EAL scrabble tiles

EAL – where to start?

The term ‘EAL’ gets more airtime in educational circles these days because our world is becoming more super diverse. This means that our schools have more children who are learning English. But does ‘EAL’, which is short for ‘English as an Additional Language’, simply mean a child doesn’t speak English yet? Actually, it is much more nuanced and complicated than that. In the second part of my conversation with EAL specialist Eowyn Crisfield, we talk about how parents and schools can work together to support multilingual learners.

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Let’s talk about talking!

What is EAL?

Let’s start with some definitions. When a child has a parent at home who speaks a language other than English, the school assigns that pupil EAL status. It is often used as a catch-all term to describe children who are learners of English. However, just having a parent who speaks another language does not mean a child is an English learner! In fact, the child might only speak English and not the home language.

The designation EAL is hugely misleading and could apply to a child who is an English monolingual or, the complete opposite, a child who speaks no English yet at all. Professor Victoria Murphy, chair of EAL subject association NALDIC and applied linguistics lecturer at the University of Oxford department of education, has called EAL a ‘reckless’ definition in the TES.

What is the impact of starting school on EAL learners?

When EAL pupils start school, this may be the first time they have encountered English, or they may already be bilingual in English and another ‘home’ language. Or they may fall somewhere in between. The impact of starting school is immense. They will have less contact time, and thus input, in their home language once they spend all day in an English-speaking environment. They will also start to notice that they are perhaps different and have a language that other children do not speak. Depending on how this affects their feelings about their home language, this is sometimes when children ask their parents not to speak to them in public in their home language.

Make children partners in language development

The way to support children in fostering a positive self-identity as a multilingual person is to make them partners in their own language journey. Language is not something that is done to them, it is something they actively choose. Without a positive approach to multilingualism in school, it is highly likely that a high-status language like English will swallow up the child’s home language. This is especially true when parents feel discouraged in continuing home language support, or that English is more important. As Eowyn said in part one, English is the ‘Pacman’ of languages because it eats up all the minority languages!

It is important to talk to children from an early age about their languages. This can begin when they are very small by simply talking about how mummy says ‘cheese’ and papa says ‘fromage’ for example. Then as children grow, the conversation around languages grows in an age-appropriate way. This develops the children’s metalinguistic awareness, that is, their understanding about languages. And this awareness, in turn, makes them better at learning languages.

School environments

The school environment has a huge impact on pupils’ attitudes and motivation when it comes to languages. If a school reflects the diverse multilingualism of its pupils, they are more likely to feel encouraged and maintain their multilingualism. If a school suppresses the languages of the pupils, they will work towards conforming to the monolingual ‘norm’.

Why does this matter, you might ask? Shouldn’t we focus on teaching them English?

Great question. You will be forgiven for thinking that in order to learn English, children need to spend more time learning English and less time on their home language. It sounds like a simple equation, right? But MORE ENGLISH does not actually support children learning English if it is at the expense of supporting their development in a more dominant or well-established home language.

Learning languages is like building a tower of blocks

Imagine a stack of bricks. As the tower gets taller, it requires firmer foundations or the whole thing topples over. Languages are the same. If a child as a strong foundation in their home language, it is a more secure platform for adding further languages on top. However, if you REMOVE a foundation block from the bottom, the entire stack might tumble.

The better their home language is, the better they’ll be at English

Eowyn Crisfield on maintaining home languages

The earlier the better, right?

Erm, not quite. Listen to episode 20 (part one of this conversation with Eowyn) for a fuller analysis, but in a nutshell, this is not as simple as it sounds either. Children at age four are slower to learn a language than they are at age 10. It takes them years longer, in fact, and they will all end up at the same place eventually anyway. This is because young children are still developing their cognitive (thinking) skills. We are worse at processing things when we are young, and get more complex thinking strategies with age.

So if you add in the complication of being a learner of English, it isn’t surprising that sometimes EAL children get misdiagnosed as having special educational needs. EAL does not equal SEND! It takes between 1 and 3 years for children to learn enough English to speak it (ask for pencils, play football, etc). It takes anywhere between 3 and 9 years for them to reach academic fluency, whereby they think and process at an age-appropriate level in English. Incredible, eh?

The younger they are when they start, the longer it will take them to learn the language.

Maintaining home languages is vital

The more developed children are cognitively, the better they are at learning English. Eowyn explains in really clear detail why cognitive development is entirely dependent on having age-appropriate language skills. It is therefore vital that children who do not have an age-appropriate level of English continue to have a rich home-language environment as this scaffolds and supports their learning of English as a second language.

What this means is:

Do not stop speaking and using your home language(s) when children start school!

The strength of the children’s home languages is going to pull them up the hill of learning English and make it easier to acquire English. This message is so important, I have written in big orange letters. Schools, do not advise parents to stop speaking their languages at home. Parents, if you are advised to drop your home language ‘to help your children learn English’ it is incorrect advice and will slow down their progress in English. The same is true, incidentally, if you move abroad and the children are being schooled in a new language, say, Spanish. They’ll need home-language support to access the curriculum in Spanish too, right?

Teacher training in EAL

The PGCE course for teacher training in England is so jam packed, there is no real time to learn about EAL. And since the government does not require it, individual courses have to decide whether or not to include training on EAL, language acquisition or bilingualism for teachers. If they do include a module on it, it means they are sacrificing training on another aspect of teaching. It’s a busy year!

So where can teachers get training on EAL? How can they find out about translanguaging and using home languages as a resource or scaffolding for learning in school?

Take a look at the NALDIC website, the national subject association for EAL. The blog is called EAL Journal (also available as a termly print journal) and is full of practice-related content from real teachers. I wrote a piece for it in January 2020, here. There are regional meetings of EAL specialists and teachers too, and an annual conference that is taking place online on 21st November 2020. You might also enjoy browsing the excellent RiPL network site, where you’ll find summaries of research and lots of practice-based ideas on improving language learning in primary schools.

You can also get in touch with Eowyn Crisfield via her two blogs: Crisfield Educational Consulting for schools, and On Raising Bilingual Children for parents (but interesting for all).

Food, flags and festivals

I hope this blog and the podcast will encourage teachers to have a look at how the school environment reflects the actual languages of their pupils. Rather than taking a superficial approach with ‘food, flags and festivals’, how about discussing how to make translanguaging a reality in your school?

Perhaps your school or colleagues are nervous about letting the children speak all kinds of languages? What on earth are they saying in that language you don’t speak? Honestly, they are probably a) relieved to find someone they can discuss Pokémon with in depth, and b) glad of the mental respite of trying to speak their second (or third, or fourth…) language all day. When adults are immersed in a new language, we are exhausted too, and grateful to find some English speakers occasionally! It’s the same with children.

Eowyn has some brilliant ideas for embedding a truly multilingual approach into your school’s ethos. The best part is that encouraging parents and children to identify with and enjoy celebrating their home languages will really support the children who are learning English. And this multilingual approach has a positive effect on your monolingual English speakers too. Everyone is a linguist!

Listen below, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, Google and Podbean. Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter! You can find Eowyn on @4bilingualism and me (Cate) on @langrevolution or @lomo_linguist.

Bilingual Families Eowyn Crisfield EAL
Eowyn’s book, Bilingual Families, is published by Multilingual Matters in January 2021

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