EAL: The power of the home language

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By Halina BoniszewskaEAL teacher

Discover how new English speakers can use their home language as a positive learning tool

Girls whispering

Problem: I have a couple of Polish children in my Year 3 class. One has been in the country for a few years, while the other is a relatively recent arrival. I originally paired them up because I thought that one could help the other to settle. I confess that I also hoped that this would leave me free to deal with the other children. The problem is that three months on, the two of them chatter away to each other in Polish in class and the new girl has yet to make other friends and speak any English. I am now beginning to think that I have scored an own goal. Would it be very cruel to separate them? Should I ask the parents to speak as much English as they possibly can to their daughter at home?

Answer: First of all, don’t blame yourself for having paired up the children. This was a perfectly natural thing for you to do when the new girl first arrived. She would have welcomed the opportunity to ask her compatriot all sorts of questions in her mother tongue. She would have been reassured to see that someone in a similar position had coped with moving countries and learning a new language. We should not underestimate the emotional upheaval that some new arrivals experience. They may feel insecure or traumatised due to prior experiences; they may be experiencing separation from one or both parents or a general change in the family situation. Unless these children are made to feel secure, they will not flourish. You have done well to put the emotional needs of the child centre stage.

However, as you clearly sense, it is time to encourage the new girl to engage with other children. Before you split up the girls, do take time to talk to each of them individually. The new one may not understand all you say, but the other can explain everything later in the playground. You could also send a letter home in which you explain that you have separated the children and paired them up with other native English-speaking children in order to help each of them learn as much English as possible.


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