Multilingualism in schools. Yes or No?

Multilingualism in schools. Yes or No?

Valentina Spyropoulou, Teacher of English / EAL / Dyslexia Specialist
Optimist International School


Many people believe that when you move to a different country, you should try to exclusively practice the host country’s language in order to learn that language faster. This notion has also been adopted in many schools across the world. However, is this really the best approach?

A monolingual approach in schools has been vastly adopted for a long time now and, oftentimes, has resulted in many international parents and their children feeling excluded or even embarrassed to use their home languages. However, over the past years, we have seen a positive shift towards including languages in schools more and there are many good reasons why. Here are some of the most important ones:


Language as cultural identity
Language is an inherent piece of who we are. A valuable part of our identity. The more we explore and develop our languages, the more we develop a sense of belonging and self-value and this is of crucial importance to our children’s wellbeing and success when it comes to their personal and academic development.


Multilingualism and brain
Extensive research on the impact of multilingualism on the brain has proven that multilingual people’s brains do function differently and in a more advantageous way compared to monolingual people in areas such as complex thinking, mental flexibility, communication, and interpersonal skills, and even reduced risk of age-related mental diminishment conditions.


Home languages benefit the learning of more languages
Dr. Jim Cummins, a prominent researcher in bilingual education, has stated that developing language repertoires at the same time, actually accelerates and deepens understanding and acquisition of languages already mastered, but also of more, new ones.


Ready for the global community
Multilingual individuals are more prepared for the global community, as they are able to communicate with an open and flexible mind, having possibly been exposed to various cultures. Is this not a goal worth pursuing?


Language skills and structures, as well as concept knowledge, many times, already exist in the children’s educational toolkit, and the only thing missing is the words in the new language to prove it. I am sure, if you are an international living outside your home country, you probably have experienced a situation in which people are talking about a certain matter that interests you and you know a lot about, but the language spoken is one you have not yet mastered. If you were given the opportunity to talk and write about it in your own language, would you feel more confident and included? Do you think you could have contributed to these conversations? Maybe if you were reading a text translated in your language with the foreign language next to it, you would be able to understand some words? Maybe sentence structures? The answer to all the above questions is yes, and this is exactly how it works for multilingual children as well.


Language Friendly School
Optimist International School, an international primary school, recently became a Language Friendly school. This means that all languages spoken by students are welcome and valued.

In our classes we allow students to use the languages they feel most comfortable with in order to show their understanding and develop their skills, while we try to methodically use their languages to support the development in English, as well. For this purpose, children can read, write and do research in their own language, while teaching staff guide them to create links between their languages for deeper and effective acquisition.

Moreover, we often use the children’s languages in various aspects of school life, such as greeting them in the morning, asking children to translate keywords in their languages for us to learn or even learning to sing ‘happy birthday’ in all the different languages we have in school.

The smile, confidence, and safety that the children feel in our school by feeling included, respected, and valued is what fuels our teaching and learning. The results in children’s academic and personal development are outstanding as they can be themselves, navigate through their cultures and identities, while being respectful and tolerant of others.

Multilingualism is an asset and we, as a school of multilingual and intercultural educators, are committed to promoting and improving our multilingual approaches in order to support happy, respectful, inquisitive global citizens.



Bartolotti, J. and Marian, V. (2012), Language Learning and Control in Monolinguals and Bilinguals. Cognitive Science, 36: 1129-1147.

 Brainscape Academy. 2021. The cognitive benefits of being multilingual. [online] Available at: <

Craik, F., Bialystok, E. and Freedman, M., 2010. ‘Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve’, Neurology, vol. 75, no. 19, pp. 1726-1729.

Cummins, J., 2017. ‘Multilingualism in Classroom Instruction: “I think it’s helping my brain grow”’, Scottish Languages Review, vol. Winter 2017, no. 33, pp. 5-18.

Goossens, F., 2019. Monolingual Practices in Multilingual Classrooms. EAL Journal, [Online]. 10, 16. Available at: [Accessed 19 January 2021].

Keysar, B., Hayakawa, S. L. and An, S. G. (2012) ‘The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases’, Psychological Science, 23(6), pp. 661–668. doi: 10.1177/0956797611432178.

NALDIC. 2021. EAL Journal E-Issue 10 – NALDIC. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 22 February 2021].


What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear your feedback.






“Ever since I remember myself I wanted to be a teacher. My studies include specialisms in English Language and Literature, SEN, EAL, and SpLD. I have over 12 years of experience in education within various roles of teaching and middle management in Greece, the UK, and the Netherlands. I have always worked within multicultural environments and with students of different ages, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. I am currently working as a Group teacher and EAL Specialist at The Optimist International School in Hoofddorp and I am loving every moment of working with students and colleagues from all around the world. Education is my passion and I always strive to support my students and colleagues to feel welcome and safe to be who they are, explore their identities, and develop their talents. I love reading, cooking, and enjoying the company of my friends, while recently I have taken up painting and discovered that I am actually really enjoying it.”

2 replies
  1. Andrew Kasal
    Andrew Kasal says:

    Good morning,

    Thank you so much for reminding us all of the value of languages within a school. To tell students to only speak one language can come across as being oppressive and it can certainly give the impression that one language is dominant over other languages.

    My question concerns language as a tool to exclude and be exclusive. Currently, there are a few groups of students at the school that I teach that speak almost exclusively in the language of the host country. They use it during break times, during lunch time and they have also been known to use it with each other mid-lesson. It is not a question of L1 understanding being used to support L2 acquisition, but it is being used as a tool to create a small, social clique.

    What advice might you give in dealing with this? What does the research say, if there is any at all?

    Thank you kindly!

  2. Mindy McCracken
    Mindy McCracken says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for bringing this valid concern to the table. I work at the International School of the Hague and there, at the start of each year, the EAL department asks classroom teachers to create a classroom language policy with their students (similar to rules within the classroom) so expectations about how languages should be used positively and for learning purposes is made clear to the students straight away. The students shape the expectations with the teachers together and agree to follow them. If someone is breaking these rules, they can be brought back to these core expectations they agreed to at the start of the year. In having these explicit discussions with students about all the positive ways languages can be used in and out of the classroom, we don’t really see language being used to exclude others. In fact, the exact opposite happens. We see students who have been with us awhile, having a strong command of English, helping those who are new to English with their home languages to find their way around and access curriculum. I think the key is having open, honest discussions with your students about the positive possibilities home language use can bring and also highlighting what it should not be used for. Parents can be made aware of discussions too, so everyone is in the know and working together to support the school philosophy on respectful language use.

    Here is an example of one of our lower primary school language policies:

    Hope that helps.

    Best wishes,

    Mindy McCracken
    Home and Identity Language Leader
    International School of the Hague Primary


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