Why is the study of multiple languages an important skill to have (for a global citizen)?

The aim of an International Baccalaureate (IB) education is to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. (source: https://www.ibo.org ).

To facilitate the development of intercultural understanding and international-mindedness, the study of languages, specifically the ability to communicate effectively in multi languages, is one way of achieving this. Learning a language or languages is essential for inquiry and the construction of meaning, as it provides an intellectual framework to support conceptual development and critical thinking (source: https://www.ibo.org ). Additionally, learning a language also enables one to appreciate the cultural origins and nuances of the language and its people, thereby developing one’s global mindset and intercultural understanding.

The study of a Mother Tongue or home language is equally important in the IB as this not only enables the student to retain his / her cultural identity, but also helps with cognitive development. Skills learned in the Mother Tongue (home language) will transfer to the other languages learned in school, as long as all languages are supported, both at school and at home. Research (2018) indicates that home and family language support not only leads to improved learning outcomes, but also secures increased access and equity along with sociocultural benefits.

(source: http://blogs.ibo.org/sharingpyp/2018/10/02/supporting-learning-english-as-an-additional-language/)

Presenting information about an individual from his home country who cares about human rights.

Every student in the IB studies in both a language that they are best at, and in another language. This enables students to increase their understanding of several cultures, including their own, and explore globally significant ideas and issues through different languages. These are the tenets of being a global citizen; a person who is globally and cross-culturally aware, and has a strong spirit of community service and a willingness to give back to society. Learning to communicate in a variety of ways, in more than one language, is fundamental to the development of intercultural understanding, the ability to understand the perspectives of others, as well as to have the ability to communicate with stakeholders in the community when engaging in service projects.

Developing global stewards is core at ISS International School (ISS) and therefore we invest in the development of our language curriculum in a multitude of ways. The development of essential literacy skills – reading, writing, viewing and presenting, listening and speaking– are a vital part of a student’s literacy development.

Ms Fiona Edwards teaching in one of our ESL classes
Ms Fiona Edwards teaching in an ESL class

1)     English as a Second Language (ESL)

The language of instruction at ISS is English, and “we have a very established ESL programme that provides a sheltered and supportive environment for students to develop their English language skills. Many students have come to us with limited English language skills and have succeeded in gaining fluency in the language and excelling in their classes and leadership roles. One of the biggest indicators of success for us is the sheer number of former ESL students who go on to study at English-speaking universities in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

All children are different, and therefore a bespoke or differentiated approach to teaching is important. What’s unique at ISS is that class sizes are kept small, thus enabling our teachers to know their students very well and cater their lessons to students’ needs more effectively. The ESL department is always discussing student achievement and reviewing every student’s language learning journey to better support him or her at every stage. A safe learning environment is key to success. All children bring their own set of knowledge, cultural beliefs, previous learning experiences, strengths and skills to any situation, and these form a foundation to build upon. We focus on what they can do and build from there. No child is unteachable in a supportive, encouraging and nurturing environment.” Ms. Fiona Edwards, K-12 Head of ESL, English Acquisition Coordinator and Teacher.

Mrs. Janienne Vaughan helping a student to write short vowel words using Chinese calligraphy brushes
Mrs. Janienne Vaughan helping a student to write short vowel words using Chinese calligraphy brushes

Mrs. Janienne Vaughan, Inclusion & Achievement Coordinator (ESL), English Language Support Teacher adds, “Every child can learn English and we create a safe environment to allow them to do so. We ensure that they join the mainstream classes from the start and are supported with supplementary English language classes until they have acquired some proficiency and independence in the language. Our approach is highly customised to individual student’s needs. Even after they stop attending the supplementary classes, they will still be supported within the mainstream classes until they are fully proficient and confident to be on their own. Some of the subject content may be modified or delivered in a way to help them learn. We believe they will best gain English language skills when they are engaged in learning and interacting with their classmates in their mainstream classes.”

2)     Language and Literature

In our elementary school, the study of languages is incorporated daily into the Unit of Inquiry (UoI) and in the teaching of the language as a subject / unit. Our students follow a set time for reading, writing, listening, regardless of whether it is English or Mandarin – the Mother Tongue taught within the Primary Years Programme at ISS. Literacy skills are further developed with specific time set aside at the library, where our students are encouraged to read books of all genres or spend time researching for a UoI. Writing and communication skills are further honed in the study of a UoI, where students are given opportunities to acquire and develop their literacy through class work, group work and in performing arts.

In middle and high school, language and literature enables our students to become competent users of the languages of choice, allowing students to become independent learners.  As they move into the Middle Years Programme and their Diploma Years where the academic rigour gradually escalates, the literacy and language skills are necessary to enable students to extensively research, inquire, think critically and present their findings. Language and Literature take the form of English and a Mother Tongue of choice. Other than English, other languages of instruction are Mandarin (both Middle and High schools), Japanese (at High School and in the Middle School from August 2019) and French (both Middle and High schools).  Korean and Spanish are also offered at the High School.

Language and Literacy are important for students to become independent learners
Language and Literacy are important for students to become independent learners

“I was never interested in learning foreign languages. However, I have come to value and appreciate my two years spent at ISS because it made me realise that learning foreign languages and the exposure to foreign cultures open up so many opportunities for me personally.”  Mao Kawasaki, ISS Alumni

3)     Mother Tongue

Mother Tongue is a unique programme that begins in Middle School. It allows students to keep learning in their Mother Tongue whilst following the regular curriculum and developing their competency in English. This benefits students as they are able to learn and be assessed in both languages. This also helps students prepare to earn a bilingual Diploma when they enter the IB Diploma Programme in Grades 11 and 12. Each student has an individual programme. The Mother Tongue teacher works in partnership with the student, parents and regular teacher. With this structure, we do not limit the Mother Tongue languages that our students want to learn, and we encourage our students to continue to learn their home language to ensure that they continue to maintain their cultural identity.

Day to day lessons in Mother Tongue language and information sessions that provide advice for parents on supporting Mother Tongue learning at home

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4)     Much effort and investment have been made to develop languages and Mother Tongue literacy at ISS.

a)     Strengthening literacy during ‘Literacy Week’

Literacy learning develops integral and transdisciplinary skills for life, and ‘Literacy Week’, a celebration of literacy learning at ISS Paterson campus, takes place annually. The objective of the week is to share and celebrate our students’ literacy learning through immersing our students in a number of literacy related activities. This enhances and develops important communication skills that are being developed every day through the school.

Multiple activities take place each year, which include parent mystery readers, connecting ES and MS students through reading sessions in the library, a book character parade, Mother Tongue reading sessions – where our middle school students read books in their own Mother Tongue to the younger elementary school students, book making, and visits from inspiring authors. Opportunities to develop global citizenship, such as the organisation of a book swap, were also included in this year’s activities.

Author visits and Mother Tongue book reading sessions by MS students during Literacy Week

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b)     Investing in library books in all languages and genres / Library Week / Author visits

At ISS, we encourage our students to read extensively, as this not only expands language acquisition skills and knowledge, but also provides a wide variety of learning and discovery opportunities along the way! “We make a determined effort to buy books in all languages and genres, in order to promote the school’s efforts in language acquisition and Mother Tongue. In fact, I am now sourcing for more Bahasa Indonesian books! I see that our students visit the library on a weekly basis and are encouraged to take out books of interest during that time. Donation of books are equally welcome too!” shares Mr. Graham Grant, Library Manager, Preston and Paterson campuses.

Students visit the libraries in both Paterson and Preston campuses to utilise the resources available

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“I also have very close ties with local publishers, and this has facilitated Book Fairs which take place twice each school year along with author visits to both our campuses to promote reading and literacy amongst our students. We have managed to get the likes of the renowned author Jeff Kinney who visited ISS Paterson campus and shared his inspiration for his series “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books and what he does when sketching for his books. Our students were also given the chance to indulge in some sketching work under the guidance of the author!”  

“I am inspired to be a writer. I can use my imagination and like Mr. Kinney, mix this up with the everyday happenings in my daily life to write books that will make people happy and laugh.” Mia, ISS student.  

Authors Jeff Kinney and Guy Delisle sharing about their books and inspirations with our students

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Another such example is Guy Delisle, a graphic novelist who visited the High School. “Despite being an acclaimed and successful graphic novelist, Guy is simple and ordinary. Perhaps this is the source of his appeal, he is not pompous or proud, and he does not search for a story to tell. Rather, he fills his life with interesting and inspiring experiences, which he then retells in an entertaining and heartfelt fashion. This makes Guy relatable. While interesting normally requires a level of sensationalism, Guy is both interesting and authentic, which makes him a pleasure to read.” – Yuval, ISS Alumni, Class of  2018

c)     Mother Tongue focus of the week activities

“We stress the importance of maintaining a child’s Mother Tongue (home language) because this confirms the value of the child’s identity, as well as helping him / her  relate to their extended family. It also assists in transferring their understanding of difficult concepts. Children’s conceptual understanding may have already been developed in their first language, making it simply a task of learning the equivalent vocabulary. However, if the conceptual thinking has not yet developed in their home language, the child has much to gain from learning the concepts in both his first language and the target language. As Professor J. Cummins wrote: “With two equal-sized wheels (two strong languages) you can comfortably go anywhere you want!”, Mrs. Janienne Vaughan.

Learning about the Chinese culture through Chinese calligraphy painting

On our Paterson campus, to ensure that our students continue to maintain their Mother Tongue, specific time is allocated for all elementary and middle school students to commit to class activities in their home language, and reading books in their Mother Tongue is an activity that is widely practiced during these sessions.

Every week, a Mother Tongue language is also celebrated at our Paterson library.  Displays, such as books and commonly used words (for example saying hello, goodbye, and thank you), are put together by our team of teachers, Ms Sarah Herbert (ESL Teacher), Ms Linda Du (Mandarin Teacher) and Ms Song Peng (Mandarin Teacher), together with our Paterson Librarian, Ms. Ally Thompson.

“To help promote the Language of the Month, not only do we encourage our students to read books in that language, we will also greet each other using the correct phrases in the language when we meet each other around school!” Ms. Linda Du, Mandarin Teacher.

Weekly updates of the Language of the Month, which are displayed in the library


d)     Involving Parents in Language Acquisition

Each semester, our Paterson language teachers, Mrs. Janienne Vaughan and Ms. Linda Du conduct a ‘Learning Other Languages’ workshop. “These sessions provide some background information about the process of language acquisition so parents can understand what is normal behaviour during the learning journey and how long the journey may take. The sessions also help parents support their children in learning another language at home. Learning another language is a long journey. Families that take the time to support their children can find a lot of enjoyment in the journey.” Mrs. Janienne Vaughan.

Parents who have attended these sessions have found them useful as it gives them insight in how to help their children continue the work that they have done in school. As one parent shares, “being a working mother, the time spent with my child, helping them with their language acquisition and reading to them in our Mother Tongue, is enjoyable and is also a time to bond with my child”.  ISS parent.

Parents play an important role in a child’s language learning journey

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e)     Building on presentation skills

Students build on language and communication skills through exhibition and presentation opportunities

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We encourage our students to present their inquiry and research. This not only develops the ‘Communicator’ IB Learner Profile, but also builds on a life skill – the ability to be confident in public speaking. From the PYP exhibition, where our Grade 5s work in groups to present an environmental issue of their choosing, to the Medieval Fair and STEAM week in Middle School, to Personal Project and Extended Essay presentations at the High School – there are many public speaking opportunities that are created for our students.

Speaking confidently at a Parents Information Session
Speaking confidently at a Parents Information Session

To this end, Mr. Wesley Whitehead is also receiving assistance from members of the Singapore Toastmasters community to help set up a Gavel Club at ISS. Gavel clubs are a way of providing the Toastmasters’ experience to groups who may be ineligible for regular membership due to age, but have access to the education materials used by Toastmasters members. “I found the (Toastmasters) meetings to be very inspiring, educational and motivating. I was excited to be around people who had common goals of leadership development and personal growth, specifically in the areas of communication and presentation skills. I think students will benefit by having opportunities to speak in front of their peers in structured situations. They will also learn leadership skills.” Mr. Whitehead.



This opportunity to train our students in public speaking, presentation and debate skills not only builds on the IB Learner Profile of being a communicator, but also builds confidence for public speaking, and ensures that our students are developed as knowledgeable inquirers as they research topics, prepare their presentations, present their ideas in a debate setting, think critically on the spot, while also considering the viewpoints of their opponents as they “argue” their case.

“Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savour their songs”, Nelson Mandela.  This is the investment that we make at ISS International School to ensure that our students are nurtured to become happy, fulfilled and successful global citizens of the future.