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Part 1: Do multilingual students have a clear advantage when learning a modern foreign language in secondary school?

Learning a modern foreign language

This blog entry is the first of a series of two articles on foreign language acquisition. The second article can be found here.

Published: 05/01/2023

As a multilinguist and former languages teacher, I have decided this week to look into children learning English as an additional language (EAL), and whether those multilingual students have an advantage when learning a foreign language in secondary school.

In 2021, the DfE reported that 17.2% of secondary pupils were recorded as having a language “other than in English” (January 2021 school census). This represents approximately 1.6 million pupils in the UK and nearly 1 pupil out of 5 in every classroom! It is thus vital that teachers look at the best ways to engage, and where appropriate, support, this increasingly large number of pupils. Besides, Standard 5 of the Teachers’ Standards specifically states that teachers must “have a clear understanding of all pupils, including those with English as an additional language”, and “be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them”. (DfE, 2013).

According to the 2021 DfE report, “a pupil is recorded to have English as an additional language if they are exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English”. This may seem a simple enough definition at first glance, however, as explained in the DfE’s KS3 National Strategy on Access and engagement in modern foreign languages (2004), EAL pupils are not a homogenous group: pupils recorded as EAL may be relatively new at learning English (likely to have been living in England for a very short period of time); they may be becoming familiar with English (they have a good command of spoken English but lack the development of English for formal academic purposes); they may be growing in confidence as users of English (developing their writing and reading skills) or they may be completely fluent English users (competent and knowledgeable).

It seems that the achievement of EAL pupils regularly attracts attention from academics and government departments, with considerable focus on outcomes in core subjects from Key Stage 2 SATs to GCSE exams. In 2018, the former head of Ofsted, Mr Wilmshaw, famously announced that the reasons schools in London were performing better than schools in other areas was that, amongst other factors, “immigrant families care about education”. Earlier that year, the DfE had published figures which indicated that children with EAL were beginning to outperform English L1 pupils in most GCSE exam scores. Interestingly, there seems to be a lot less scrutiny on the attainment of EAL pupils in languages other than English, and, unfortunately, less is known about how they respond to the foreign language curriculum in secondary schools.

Nevertheless, previous research on third language acquisition seems to indicate that speaking more than one language may confer advantages when it comes to learning other languages (Cenoz, 2013). Pr. Cenoz is a professor of education at the University of the Basque Country, formerly Professor of Applied Linguistics, who is known for her work on the influence of bilingualism on third language acquisition. Cenoz quotes a number of studies that took place between 1990 and 2005, in Canada, Brussels, Spain and Switzerland, which all concluded that bilingual learners outperformed monolingual learners in the third language acquisition.

One might also want to explore the relationship between literacy and multilingualism. Literacy is commonly defined as the ability to read and write. This is quite a narrow definition, which has since been expanded to “the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way that lets us communicate effectively and make sense of the world” (National Literacy Trust). UNESCO defines literacy as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society (UNESCO, 2004; 2017). One could argue that these definitions of literacy are the very essence of what language acquisition is: what is a language if not a system of communication through which human beings express themselves, and which allows them to make sense of and fully participate in the community they are a part of?

This notion of language seen a mean of engaging with the world can be found in the DfE’s Languages programmes of study: key stage 3- National curriculum in England, which states that “A high-quality languages education should foster pupils’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world” and that teaching modern foreign languages should “enable pupils to understand and communicate personal and factual information that goes beyond their immediate needs and interests”.

To further explore the link between literacy and language acquisition, in my follow-up article, I will look at Kathrine Mortimore’s strategies to support secondary students with weaker literacy skills.

In 2021, the DfE reported that 17.2% of secondary pupils were recorded as having a language “other than in English” (January 2021 school census)

Soizic-Arzhele Peyrusse is the Marketing and Operations Director at Lionheart.
She is also a qualified secondary school teacher of French and Spanish, and obtained her PGCE with Distinction.

Please contact us if you would like more information on the authors referenced in this article, or wish to discuss any aspect of this article with its author.