Document 1426

Language and the Bilingual Pupil

Author(s): Andrew Philp

Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material


Differing Views of the Needs of Bilingual Pupils

For many pupils in Scotland, most of what has been said in other papers about the cultural and linguistic distance between home and school is also true of them, but with the added complication that the language of home and school are two distinct languages. In other words, the pupils are part of an ethnic minority community whose culture depends upon not just a different dialect or coding orientation, but a different language (Urdu, Gujerati, Punjabi, Cantonese, Gaelic, Kosovan Albanian etc.). They are likely to become bilingual in their home language and English.

Yet, in terms of how language operates in the world at large, this is nothing unusual. Language studies show that operating in more than one language is normal. It is not in itself a problem and it certainly does not constitute a learning difficulty. Yet in the UK, monolingualism is still regarded by many as the norm.

While most teachers nowadays may not see the continuing development of a child’s home language as a hindrance to his learning of English (as was once the case), many may still see the home language as merely a support on the journey to fluent command of English. This is the view implied in the Cox Report, where it is suggested that ‘there may be a need for bilingual teaching support and for books etc. to be available in children’s other tongues until such time as they are competent in English’.

Yet as Helen Savva comments:

‘This is transitional and not full bilingualism. It is not the development and mutual enrichment of two or more languages but the idea that development must involve the eventual supremacy of one language and the neglect of the others.’ Savva, H. (1990) ‘The Rights of Bilingual Children’ in Carter R., ed., "Knowledge about Language and the Curriculum"

The 5-14 English Language Guidelines take a much more positive view of bilingualism: ‘Schools should strive to promote the status of all languages used in the school community in significant ways. Pupils should be allowed to use their mother tongue throughout the school, and community languages should be valued as part of the life of the school, being displayed, for example, on the classroom walls and used in notices’. They go on to say that ‘use of community languages in this way will recognise the claims of pupils commensurate with their needs. It will benefit the school’s relationship with parents. The daily use of varieties of language will also foster an interest in language generally’.

Therefore the development of a child’s home language (through the home, through community schools and within the school) and the use of English should both be fostered by the school, so that bilingualism can be viewed not as a problem (as it once was, in many quarters) but as a positive advantage for the bilingual child, and also for all children in the school.

We shall now briefly examine some of the advantages of the dual encouragement and mutual enrichment of home and school language and then look at some of the practical implications for the teacher. These practical suggestions draw extensively upon the SCCC booklet "Languages for Life: Bilingual Pupils 5-14".

1. It is now generally accepted that learning several languages as a bilingual develops a sensitivity to language in general, so that the learning of a home language is a positive advantage in learning English. Not only does it develop young learners’ command of a second or third language but it gives them a sensitivity to how language works (knowledge about language) and an increased perception of how language functions in literary texts (arising from their sense of how different languages create meaning in different contexts). They are learning English as an Additional Language (EAL) rather than learning English as a Second Language (ESL), the term which was formerly applied to such situations.
2. The learning of two or more languages and the mental activities required by that language-learning, such as matching, provide distinct cognitive benefits for the bilingual, particularly in curricular areas where such mental operations are important, such as Mathematics. The SCCC booklet on bilingual pupils, "Languages for Life", says: ‘Research carried out in Britain and in many other multilingual societies worldwide has shown that those who become bilingual, with their home language strongly supported whilst their second language develops, experience definite cognitive benefits’ (p.7).
3. Bilingual pupils may come to school with a whole range of awarenesses, cultural, literary and linguistic, which may inform their appreciation of how language is or could be used, and of how things are done differently in other cultures. Such cross-cultural discussion of literature, or of cultural contexts such as greetings or ceremonies, not only extends the bilingual’s awareness but also increases awareness of these issues for the rest of the class.
4. Such an atmosphere of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic sharing can increase multicultural awareness, making pupils aware of the richness and fascinating variety of other cultures and languages. Such an atmosphere in the classroom also goes hand-in-hand with a bidialectal approach, which encourages interest in the rich diversity of other dialects as well as languages. "Languages for Life" shows how the involvement of bilingual pupils can lead to this kind of classroom atmosphere: ‘The bilingual child can provide an insight into a bilingual world for the benefit of monolingual classmates. They can appreciate the fascination of new sounds, symbols and expressions. They can also learn that fluency in one language is not only possible, but desirable. In this way a positive attitude to foreign language learning can be promoted. Indeed, the first steps in language awareness and appreciation can be taken through sharing together the different languages, dialects and accents present in the classroom, so that all children can increase in confidence and pride in their own rich linguistic repertoires’ (p.9).

Practical Implications
1. The bilingual child may come to school already aware of a range of relevant concepts and skills, including the ability to read in another language, and it is important to assess his abilities not merely as an early stages learner of English but as a more advanced learner in his own right. Therefore, it may be useful to revise and adapt learning experiences so as to enable the pupil to work on the same context as and with other class members, but with a range of contextual supports, such as diagrams, charts, pictures, prompts and objects, to guide and support their thinking.
2. Just as the monolingual pupil will develop and deepen his awareness of concepts by talking them through in his own words, so the bilingual pupil will benefit from discussing concepts in his own language, as well as from reading about them in books in his home language, or dual-language books or listening to bilingual tapes. Also, this development of learning through the home language can be assisted by a flexible approach to grouping which allows the bilingual pupil to work with pupils who speak the same language but are of different language ability, or even of different ages. Parents can also help the process of learning across the curriculum by discussing relevant concepts with the child in his own language, and obviously bilingual teachers or classroom assistants can aid the learning process similarly.
3. The links with parents mentioned above are only part of an essential process of fostering links between the school and classroom on the one hand and the child’s parents and local community on the other. Parents can be encouraged to come to the classroom and read or tell stories from their own community in the home language, with the children speculating on the meaning of the story from non-verbal clues or visual aids. Moreover, the school can encourage parents to feel part of the school community through their involvement in language classes or recreational activities, and through a focus on language policies relevant to the ethnic minority community.
4. The approach outlined under 3 implies one of the key points about a school’s approach to bilingual pupils and their families: that their sense of self-esteem and value to the classroom and the school should be fostered through encouraging the bilingual pupil to use his home language (taking steps to highlight, for the monolingual pupils its interest and relevance for them) and also through involving ethnic minority community parents in the life of the school. To say that, however, is not to say that the child should be encouraged or compelled to take part in any activities about which he seems reluctant. It is also important to remember that, although we talk of ‘the bilingual pupil’, such pupils in fact have a wide variety of different learning needs as pupils, as well as having different learning styles and personalities.
5. It is important to remember that, in common with monolingual pupils, the bilingual pupil has to cope with the varying demands of what Cummings and Swain (in their "Bilingualism in Education", 1986) called ‘Basic Interpersonal Skills Competency’, or BISC; and also the demands of the academic language of school learning, which they termed ‘Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency’, or CALP. As was suggested in the paper "Language Background and Educational Failure", many children from monolingual backgrounds have difficulty in learning to cope with the demands of academic language and its implications for learning. For bilinguals, however, their growing proficiency in social skills as they progress through the education system may mask their difficulties in developing CALP. Teachers therefore need to be particularly aware of bilinguals’ needs in CALP and in adopting strategies aimed at assessing them.
6. Points 4 and 5 also raise the important issue that the child may have lost competence in using his home language, as a result of various factors. Therefore, if the child is to gain the benefits for bilingual pupils listed under ‘Advantages’ above, the school may need to take steps to develop and further his competence in his home language, through incorporating activities featuring use of the home language throughout the curriculum (See "Languages for Life", pp 14-15).

The child obviously needs to develop his competence in English too, as effectively as possible. The favourable conditions for developing English as an Additional Language – according to current research – are put forward here, adapted from "Languages for Life" (pp 14-15):

• Plenty of listening time is important. Like very young children learning their first language, additional language learners benefit from a great deal of listening to examples of English as they start to construct their own model of that language.
• Other children can be the best teachers. Young bilingual learners develop the additional language best when they participate in classroom activities with other, English-speaking, children in groups. The English speakers will modify and adapt their use of language to support the language learning needs of the bilingual pupils. Moreover, in the process, they themselves will learn a great deal about the nature of language and of effective communication.
• English is best learned through meaningful activities. As with learning English as a mother tongue, English as an additional language is most effectively developed within meaningful contexts. This very often means writing about events which are within the child’s experience and which derive from his own cultural background.
• Errors are often a sign of language growth. Just as with young children learning to speak and listen, or to read and write, bilinguals often develop their competence in the additional language through making similar kinds of errors as they pass through similar stages on the road to fluency
• Assessing Bilingual Pupils. Obviously most of these practical points about EAL learning depend upon an accurate assessment of the bilingual pupils’ language skills; and some helpful suggestions are provided in "Languages for Life".

This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.


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Language and the Bilingual Pupil. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 16 April 2024, from

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Information about Document 1426

Language and the Bilingual Pupil


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Year of composition 1998
Word count 1982
General description One of a series of position papers on current educational developments in relation to language education

Text medium

Other CD Rom of teacher materials (LILT)

Text publication details

Part of larger text
Contained in CD Rom: LILT Materials
Editor J McGonigal / C Kay
Part of a longer series of texts
Name of series Position Papers: CD Rom: LILT Materials

Text setting


Text type

Prose: nonfiction


Author details

Author id 60
Forenames Andrew
Surname Philp
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1930
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Catholicism
Occupation Retired Lecturer in Education
Place of birth Londonderry
Region of birth Co. Londonderry
Country of birth Northern Ireland
Place of residence Airdrie
Region of residence Lanark
Residence CSD dialect area Lnk
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Tool Fitter
Father's place of birth Auchterarder
Father's region of birth E & SE Perthshire
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Per
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Seamstress in shirt factory
Mother's place of birth Ture
Mother's region of birth Co. Donegal
Mother's country of birth Ireland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes At work, at home
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic Yes Yes Yes Yes Evening classes and immersion
Italian Yes Yes No No Elementary
Japanese Yes No No Yes Very elementary
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes Elementary - intermediate
Urdu Yes No No Yes Elementary