Thus we are faced with the bizarre scenario of school successfully transforming fluent speakers of foreign languages into monolingual English speakers, at the same time as they struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to transform monolingual English speakers into foreign language speakers.
There is growing recognition for the need to support students' home languages in international (and public) education. Research shows clear links between the level of a student's home language and their ability and eventual proficiency in English in international schools. Globally, it is recognised that students who do not have access to their home languages in education do not do as well academically.
Given this growing and visible body of knowledge, more international schools are beginning to consider how they can provide some support for the home languages of the students who arrive at school with a home language other than English. Many schools opt for the easiest plan, which is to allow parents to organise home languages classes as a part of the extra-curricular activities. Some schools invest in home language teachers for the most commonly spoken languages offered as an enrichment class, and some schools make the commitment to creating integrated home language programmes within the mainstream curriculum. Whatever the model chosen. all of these face the same core issue.
Where do we get a home language curriculum for internationally living students?
This key question unfortunately has no clear or acceptable answer, because a curriculum that meets the developmental needs of these students simply doesn't exist (yet!). Most of these programmes default to looking to the "home country" of the language to resource the programme. This is inappropriate for many reasons:
Students do not have the same amount of language exposure and so are generally not at the right age-level for the materials.
The cultural content of the materials may be foreign and unfamiliar and not connected to context.
The teaching approaches are often not aligned with international teaching approaches.
The "home country" materials will represent the standard for monolingual speakers from that area only, so how do you resource, for example, a Spanish curriculum for a class with Spanish native speakers from 11 different Spanish-speaking countries?
Each Home Country language group will be working to a very different curriculum and it will be difficult for the school to have any oversight or quality control over the teaching.
The curricula will generally be limited to language and literature (or grammar and spelling...) and not provide support for language development across other subjects areas.
Any way you look at it, trying to shoehorn "home country" curricula and teaching materials into a programme for internationally living students is both inappropriate and unlikely to be very successful. The only option available to schools right now is to develop a framework for home languages that fits with their mission and vision, with their curriculum, and with their teaching and assessment expectations. This needs to be followed by consistent professional development for teachers who are unaccustomed to teaching using thematic frameworks and international pedagogies.
It sounds like a lot of work, and I won't lie, it is a lot of work. But it provides a school with the programme and teaching needed to be strong supporters of home languages, and to develop students who are truly bilingual, and not English-dominant, with a weaker home language.