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Don’t leave the L1 out of English-taught programs, OUP experts warn

Policy makers should consider alternatives to the exclusive use of English when devising English-taught programs, in favour of a bilingual approach that includes the students’ first language, a white paper released by Oxford University Press argues.

English language proficiency should never come at the expense of the first language, experts warn. Photo: Pixabay

The paper argues that policies excluding the L1 from the English classrooms are “based on intuitions” about how languages are learned

“It’s very easy to understand why governments and businesses want to develop English language skills in their country’s young population. English represents a way for people to engage in international politics, commerce and culture,” said Victoria Murphy, deputy director of Oxford’s department of education, one of the experts who were consulted for the paper.

“English fluency should never come at the expense of the child’s first language”

“But English fluency should never come at the expense of the child’s first language.”

What Murphy defined as a “zeal” for English education has in fact led to policies that sometimes exclude the child’s first language from the classroom.

This approach isn’t only detrimental to the first language itself. Far from being a distraction, proficiency in the first language is strongly related to proficiency in an additional language, and it supports the development of academic competences, the paper explains.

The paper argues that policies excluding the first language (L1) from the English classrooms are “based on intuitions” about how languages are learned.

Written by applied linguistics lecturer Hamish Chalmers in consultation with a panel of experts, the white paper reviews current research supporting the role of the first language for ‘multilingual learners,’ not only for the development of academic and linguistic competences, but also for their personal and cultural identity, wellbeing and engagement with the school system.

“Research has shown that students who are educated in both their L1 and English tend to learn English more effectively and do better academically than their peers who are educated in English only,” it warns.

Schools where English-medium education policies are employed range from “extremely linguistically diverse” international schools, where English acts as a lingua franca, to private schools where both pupils and teachers speak the national language and opportunities to speak English outside of the classroom are minimal.

Other instances where English is used as a medium of instruction are for example Content and Language Integrated Learning programs.

The white paper offers policy proposals to incorporate the first language in each of the various English-medium education settings, insisting that there is rarely a case for English-only education.

Yordanka Kavalova, the publisher of the paper, told The PIE News that the paper is intended to reach a variety of policy makers and decision makers.

“We shouldn’t be trying to make students into English speakers – we should be making them bilingual”

“Our local offices are working on enhancing reach through local solutions that best fit regional requirements and contexts,” she explained, adding that OUP has also published books on EMI and CLIL to support further research and influence teacher training programs. Another volume published by OUP, The Glitterlings, is a program targeted at international schools and pre-schoolswith multilingualism at its heart.”

“We shouldn’t be trying to make students into English speakers – we should be making them bilingual. There are clear societal and economic benefits to being bilingual: you are more employable because employers favour bilingual over monolingual candidates,” Murphy said.

The paper points out European Schools as one example of a successful model.

“In the European School system, pupils can have the unique opportunity to follow their mother tongue either as an individual subject or as part of a language section if it exists, and then learn other languages as a L2/3/4/5,”  director of the European School Bergen Steve Lewis told The PIE.

Students then have the opportunity to study some subjects in their second language, and in the final years of high school they must study history and geography in their second language.

“As a result pupils are not only exposed to a range of languages in and out of the classroom as a result of the multi-lingual learning and social environment, but also have the cultural elements of language acquisition,” Lewis explained.

Asked whether the recommendations contained in the white paper could be applicable to the adult ELT classroom, both Murphy and Kavalova said yes, to some extent.

“Research is not yet definitive about how much time in the L1 is appropriate [in the adult classroom], but there is good evidence to suggest that judicious use of the L1 in an adult L2 classroom can be very helpful for the L2 learner and help move them along the L2 developmental trajectory,” Murphy said.

“How to do this is of course a bit trickier in a class when there are many different L1s and where the teacher is not familiar with the L1s.”

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