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Diversity, equity, inclusion, and languages: What are the connections?

The world of education is very interested in ideas around diversity, equity, inclusion, and decolonising the curriculum right now. International education is no exception, and in many ways, may even have more stake in these discussions. Despite this growing interest in the fundamental rights of children to see themselves and their lived experiences centred in the curriculum, there is still a significant gap in the narrative when it comes to languages.

If diversity means including other viewpoints and perspectives, and representation from groups other than the majority, then this surely includes linguistic diversity as well. If we are striving for educational equity, then we need to be considering equitable access to learning and assessment for our language learner students as a priority. If inclusion is a goal we are working towards, then surely we should be considering inclusive language practices. And surely there is no better route to decolonising the curricula of international schools than to set local and student languages in parity alongside the colonial language that is English.


International schools are often very diverse in terms of student languages (less so for teaching staff), yet that diversity is rarely heard or seen in schools, at least past the 'food, flags, and festivals' type of celebration. The worldview we see (and teach) when learning through only the dominant majority language limits the learning of internationally schooled students, and is a critical missed opportunity. The lack of linguistic diversity (alongside other kinds of diversity, including, but not limited to: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, SES, etc.) in staff and leadership in international schools sends a powerful message to students about what 'success' and 'leadership' look and sound like. Article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1) states that children have 'the right to enjoy their own culture, practise their own religion and use their own language', yet many children are denied the right to use their own language, or even punished for using their own language in their schools. This is often framed from a position of privilege; children in international schools are by and large from educated and well-off families, and are considered 'lucky' to have the opportunity to go to school in English. When we frame something through this lens, we neglect to consider what children may be sacrificing for this opportunity, which for some (potentially many) is fluency and literacy in their own language.


Language learner students in schools (EAL/ELL or equivalent) are routinely assessed on content without adequate differentiation for their level of development in the school language. How much support they get varies across schools, but is rarely enough to compensate for the dual nature of their task: they are learning the school language at the same time as trying to learn the content that they are being assessed on. Young learners are regularly put in remedial/support groups for reading, with no attention paid to their status as a language learner; surely a child can't be expected to perform at grade level in reading a language they hardly speak? Addressing the issue of equity in our international schools will require creative thinking about how we teach and assess our language learner students, so they have access to learning that is appropriate and supportive.


Inclusion, and attempts at being inclusive take many guises in international schools, but the current trend for language learners is that inclusion means they should not be taken out of regular classes in order to learn English. What this form of inclusion neglects to take into account is that a student sitting in a class is not necessarily included, they are often simply present. Being present in a classroom but not understanding very much, if anything that is going on around you is a recipe for exclusion; excluded from learning, excluded from socialisation, and even very often excluded from language acquistion opportunities. True inclusion happens when children are given the support they need to understand and access learning. This can happen in mainstream classes if the teachers are very well trained, and can happen in strong co-teaching situations. The reality is that many teachers have not had the opportunity to develop the 'every teacher is a language teacher' capacity that is needed, and EAL/ELL teachers are in too short supply to be in every class with language learner students. Without those conditions, new to English students need protected time and space to learn English in order to progress more quickly into an inclusive setting (N.B. I'm not advocating a full-time stand-alone programme, just a short-term, well-designed language acquisition programme).


The most straightforward route to ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion for languages in our schools is to develop a multilingual approach to learning, where languages are used as resources to enhance learning opportunties for all students. One example would be to have students research poetry in their own languages, and understand what is valued in the poetic traditions of their home languages. They can then share this with their peers in English, and present a translated poem to the class. In this one learning engagement we enhance the curriculum for all our learners by bringing in other ways of knowing and doing, other ideas and perspectives, and connect students to their different selves, all the while developing an understanding and ability around poetry in English.

So when your school starts planning their DEI initiatives, make sure someone is advocating for linguistic diversity, equity, and inclusion too!



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