International organisations and institutions are currently asking schools to reflect on what knowledge and skills children need to develop today to succeed in an ever-changing tomorrow. Globally-mobile communities, such as international schools, have complex and shifting cultural and linguistic landscapes; they are fluid and ever-evolving. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) state that schools do not operate in isolation, but are instead influenced by external conditions and their relationships with students, teachers, parents community members.
ISZL recognises that children need to nurture their multilingual talents to succeed in increasingly global and linguistically diverse environments. Indeed with over sixty different ISZL community languages, ISZL is itself a global community. Its location in the middle of Switzerland, a small quadrilingual country nestled within a plurilingual continent, adds yet another layer of linguistic complexity.
Multilingualism on a global, national and local level
For many around the globe, linguistic diversity is the norm. Not only is it approximated that there are 6,909 distinct languages in the world, with 230 of these spoken in Europe, but it is also believed that more than half the people in the world live their lives using two or more languages. It is the harmonious coexistence of languages that enables people to develop intercultural understanding, appreciate cultural diversity and work together better. Multilingualism is what unites the different regions of Switzerland and is at the core of the Swiss identity. Even in the cantons of Zug, Zurich and Luzern, we see local dialects coexisting with the languages of its international inhabitants. It is helpful to understand how ISZL is located within this linguistic intersectionality, and how it prepares its students to navigate their familial, local, national and global linguistic landscapes.
Multilingualism and the International Baccalaureate
ISZL is one of a handful of international schools worldwide that runs all four International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes. The IB promotes itself as a multilingual organisation that operates in three official languages (English, French and Spanish) and provides resources in many others (Arabic, German, Indonesian, Japanese, Simplified Chinese and Turkish). In their document ‘What is IB Education’, the IB presents multilingualism as an important ingredient to developing international mindedness and emphasise that students should be encouraged to express themselves ‘confidently and creatively in more than one language’. It is important to note that the IB views multilingualism in a similar way to Switzerland and the European Commission, in that all language learning is essential (school, home, local, and previously learned languages). In every IB programme, the IB refers to how schools and educators can address, support and celebrate linguistic diversity. By acknowledging linguistic complexity and the benefits of multilingualism, the IB is the ideal educational system for preparing students for multilingual futures.
Multilingualism at ISZL
In 2017-18, ISZL conducted a major language survey to establish how multilingual our community was. Our survey showed that 72% of ISZL families use two or more languages, compared to the Swiss average, which was 64%. Breaking that down, 34% of ISZL families use two languages, compared to the Swiss average of 38%; 27% of ISZL families use three languages, compared to the Swiss average of 19%; and 11% of ISZL families use four or more languages, compared to the Swiss average of 7%. Interestingly, the ISZL Language Survey results show that language practices in our school community do indeed reflect those of Switzerland as a whole, revealing just how much ISZL has in common with the greater community.
Multilingualism in Action at ISZL
The ISZL school community is culturally diverse and linguistically rich with over sixty languages spoken. Hence, two of ISZL’s central beliefs about language learning are that it harnesses the multilingual skills of its linguistically diverse students and acknowledges that language learning is a complex process. Linguistic diversity is celebrated in a variety of ways: students are encouraged to translate and research in their different languages, to read books in languages other than English, to learn the host language and other foreign languages, and to study their home languages to acquire balanced bilingualism.
Meaningful language learning also occurs beyond school boundaries, and many initiatives enable children to use their developing linguistic talents even when faced with the complex local diglossic situation (Swiss German dialect, Standard Swiss German, High German). The ISZL language teachers provide opportunities for students to connect with the local language by organising school exchanges, penpal networks, local cultural experiences and volunteer projects in the community. All these initiatives enable students to use German and their other languages in authentic and meaningful situations.
How institutions respond to linguistic evolution determines the extent to which linguistic resources are utilised for the benefit of society. ISZL recognises that plurilingualism is important. As a school and a community, ISZL prepares its students to navigate the multilingual world of today and tomorrow by providing opportunities for students to develop their personal multilingual identities and connect with the local language in meaningful ways.
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