Language in schools

Why does language matter in an international school?

International schools have the special benefit of diversity and culture in the classroom where you can learn about and from each other. You hear the languages, but you can also see them: from mundane topics to the outside of the school building; from the flags that are represented in the hallways to the organization of learning like having different language departments, or a so-called Mother Tongue programme. And coronavirus aside, events were a big indicator of the importance that language plays in a specific school. But when it comes to languages and their value, the most important aspect are the things that actually happen in the classroom during teaching and learning.

Many questions arise in regards to what happens in the classroom. Is the diversity of languages being acknowledged and if not, is there maybe a bias? Currently English is for the most part the language of instruction, but what about Spanish and Chinese – both of these languages have a big influence, but somehow it doesn’t really translate to the classroom. What about languages that are slowly disappearing such as Gaelic? Why is it important that we still learn languages that not many can speak? Do the teachers in class see themselves as language teachers – even if they are subject teachers, like Mathematics, History or Biology? And why are we teachers not listening more to polyglots and multilinguists?

How do you set an importance to languages in the 21 st century?

Learning a language is additionally about learning culture, history and most importantly people’s views on life. As a teacher myself I believe that there are different ways to set importance to languages.

When learning a language, it is important to know why learning it is important and useful. It is so interesting to see that there are words you cannot always translate to another language, like Schadenfreude in German (“harm joy” – experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another) or shinrin-yoku in Japanese (taking in the forest atmosphere). In university I had to learn Latin in order to get my degree and looking back, I had a really hard time studying it and it got only better when I realized why knowing Latin is useful to me. It got easier when I shifted the focus from useless to useful with thanks to my Latin teacher (on that note, per aspera ad astra).

Different methods are important to prevent learning a language from becoming stagnant – simply learning out of books is not interesting enough anymore. So whether it is music, books or writing creative stories, students need to be interested and engaged. Maybe ask them what they would find interesting or have them engage in more group projects so that they are able to explore a different method of learning a new language that is more suited to them.

I believe it is also important to talk about self-management – especially when one is stuck in a rut. Sometimes grammar and vocabulary can feel stale as well, so perhaps ask your students to reflect on what inspires them – for example like having them watch a movie in their own language. Another option to promote language learning is to engage with parents, if they are interested. Last but not least: travelling abroad seems like the ultimate goal and motivator – at least it was for me, when I travel to Japan.

As a language teacher I believe it is our job to share ideas and fresh new ways of learning and to inspire the students to want more out of the world.