L1 and the role of the school

I received an email last night from someone who had read my blog on Building a LOTE collection in an international school and she quite rightly pointed out that it’s a relatively easy thing for a librarian thing to do.  Here is her question:

I am a school librarian in an IB candidate school. We are trying to find strategies to promote mother tongues within the school. As far as the library is concerned, I can develop LOTE collections as you call them, but I was wondering would you know of strategies that would help teachers develop their foreign students’ mother tongues.
Thank you very much for your help.

Now fortunately for me (since I’m chest deep in pre-library renovation stuff I’d just run a PYP connect workshop on the very matter 2 weeks ago, and that question prompted me to put this out! So I’m going to embed the presentation here for everyone to see my (sometimes controversial) views.  And I’ll explain my philosophy and “ingredients” a little.

Ingredients for a successful L1 program in any school

  1. A champion. A committed champion
  2. A supportive and imaginative leadership
  3. Knowledge and information & the dissemination thereof
  4. A committed language group

1. Committed champion

I think the cartoon below will explain this. Although the metaphor I always use is that one cannot be a little bit pregnant. Asking a mono-lingual to be your language champion is probably not the way to go.


The champion does not have to be a teacher or in admin – at my last school I did it as a passionate parent working part time in the library. I’d like to think that, in conjunction with our mother-tongue coordinator we made a huge difference. But I ruffled a lot of (mono-lingual leadership) feathers and perhaps I could only do what I did do, because my job was not at stake. But that’s another story.   This point sounds very easy but it’s not easy being a language champion, even in an international school. I’d even dare to say especially in an international school. Because unfortunately most of them are run by an ‘elite’ corps of white anglo-saxon middle aged monolingual men who are exceptional in paying lip service to language and particularly bad in putting their money (or even support) where their mouths are. There are exceptions. But usually the person is not mono-lingual. The champion needs to be exceptionally knowledgeable, very thick-skinned, very imaginative, networked, and not willing to see problems but only possibilities.

2. A supportive and imaginative leadership

As said before, leadership is the elephant in the room of L1 support. Scratch the surface of almost any international school’s language policy (outside of non-British Europe, since they “get” language) and you will find immense resistance to the language factor unless it serves marketing and certification requirements. Similarly you will see that very seldom do former language teachers rise to power, and existing language teachers are often not power-mongers (research bears this out, but don’t have time to find the citation).

I keep telling leadership at my schools that the lack of a L1* program is a failure of imagination rather than a lack of resources.  I think every 50-something year old knows people who learnt English through bootlegged Beatles cassettes or French learners through chansons. I find it incredible that we think it is so hard now when it’s never been easier to access resources and people at our fingertips.

3. Knowledge and information and the dissemination thereof

We need to make sure our language champion is “powered up” with what works, and what doesn’t and what the potential issues and pitfalls are. We similarly need to educate our educators, from the top down and our parents. Way too little time is spent on this. Instead we send our leadership to leadership PD, our math teachers to math PD, our teachers to “making the PYP happen” countless times in 100s of variations and our language teachers to language PD.  And we never talk to our parents about language except when they’re struggling as ELL (English Language learner) students. As Virginia Rojas always says “Every teacher is a language teacher”.  I have railed countless times against our echo-chambers in education!

In my experience over the last 5 years, if you just bother telling and explaining the whole language thing to parents on time – i.e. when the students are still in primary you get a moment when suddenly you see the cogs in the minds of your audience ticking in over-drive. They totally get it. And the most important messages you need to give them are things that are glaringly obvious to any high-school language teacher but NOT on the radar of a parent concerned about bed-wetting or why Johnny didn’t get invited to Sven’s birthday party:

  • You need 2 languages for IB (I cannot tell you how many early primary or even late primary parents don’t know this.  Yup, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true)
  • One of those languages COULD be your L1, either school-or self-taught
  • BUT Language takes time – 5-7 years for CALP (i.e the level you need for IB) and YOU (not the school) needs to make sure your child is functionally literate, by the end of primary (i.e. reading and writing at or near native level) because
  • THERE IS LITTLE OR NO TIME even with the best will in the world by the time they get to middle school to catch up. Plus, your influence over them and how they spend their time will diminish rapidly the older they get so you must make sure they have the necessary autonomy and mastery by then.

4.  A Committed language group

Ok, so after your meeting or session with parents it will quickly become apparent who cares. In my experience over the last few years, I can make a guess at who will generally step forward. Usually it’s the French, Japanese, Koreans and Chinese. Sometimes the Dutch and Scandinavians (depending how long they’ve been abroad). And we do a huge disservice to these communities by not making it easier for them to get to full native literacy by the end of primary.

We force them into one of the school languages, (in my children’s personal instance it was Spanish, Chinese or French). Then we teach it as a “fun” and “cultural” experience – something that frustrates both the teachers and the committed students. We teach it as an initio course nearly year after year – ground hog day. So we don’t get the mastery, our students don’t see any purpose. And worst of all, we don’t cater for the ‘natives’ in that language so they either give up and learn a 3rd or 4th language rather than endure the frustration and boredom of their L1.

But there are possibilities. There are schools with “one room school-houses” with different students learning different languages at the same time in small groups.

It can be expensive – personally our family has paid the equivalent of an extra term’s school fees in private tuition for one-on-one Dutch classes to get my son up to speed on his Dutch. It takes time, time that kids would otherwise be playing around, doing sport, watching TV, hanging out.  Commitment is hard. But it pays off. Speak to any IB student doing self-taught L1 and you will see their pride and accomplishment.

How to create commitment – I have just one question that usually decides that matter

What about your grandchildren?

When I ask that suddenly parents decide which side of the fence they’re on. Because that really is the bottom line. Kill your language with neglect and the chances are your grandchildren will have neither your language nor your identity. Some people are totally fine with that. They’re not committed and probably never will be. Don’t waste your time with them. Some care very very deeply and they will be the sparks that will ignite your L1 program. Use them, work with them, allow them to help you talk about and frame your L1 program.

Amazing things can happen from small beginnings.

* I prefer L1 to mother-tongue as my household speaks the father-tongue as well as the mother-tongue


3 thoughts on “L1 and the role of the school

  1. Nadine, I have just finished commenting about your session, and have added your link to this page. As always with your reflections, I am left challenged and needing to engage more with the issue. Thank you.


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