Why creating a school-based language policy makes sense for Australian schools

Why creating a school-based language policy makes sense for Australian schools

A holistic and explicit whole-school focus on both home and formally-taught languages can improve learning outcomes for all students, no matter their linguistic profile.

Monash senior lecturer in bilingual education and TESOL, Dr Marianne Turner, looks at the benefits of schools adopting a holistic language policy.

Students in Australian schools are linguistically diverse – both in terms of the variety of languages they speak and also their linguistic range.

There are students who speak another language at home and others who are only exposed to another language as part of a languages education program at school.

Almost one third of students in Victorian schools speak another language at home.

Navigating linguistic complexity

The complexity of students’ linguistic profile can be difficult to navigate. Language can be compartmentalised. Students from language-background-other-than-English (LBOTE) are left to speak their languages at home, and students work through the languages curriculum in languages classrooms.

This kind of thinking limits the well-established communicative, cognitive, creative and identity-affirming benefits that languages bring to students’ learning.

However, even when we understand the benefits, it can be challenging to see how linguistic diversity can be addressed in a sustainable and effective way.

Being explicit about language objectives is a good place to start.

Incorporating languages across the curriculum

Schools can guide the incorporation of languages across the curriculum by making two objectives explicit in a languages policy.

These objectives overlap, but they can clarify why languages are being used or leveraged in class.

Objective 1: Leveraging languages as a resource

This objective relates to different experiences with languages that students bring to class.

Students might be:

  • English-as-an-additional-language (EAL) learners,
  • fluent English speakers with community exposure to other languages, and/or
  • learning a language at school that they can also use for learning in different curriculum areas (including English).

Teachers and the class as a whole do not need to be able to speak the languages that are coming into lessons via individuals or groups of students. Teachers can create opportunities for student-centred learning and value students’ language practices by positioning themselves as co-learners.

This objective can help:

  • affirm and value multilingual identities
  • guide general learning and instruction
  • reflect critically on language

What does this look like in practice?

In a school with a majority of LBOTE students, languages were used as a resource for Year 3/4 students.

The students discussed the geography-related words to be used in an inquiry unit. They were given a sheet for those words to be translated into a home language.

Using this information, a classroom word wall was created, along with definitions and illustrations in English. The children compared and contrasted languages and reflected on their learning.

This increased linguistic awareness, an important focus in the English curriculum.

Objective 2: Learning languages

This objective relates to the explicit learning of languages via linking them to different areas of the curriculum.

It overlaps with the first objective because putting a language, such as Japanese, French or Chinese, across the curriculum means that content can be learned in different and creative ways – the goal is not only to learn the language but to learn more broadly.

If a content area teacher (for example, a History teacher) does know the language, this means that the language can be embedded more deeply into the teaching and learning.

The objective relates to content area teachers who speak the language entering the classroom, language teachers, and teachers dually qualified in languages and another content area.

This objective can help:

  • use a target language for everyday communication
  • learn content-related target language in different content areas
  • learn language in language classes via cross-curricular content

What does this look like in practice?

In one school, Year 8 Japanese language students used Japanese in their Visual Arts class. In a unit about digital printing, the students created a completely new world. The teacher used language that was both useful and relevant.

She related Japanese with what students could see, hear and smell in their world. They described what they were doing and how they felt.

This activity gave a meaningful context for using Japanese, as well as extra opportunity for the students to use the language to communicate.

Developing a school-based language policy

Thinking about these two broad language objectives side-by-side is a way to help a school community consider why they are incorporating languages into their classroom, and also ways they might be able to collaborate with other teachers.

A language policy simply refers to the way a group of people – a school community, for example – think about and manage language, and also their language practices.

A set of objectives can act as a language policy. Without any explicit attention, English-only – and a focus on learning rather than using language in language classrooms – is frequently the default de facto language policy in Australian schools.

Taking a multilingual stance

The kind of language policy discussed in this article takes a multilingual stance. Adopting a multilingual stance can help:

  1. EAL students connect their English language learning to prior knowledge and experience;
  2. second-generation migrant students who are fluent in English maintain and develop their languages; and
  3. all students learn languages.

In our interconnected world, preparing students for diversity is increasingly important, and creating an explicit (multilingual) language policy in a school can harness languages for this task in a systemic and sustainable way.

Ideas and resources in this article are drawn from Marianne Turner’s own book, Multilingualism as a Resource and a Goal: Using and Learning Languages in Mainstream Schools.