Is there a potential pandemic of language loss in international schools?

Is there a potential pandemic of language loss in international schools?

With the continued growth of English-medium international schools, are we entering into a neo-colonial phase, where the instrument of the conqueror is language? Now, you may be forgiven for finding me a little alarmist, but let me explain. The immersion model – a great idea?...


With the continued growth of English-medium international schools, are we entering into a neo-colonial phase, where the instrument of the conqueror is language? Now, you may be forgiven for finding me a little alarmist, but let me explain.

The immersion model – a great idea?

Learning in an immersion-style educational setting sounds like a great idea, and its potential is well-researched, with overwhelmingly positive results. The majority of the initial research on immersion was conducted in Canadian schools, where speakers of one high-status language (English or French), were immersed in the other high-status language. These programmes had some built-in factors that were linked to their success. Firstly, the students all lived in one language and studied in the other. They were well supported in both languages by the dual nature of the home/school community. Secondly, the school programmes all ensured that literacy was developed in both languages, at different times, but with equal focus on academic proficiency and literacy in both. These immersion programmes were not without issue (see Debunking the ‘immersion only’ myth ), but on the whole, results were positive for both language development and academic development.

The immersion-style model has since been exported and delivered all over the world, with varying levels of success, and varying levels of intentionality. Many or most international schools don’t call themselves ‘immersion’ schools, but if they are teaching in English to students who are English language learners, then that is what they are.  The clearest research finding from this style of immersion, whether in public or private schools, is that if students’ first/home language isn’t supported in education, there will be negative effects on both language development and learning. Considering these findings in the context of international education is both necessary and inescapable, in order to ensure that we are doing what is good and right for our students.

There are situations in which immersion-style education closely replicates the original models successfully. For example, new initiatives in the Netherlands have seen the opening of bilingual primary schools (English-Dutch), where the students learn English mainly through immersion methods, but are also supported in developing Dutch literacy and academic proficiency. These children are experiencing additive bilingualism, where the expectation is that they will add another language (English) to their repertoire, but keep their original language (Dutch) as well. English and Dutch share a writing system, and indeed share various surface-level features as well, so the skill of learning to read and write in one is entirely transferable to the other – with a little attention to spelling! In these schools, the expectation of full fluency in Dutch and reasonable fluency in English is entirely justified.

Long-term consequences for languages with different writing systems

In other situations, the potential for additive bilingualism is less clear. Particularly for languages that have different writing systems, the task of dual-academic literacy is much more challenging, and success is less certain. In English-medium schools in China, students spend their days learning English: learning in English and about English. They generally have Mandarin lessons every day, and the expectation is that they will be ‘fluent’ in both Mandarin and English when they finish school. Let’s consider, however, the necessary components of being fully literate in Mandarin. It requires the learning of 2-3,000 characters for basic literacy, and upwards of 8,000 characters for academic literacy. In addition to the difference between an alphabet and characters, there are also differences in how the brush/pen is used to make symbols, meaning that skill in one isn’t transferable to the other. In order to study further or work in China, mastering Mandarin literacy is necessary. Yet students in international schools are given a fraction of the time for Mandarin literacy than is allocated in Chinese schools.

There is often the mistaken assumption that a child who speaks a language will be able to read and write it, but this is based on a Western mindset and language system. In an alphabetic language, oral fluency is connected to reading/writing due to the sound/symbol system of writing. There is no basis for presuming that oral fluency in Mandarin is enough to develop written fluency. This means that children in English-only education are highly likely to have an underdeveloped literacy in Mandarin, which can have long-term consequences.

This isn’t only an issue in international schools in China, but also in the Middle East, where the spoken and written forms of Arabic are different, and the Arabic and English writing systems are completely different as well. In fact, the same long-term damage to language development is possible in any situation where speaking a language is different to reading and writing it, or where the language of instruction (English) has a different writing system to the local language.

Are we opening international doors at the cost of closing local ones?

I’ve had discussions with parents about this issue, and one of the things I hear often is that English is more important because they want their child to go away to an English university and to work abroad. They truly feel that they are making a choice for their child’s future options, when in fact they are making a choice against their child’s future options. Having a fully functioning academic proficiency and literacy level in your own language and a reasonably good level in English will open many doors, both locally and internationally. Having a fragmented or substandard level in the local language and a good level of English may well open some doors internationally, but it will close almost all doors locally. It’s important for schools and parents not to presume that every child will want to go away to university and live abroad. Some, indeed many, may want to stay where they are, in their home, and make their future there. If they don’t have the skills in their own language to make that possible, then we, international educators, have failed.


About the author
Eowyn Crisfield is a Canadian-educated specialist in bilingualism, bilingualism in education, and teacher-training. She holds a B.Ed. in Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language, and a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics, with specialisations in language learning and teaching, and bilingual education. Eowyn has over 20 years of experience in the field of Applied Linguistics, and has a background that covers research, teaching and teacher-training, and supporting bilingual families. She is currently an Associate Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, lecturing on the Post-Graduate Certificate in Teaching Multilingual Learners and the MA TESOL.

Looking for more?

Cornerstone and Keystone Facebook Group is a global community designed for primary and secondary English teachers with a common interest in accelerating English proficiency and preparing children for academic success. The group is based on the the Pearson Cornerstonand Keystone programme – a six level intense primary course for reading and language development. The group is an open group for teachers as a discussion and ideas forum for teachers to share and converse with each other.




In this article