduction of an Identity Language Programme at Frankfurt International School.
Imagine if one of the first questions your new international school asked you, as a family, was which languages are important to your child? Moving from Japan to Egypt had us, as a family, trying to reconcile the notion that our two children had spent five years developing some proficiency in Japanese, alongside an affinity for Japanese culture, but would no longer be able to deepen, or even just maintain, this connection.
We repeated the same process four years later, moving from Egypt to Germany. Now it was Arabic that would need to make way for German, Spanish and French. At each stop, I thought about ways to continue their development in the language they’d left behind, but the demands of the schools’ language programmes meant that this would be done in addition to adding a new language.
“An identity language is one with which a person has developed both proficiency and personal connection.”
The two barriers to allowing students to continue to develop their existing language skills in a new country are lack of access to opportunities (resources, teachers) and having to meet the new school’s language requirement. I also did not have a conceptual framework for what this language was for a child.
I had toyed with terms like “foothold language”, but when I came across the term “identity language”, this matched my children’s (and many other internationally mobile students’) experience. In essence, an identity language is any language with which a person has developed both proficiency and personal connection.
The International School of the Hague has created an Identity Language Programme that asks the provocative question “Who are we to decide for a student what their cultural identity should be?”. I visited the International School of London in the winter of 2019, and had the opportunity there to see a vibrant language learning programme that offered tremendous flexibility and a wide range of language classes in small classrooms taught by peripatetic language teachers. These two examples inspired a model for Frankfurt International School (FIS).
“We discovered that there were several Mandarin speakers who were not Chinese who would like to continue their language learning.”
At FIS, this issue arose during a whole school language policy review in 2018. We recognized that each student is on a unique language pathway and that while FIS has many language options for students, we could not meet all students’ needs within our language programmes. Once we recognized that this concept was worth addressing, we developed a framework for a programme that will allow students to continue to pursue their identity language, which includes:
- Identify the identity language need.
- Identify learning goals for the student.
- Identify the curriculum, platform and the instructor/tutor for the student.
- Identify when and where the learning will take place.
- Assess and report the student’s progress.
In order to make this happen, in the summer of 2021 we created the position of Identity Language Coordinator. When the community was introduced to this concept in a newsletter, we discovered that there were several Mandarin speakers who were not Chinese who would like to continue their language learning for both personal and future learning pathway purposes.
We also had a student who was moving to France, so she needed to learn French much more quickly than would have been possible in our existing language learning pathways. Both of these cases formed the test case for us in how we could free up time in the day, help coordinate tutors and resources, and help guide their learning through goal setting, reflecting, and acknowledging the value of their learning.
Luiza Marie Razeto, Identity Language Coordinator at FIS, will now share how the first months progressed.
Luiza Marie Razeto:
We started the year with eleven students learning four different languages, in the area of language acquisition as well as in language literature. Over the summer I had researched local agencies for tutoring, in the hopes of arranging in-person instruction, and met with several providers of online courses.
The programme quickly grew around the core Mandarin group in grade 9 and we were able to accommodate parent requests for Swedish, Italian and Dutch as well. We used the first two weeks of the new school year to set individual goals with students and identify their personalized learning needs. This allowed me to set up specific learning settings and develop a structure that catered to our learners.
“The programme quickly grew around the core Mandarin group and we were able to take parent requests for Swedish, Italian and Dutch.”
Shadowing the initial pilot group, it became clear that students are well versed in self-organized online work due to their experiences in distance learning. As a teacher, I approached this class in a mentorship capacity by providing students with encouragement, help in organization and supporting them in asking questions and advocating for their own learning. It was a truly transformational experience and I established very close working relationships with all of the students in the programme.
As I am a language teacher myself, I will very often engage students in cultural discussions and provide them with complementary projects to their course that I differentiate based on their learning goals and needs. Evaluating students’ semester reflections, it has become evident that they take pride in their learning progress and appreciate the challenges they overcame in this individualized setting.
“Students were well versed in self-organized online work due to their experiences in distance learning.”
We are planning to expand the programme next year, primarily focusing on grades 9 and 10 as we found these students best equipped with a suitable set of core skills and emotional maturity to manage their learning.
Some important questions remain for the future development of our Identity Language Programme:
- Can we form relationships with other international schools so that we can share resources to support our students as they move around the globe?
- Can we develop links with institutions that grant official language level accreditation for students so that they can gain credentials for their future learning and careers?
- How do we refine the screening process at admissions to streamline the process?
International schools should allow for the transfer of students between cultures and schools. In this sense, it is incumbent upon schools to make sure that a student is able to maintain as much continuity of learning as possible. Perhaps the lack of a model of what identity languages are and a sense of how a school can meet them has held us back in the past.
We can see the potential for networks of international schools increasing openness to new modes of learning, and shifting attitudes about personalizing learning and language acquisition, leading to a wider acceptance of how we might facilitate identity language learning in international schools.
This article first appeared in the latest print edition of Independent School Magazine, out now.