Providing appropriate support for language learner students starts with understanding where they have come from, where they might be going, and using this information to develop a language pathway for them. At the basis of understanding multilingual students is a process that we call ethnolinguistic profiling. An ethnolinguistic profile is a picture of a child in languages. It relates and recounts where they have acquired different languages and from whom, which languages they use in different domains and for different topics, what their educational history is in these languages, and which languages they will need to take with them into adulthood. This is a complex set of information that cannot be gathered by adding one or two questions about language on the admissions form. The process of completing an ethnolinguistic profile and developing a language pathway document for a new student (and follow up) should look like this;
1. Initial language background via written document from parents, including which languages are spoken in the home and in other domains (by parents and other people who live in the home or are frequently there), where the child has lived and if they have been at school (or preschool, or creche), what languages were used in education (and how much, and how), information about literacy if age-appropriate, how long the family might be intending to stay at the school, and what the likely next destination(s) might be.
2. Interview with a trained staff member to ensure accuracy of reporting on the written form and to explain to the parents how the information will be used (for example, a child who will only be there for two years and speaks no English would be better served by having EAL and not additional languages), and to find out which language the child currently prefers (ideally from the child directly, if not, by translation). Sharing of the School Language Policy, including provisions for EAL where needed, and home language support where available, and the parents role in helping their child maintain/develop the home language(s) is also a part of this step.
3. Establishing a Language Pathway document, showing the child's progression through the school in terms of language, development assessment points and alternative options (for example, how/when decisions are made about EAL support, how/when decisions are made about additional languages, how/when decisions are made about language options in the curriculum such as Language Acquisition/Language and Literature or Bilingual DP options). This document will help parents understand that every child is individual in language learning, and the process in the school is based on the individual and not the group.
4. Discussion of progress on the Language Pathway integrated into parent-teacher interviews, for regular sharing of progress and further decision making.
To make all of this happen, a strong working partnership is necessary between the language expert(s) on staff and admissions, and clear documentation is critical, for the school and for parents. It is also necessary to ensure that teachers have the profile and pathway of each student, and an understanding of how to use this information for scaffolding teaching and learning for each student.
This may sound like a lot of work, and I'll admit, it is, especially to get started. However, in order to truly understand our language learner students and be able to provide as best we can for their needs, it is critical to have this information and process in place. Otherwise students fall between the cracks, with no one knowing if they are developing appropriately in any language, and with little in the way in terms of process to find out or deal with language-related issues until they are critical.