Publications & Presentations


An inquiry into the typical and atypical language development of young transnational multilingual children in an international school

This thesis investigates some of the unique characteristics of young transnational multilingual children aged five to eleven from high-socioeconomic status families educated in an international school in Switzerland. Its purpose is to improve understanding of typical and atypical language development for this group. It draws on sociolinguistic research on language variation and exposure, and clinical linguistic research on developmental language disorder identification and cross-linguistic considerations. The specific aim of the pilot research study presented in this thesis is to measure and discuss seven multilingual children’s verbal language abilities in each of their languages, and to measure their combined bilingual verbal abilities and multilingual verbal abilities. It is, therefore, influenced by discussion on language acquisition theories that relate to complex and dynamic systems, such as the Dynamic Model of Multilingualism. In addition, it also identifies any common characteristics, familial language practices or experiences of the pilot group of children. A methodological design is created that could be replicated in the future on a much larger scale as a means of confirming, extending or disputing the findings from the pilot group. This thesis’s pilot research findings suggest that multilingual children from high-income families who attend international schools have significantly above average verbal language abilities when their verbal language abilities are evaluated as one total language system (multilingual ability), a finding that is in stark contrast to the ‘average’ results they receive when each language is evaluated on its own. The thesis concludes that research on multilingual children that does not take into account the variables unique to this group may fail to recognise important factors that can impact their language development.

Full thesis can be read here

Learning About Communities: School Language Surveys

Language surveys are a great way to learn more about the language profiles of students and their families so that schools can further strengthen their commitment to intercultural awareness and developing multilingualism. Using the results, a comprehensive language profile of a school community can be made, which provides detailed information on the languages used by students and their families, as well as an overview of the beliefs and attitudes of parents towards multilingualism and language learning.

International organisations, including UNESCO, OECD and the IBO, have recognised that multilingualism is on the rise, and are prioritising their investigations into linguistic diversity across the globe. Likewise, the Institute of Multilingualism and the Federal Delegate for Plurilingualism are promoting the benefits of multilingualism in Switzerland. Graddol (2006) suggests that demographic change significantly impacts how languages develop. The manner in which institutions respond to linguistic evolution determines the extent to which linguistic resources are utilised for the benefit of society.

I believe that our conception of identity, both as individuals and members of groups, is in a perpetual state of flux in spite of our best efforts to anchor ourselves in time and place (what ontologists describe as a constant ‘state of becoming’). It is important to note that globally-mobile communities, such as international schools, have complex and shifting cultural and linguistic landscapes, and are never fixed in their identity; hence, the answer to ‘who we are’ as a community will always be fluid and ever-changing.

Language survey results show just how diverse communities are and how international students develop a natural and authentic global awareness through their inclusion in, and membership of, such a linguistically diverse communities.


Council of Europe Language Policy Portal. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2018, from

IBO (2014) Language and Learning in IB Programmes. Cardiff: IBO.

Institute of Multilingualism. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2018, from

OECD (2018), The Resilience of Students with an Immigrant Background: Factors that Shape Well-being. OECD Reviews of Migrant Education, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Family Language Planning


As I have mentioned in previous articles, globalisation and mobility have influenced cultural and linguistic diversity in many communities. International organisations, such as UNESCO, OECD, the EU, and the IB, as well as national initiatives, promote the benefits of bi- and multilingualism for the individual and for society as a whole. The extent to which educational institutions should respond to linguistic diversity is often discussed. The IB stresses that intercultural awareness and international-mindedness are central to their educational mission, and that both these dispositions require the fostering of multilingualism. However, what is less discussed, but equally important, is how familial beliefs and practices affect children’s multilingual development; it is to this topic that I will focus my attention here.

Just as international school children are exposed to a wide range of languages, so too do they encounter several forms of language variation (grammar, vocabulary and accent) within languages. Moreover, international families are often given conflicting advice about what languages to use at home. With all this complexity, it is no surprise that many families are confused about what they need to do to support their children’s multilingual development (some are even unsure if they should support it at all). Research suggests that if families do not follow appropriate ‘language plans’, their children are at risk of losing fluency in one language, and could fail to reach mastery in others.

The importance of multilingualism can be a very emotional subject, and in many cases it is a cause of tension within the family. Having a clear understanding of the benefits of multilingualism (cognitive, social and economic) will help families make informed decisions about what needs to be prioritised in order to best nurture their children’s multilingual potentialities. In the last few years, linguists have started advising parents to become active agents in their children’s language development, a new approach that is being referred to as ‘family language planning’.

In my role as language advisor, I often base my recommendations on the answers to these three key questions:

  1. Is the language a cultural language that connects your child to his or her family, friends and/or heritage?

  2. Is the language an integration language that connects your child to the local community and culture?

  3. Is the language an academic language that is important to your child’s success in school, higher education or the workplace?

Once parents have identified whether a language is cultural, for the purpose of integration, or for academic success, the next stage is to discuss the options available in school and the strategies families can employ at home, such as:

  1. Plan different activities in different languages, such as watching TV, films or Youtube, listening to the radio, or reading books together.

  2. One parent decides to consistently speak his or her first language (mother tongue) to the child, often referred to as the ‘One Person One Language (OPOL)’ strategy. While many families experience success with this approach, for some families, it is difficult to maintain.

  3. Create language days, afternoons, evenings, weekends, when everyone agrees to speak the same language together. The language day strategy only really works if family members are fluent in the language.

  4. Arrange play dates and invite children who share the same languages.

  5. Get involved in celebrations and traditions that involve using a language. Often this provides authentic opportunities for children to learn more about the connection between language and culture.

Talking openly about language learning with your child, seeking advice about language and participating in language planning can reduce family stress and benefit children in the long run.


  1. Crisfield, E. (2017, November 20). Reflecting on Family Language Planning. Retrieved January 23, 2019, from

  2. IBO (2014) Language and Learning in IB Programmes. Cardiff: IBO.

  3. Karavasili, K. (2014, June 03). Family language planning and active bilingualism. Retrieved January 23, 2019, from

  4. King, K. A., Fogle, L., & Logan-Terry, A. (2008). Family Language Policy. Language and Linguistics Compass, 2 (5), 907-922.

Understanding BICS and CALP

One of the principle language theories discussed by the IB and at international education conferences is one created by Professor Jim Cummins from the University of Toronto, Canada, who has identified the key features of bilingual students’ language learning trajectories when they are learning through a language in which they are not yet proficient. I would like to explore Cummins’ theory in this post, as it helps us understand the English language learning path of non-English speaking background students, as well as how EAL support can work.

By no means is Cummins’ theory of language learning new; it was published in the early 1980s and it has been discussed in international educational communities thereafter. However, as academic theories tend to disseminate slowly, they only enter the mainstream consciousness and official educational curricula when they have been thoroughly tested and have been around for some time. In 2008, about 20 years after Cummins’ theory was conceived, a key International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) document on learning in a language other than the mother tongue embedded Cummins’ Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) theory into the IBO language and learning conceptual framework for students being educated in a language different from their mother tongue. It is important to note that not only does the IBO acknowledge Cummins’ BICS and CALP theory as critical in understanding bilingual language development in educational contexts, it is also at the core of how EAL students are supported at many IB schools through their EAL programmes and mother tongue programmes.

In order to fully understand Cummins’ BICS and CALP theory, we have to first explore the differences between a) learning a language other than our mother tongue as part of a greater school curriculum, and b) the ability to use a language other than our mother tongue proficiently throughout the school day to access the whole school curriculum. Almost all of us can remember learning another language at school and many of us currently attend language schools so we can better communicate in another language. Language learning like this often focuses on situational communication: the ability to communicate, on a basic level, one’s needs and preferences in a variety of common situations. Some of us may also have experienced needing to study the more advanced aspects of a language different than our mother tongue to perform better at work or complete university education. What I am trying to say is that these two language learning experiences, i.e. basic situational communication in a language and proficient use of a language (academic or vocational), are very different for both student and teacher; understanding this difference can help us better comprehend EAL students’ learning trajectories at school and respond with the best type of EAL support. Once we understand this distinction, understanding Cummins’ BICS and CALP theory is made easier.

As the IBO explains in its publication on learning in a language other than the mother tongue (2008), Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) in an academic environment refers to the language skills necessary for a student’s social interaction with teachers and other students. Basic communication skills are very concrete and familiar as these develop when one learns his/her mother tongue; students can utilise their own knowledge of facial expressions, gesticulations, and noises to make themselves understood or gain meaning from what is being communicated. Often, EAL students develop BICS in English rapidly, within one or two years of exposure to education in English, as they copy others’ behaviour or understand routines and become familiar with the language they frequently hear in class. BICS is essential, but as we know, success in school requires more than just social use of a language: proficient knowledge of the language of instruction is critical to form new understanding of concepts. And this is where we get Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP): the proficient level in an additional language to comprehend and show understanding of the complex abstract concepts encountered at school. As I mentioned before when I talked about BICS, EAL students often use many BICS skills they have learned previously when faced with the task of communicating in a language different from their mother tongue, and likewise, EAL students who have already learned abstract concepts or have developed sufficient academic language proficiency in their mother tongue, find the challenge of developing Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) in an additional language easier. However, as anyone who has developed proficiency in an additional language will know, this can be a slow and challenging process, taking between five and seven years. So, when parents or class teachers ask EAL teachers why an EAL student still requires EAL support after one, two or even three years, when the student appears to be able to communicate with teachers and friends in class, it is likely that the focus of EAL support has shifted from developing basic communication in English (BICS) to improving academic fluency in English (CALP).

Every EAL student is unique; previous school experience, personality and motivation, mother tongue development, literacy development, support at home, and previous exposure to learning another language or English, all determine how long an EAL student requires EAL support from a specialist EAL teacher, and how well they can engage with the curriculum. The best advice I can give is to keep in mind these key points:

1. learning an additional language is neither quick nor easy

2. accessing the curriculum in a language you are not proficient in is incredibly challenging (and requires specialist support)

3. maintaining your child’s mother tongue and developing mother tongue literacy are important to his or her overall cognitive development


Cummins, J, 1984. Bilingualism and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy. 1st ed. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.

International Baccelaureate Organisation, IBO, 2008. Learning in a Language Other Than Mother Tongue in IB Programmes.

Lopez, E, 2006. Targeting English Language Learners, Tasks, and Treatments in Natasi, B, 2006. Multicultural Issues in School Psychology. 1st ed. USA: Haworth Press.

Supporting Bilingual Identities: The Bilingual Diploma

In a recent article, I explored the links between language, identity and self-esteem. In this post, I will discuss how the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) enables young, multilingual people to develop their bilingualism so they can confidently navigate diverse environments and develop global competencies. Language is one of the main elements we use as we develop a sense of how we fit into our family, school, local area the world at large. By coming to grips with how our languages contribute to the complexities of our own identity and can even influence our way of thinking, we can better understand other cultures and alternative conceptual frameworks.

The International Baccalaureate Organisation believes that valuing all languages strengthens intercultural awareness (IBO, 2014), and encourages its schools to create educational pathways that support and develop multilingualism. The IBO’s core belief that linguistic awareness, plurilingualism and global mindedness are strongly linked is shared with other global institutions, such as UNESCO and the Council for Europe. In a recent publication on the future of education, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic body, discussed the importance of personalised learning environments that acknowledge and further develop students’ prior knowledge, skills, values and attitudes through their curricula (OECD, 2018). Acknowledging students’ previous linguistic and educational experiences in an increasingly diverse world, and finding creative ways to develop these is a challenge for many schools. What is clear is that multilingualism is valued beyond the home and school. In a 2014 article on bilingualism, the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Leszek Borysiewicz, discussed the importance of recognising first languages (also known as ‘home’ or ‘heritage languages’) and the need for bilingual children to have access to additional opportunities to develop their language skills (in Ward, 2014). While multilingualism is not always a prerequisite for university entrance, being able to access courses, publish, and present in more than one language, is definitely advantageous. Looking at the world of business, Damari et al (2017) looked at several studies conducted into the demand for multilingualism in the US labour market, and concluded that multilingual candidates for some jobs have an advantage over monolingual candidates. The advantages of multilingualism for education and employment are clearly demonstrated by such research.

By studying two languages at native-speaker level, these students are awarded the prestigious ‘IB Bilingual Diploma’, which recognises the high level of bilingualism they have attained. Interestingly, even though many candidates taking the IB Diploma are bilingual, fewer candidates are awarded the bilingual diploma than the standard diploma, but this is changing (Rivera, 2014). One of the major challenges of taking the bilingual diploma is that these students need to have maintained and developed their bilingualism over the years. While there are several ways to maintain academic bilingualism, the most common approaches include being schooled in other languages, attending first language programmes (after-school or as part of the curriculum), and/or having private tutors.

In Rivera’s 2014 research, students were asked why they chose to take the Bilingual Diploma. The student respondents ranked several reasons, but two key beliefs emerged: that the Bilingual Diploma would benefit them in their careers and that it enhanced their future education options. Importantly, of the bilingual students that chose not to pursue the Bilingual Diploma, the main reasons offered were that the level of their second language was too low and that they did not consider multilingualism to be important; where the former indicates that sufficient language support was not offered at earlier stages of education, the latter suggests that the students (as well as parents and educators) were not aware of the research on the connection between multilingualism and education/employment possibilities. In order to establish why students opt for the Bilingual Diploma, I asked students currently in a DP programme to give me their thoughts. I will give the final word to them:

In reference to Higher Education:

“Studying my own language brings me closer to home and makes it possible to get into the university I want to get into.”

“Studying two language As is a way to perfect both languages and it was as predicted, a huge advantage as it led me to be accepted into my first choice university which required full bilingual proficiency.”

“I wasn't sure where I wanted to study, so having two language A subjects was a plus.”

In reference to their futures:

“Being fully bilingual is such a strong advantage in our world today and I have the opportunity to have that.”

“Studying these two languages in depth allows me to prepare myself for the future.”

“Having been granted the chance to study both English A and my mother tongue as a Language A was not an opportunity I was going to leave behind."

In reference to their sense of self:

“It's a way to keep in touch with where I come from and my family.”

“Being bilingual is part of who I am."

“For me it is important to remember my first language and to develop English.”

“It has allowed me to develop my bilingual skills and shaped me as a student.”


Damari, R. R., Rivers, W. P., Brecht, R. D., Gardner, P., Pulupa, C., & Robinson, J. (2017). The demand for multilingual human capital in the US labor market. Foreign Language Annals.

IBO (2014) Language and Learning in IB Programmes. Cardiff: IBO.

OECD. (2018, April 5). 2018 [Publication]. Retrieved April 15, 2018,

Rivera, C. (2014, June). 2014 [Executive Summary]. IB Diploma Programme Study: Factors influencing students to earn a Bilingual Diploma.Retrieved April 15, 2018.

Ward, L. (2014, June 2). Bilingualism offers 'huge advantages', claims Cambridge University head. The Guardian. Retrieved April 15, 2018, from

Language and Identity

This past October, I attended the 2017 International Baccalaureate (IB) Global Conference in The Hague, Netherlands. One of the presentations I attended was by Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neurologist and psychologist at the University of Southern California. Her research on how students’ emotional states influence their learning receptivity reminded me of the many discussions I have had with students who are studying their first languages. In previous newsletter articles, I have focused on the cognitive, economic and cultural advantages to developing bi- and multilingualism. Inspired by Immordino-Yang’s work, I will now shift my discussion to the question of how our languages take shape and inform who we are and how we relate to others.

The relationship between language and identity is complex. The languages an individual speaks is certainly not the only thing that defines who an individual is, but it does reveal something about his or her experiences, beliefs and attitudes. Our identities constantly evolve over time as we navigate different social contexts and adopt the many identities they entail. The IB publishes guidelines on many aspects of international education, including language learning. In its ‘Language and Learning in IB Programmes’ (2014) publication, the IB examines the role of language in the development of an individual’s identity. The IB suggests that the languages we use to communicate are connected to our own personal development, and the choice to develop ‘multiliteracies’ can even foster a sense of empowerment (IBO, 2014). Indeed, their use of the word ‘empowerment’ highlights the strong emotional component associated with learning new languages or continuing to develop home languages.

Along with the positive emotional states associated with language learning, there can also be negative feelings individuals can experience when they feel that they are losing a language, a sort of ‘language mourning’. As Castro, Lundgren & Woodin (2015) state in their discussion of multilingualism, when individuals feel their local and national identities are under threat, this can affect the potential to extend their horizons and participate in global citizenship. In addition, having an understanding of one’s own identity can be useful in understanding the identity of others. Bi- and multilingual children in international schools often have unique linguistic and educational profiles, which make them a heterogeneous group that require bespoke academic programmes. Franceschini (2009) discusses how being part of a multilingual community can help develop an individual’s own multilingual development. However, she also makes the point that ‘not every society which claims to be multilingual necessarily produces multilingual individuals’ (2009: 33). Developing the optimal environment and support in which to nurture and harness balanced multilingualism is one of the biggest challenges that schools, communities and families with complex linguistic profiles have to face.

What is clear is that there is an emotional component to learning and using languages that influences an individual’s sense of his or her identity. When a child’s languages are valued, the child can experience an increase in self-esteem, which can enhance their motivation to learn (IBO, 2014). With this in mind, I asked students from Grade 7-12 who are studying their first language at school to discuss how they feel about their languages and their identities. In their responses, the students used words such as ‘happy’, ‘comforting’ and ‘safe’. They discussed feeling empowered and newly connected. They mentioned how studying their first language has addressed the fears they had about losing their languages or growing disconnected from their families, peers and their culture. Most of the students felt there was a strong connection between their languages and the shaping of their identities. They talked about how their languages influenced the way they view the world and how they interact with others. Importantly, a point that was often made was that it is not just the development of a home language that shapes your identity, but your experience of learning different languages.

Through reading the overall linguistics discourse on the links between language learning, emotions and identity, and discussing these issues with students, I have concluded that providing bi- and multilingual children with opportunities for linguistic growth helps with their personal development and their ability to engage with others; this aligns with the IB’s view that both families, schools and communities should strive to furnish ‘social and emotional conditions’ that value all languages and strengthen intercultural awareness (IB, 2014: 30).


Castro, P., Lundgren, U., & Woodin, J. (2015). International mindedness through the looking glass: reflections on a concept. Journal of Research in International Education, 14 (3), 187-197.

Franceschini, R. (2009). The genesis and development of research in multilingualism. The exploration of multilingualism: Development of research on L3, 27-61.

IBO (2014) Language and Learning in IB Programmes. Cardiff: IBO.


  • Working Together: Promoting the Benefits of Multilingualism (October 2017, IB Global Conference, The Hague)

  • ECIS ESL & Mother Tongue Conference Round Table Discussion on Multilingual Children and Language Disorders (March 2017, ECIS ESL and Mother Tongue Conference, Copenhagen)

  • Inquiry and Language Teaching: Embracing a Conceptual Shift (October 2014, IB Africa, Europe and Middle East Regional Conference 2014)

  • Language Development of Children in Multilingual Settings, and Sociolinguistic Factors that Can Contribute to SLI Over- and Under-Identification (July 2015, Language Variation and Assessment, CSLS, University of Bern, Switzerland)

  • First Language Maintenance and Family Language Plans (September 2015, Nederlandse School De Alpentulp, Zug, Switzerland)

  • Identification, Assessment and Support of EAL pupils with Special Educational Needs (October 2007, Swiss Group of International Schools Special Educational Needs Conference, Switzerland)