Why should we care? Host country language teaching in international schools

There is a common tension in international schools between the teaching and learning of the host country languages and other world languages. The tendency is to dialogue about 'usefulness', and importance of languages globally, rather than focus on these aspects locally. It is also an area woefully lacking in any kind of research base, so there is no evidence to provide support in the decision-making process. I would like to explore the issue of host-country language teaching through three arguments that I often encounter in discussions about this topic.

1. The host country language isn't very useful, so students would be better off studying French (Spanish, Mandarin, etc...).

Answer: Host country language teaching is perhaps some of the most useful teaching that we can do. Even when students are staying for a short time in a country, spending time exploring the language(s) of the country provides context and the possibility for connections. When we talk about international-mindedness and global citizenship, surely engaging with the languages spoken where we live is a key component of developing positive mindsets. Allowing students to come and go and not learn the language of the host country sets up a neo-colonial mindset where the globally mobile impose their own language rather than engage with 'other'.

2. Students who are learning the school language (usually English) shouldn't study the host country language because they will get confused.

Answer: There is no evidence to support this position, and certainly no clear evidence that should drive policy. In fact, many students who are learning the school language may thrive in host country language classes, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it may be the only class in which there are other beginners as well - so they are not the only ones who are learning the language. Especially when schools provide proper beginner classes (not mixed level with advanced) there is a benefit to language learners to be in just one class where they aren't behind! Secondly, in language classes the language itself is being taught/learned, so there is less pressure on students than in the mainstream classes, where they are learning by immersion. Their focus can be solely on language development, rather than on both language and content. The default should be inclusion, with processes in place for students who are struggling to be considered for exemption, based on understanding their language profile and pathways.

3. Host country language teaching is too hard (and the parents don't care about it...).

Answer: Certainly, the task of developing and delivering a strong host country language curriculum is not to be underestimated. Generally speaking, schools have students with a wide range of ability in the host country language, and with a wide range of needs. There is no ready-made curriculum, and schools need to develop approaches that work for their situation and students. Some schools have a hard time with programmes and resources, and other schools have a hard time with issues to do with language status, and all schools have problems with budget for host country language classes (and everything else...). None of these is reason enough to disregard the message we send to our students if we don't prioritise the teaching and learning of the host country language. Our ideals of international-mindedness and global citizenship fall flat if we don't pay more than lip service to the people among whom we are living. This is incontrovertible - and far more important than teaching a language spoken somewhere else in the world in place of the host country language.

I'm always looking for schools that are innovating the area of host country language teaching. If your school is doing a great job (or even a good job!) please get in touch and let me know what you are doing.

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