For all students in schools, language is key to every aspect of their academic work. A good deal of interaction with teachers and peers is face-to-face and spoken; at the same time classroom activities generally involve reading and writing while incorporating a variety of other visual and audio representations (e.g. images, graphics and sounds in webbased materials). In all school activities language is involved. Even when completing non-verbal tests, there is still a need to understand and process procedural rubrics and task instructions, not to mention that the requisite thinking processes are, at least in part, encoded in language. Perhaps it should be noted that sometimes ethnicity is unhelpfully conflated with English as an additional language (EAL). Many students from minority ethnic backgrounds are bi/multilingual and speak English as their first language. Conflating ethnicity and EAL can lead to misrecognition of students’ abilities.

... developing allround competence in EAL is a longterm process. Learning the English language knowledge and skills required for academic work is particularly challenging.

Students with EAL are, by definition, bilingual or multilingual; they can use two or more languages to communicate with others at varying levels of competence. However, developing all-round competence in EAL is a long-term process. Learning the English language knowledge and skills required for academic work is particularly challenging. For a vast majority of EAL students in our schools the learning of English begins after they have learned to use their first language at age-appropriate levels. Educational psychologists and linguists generally agree that children have an innate capacity for first language acquisition. For children growing up, interactions with family members and carers in their home environments provide them with critically important opportunities to experience and to learn to use their first language. The actual level of language competence achieved by any individual child will depend on a host of factors such as the social environment and the nature and types of social interaction with others (MacNamara, 1973, 1982). For instance, Ervin-Tripp (1973) found that hearing children of deaf parents could not learn speech simply through exposure to English on radio or television broadcasts. Vygotsky (1978) cites the case of Jim, a hearing boy with deaf parents, who demonstrated delayed first language acquisition because of an absence of language interaction at home. In brief, social interaction provides both the ‘trigger’ and the support for first language development. Therefore, development of spoken language and subsequent reading and writing should not be considered automatic, but something which needs to be nurtured and supported. Active language use is necessary for development of communicative competence (Foster-Cohen, 2009). A supportive educational and social environment is clearly important for students learning EAL. But, first-hand experience of, and exposure to English by themselves do not guarantee successful development of EAL.

How is additional language learning different to first language learning? A key difference is that a child in her/his first language environment learns language forms (e.g. sounds of names of people, pet animals and everyday objects) and meaning (e.g. ideas and concepts such as carers) at the same time, whereas the additional language learner is likely to have some knowledge of the ‘world’ already. So some parts of additional language learning are about learning new linguistic forms only (e.g. words and expressions) in a different language because the meaning involved is known; in some domains they may have to learn both linguistic form and meaning anew, for example, new content in school subjects. 

... there is no question that additional language learning involves a good deal of ‘new’ learning.

Some aspects of the knowledge and skills developed with first language learning are useful and transferrable when learning subsequent languages. Seen in this light, a high level of age-appropriate first language development can form a sound basis for additional language development (Cummins, 1992, 2000). However, there is no question that additional language learning involves a good deal of ‘new’ learning. For instance, where the grammar of the first language does not operate the count versus non-count noun rules (e.g. apple versus apples), the additional language learner will need to develop knowledge of such rules. Language sounds of the additional language may also be sufficiently different from the learner’s first language for pronunciation and intonation to be part of the new learning. In addition to linguistic and subject knowledge demands, EAL learners at school also face the ‘hidden curriculum’ (Christie, 1984); embedded values, assumed knowledge, education and assessment practices, as well as expected language use (sociolinguistics and pragmatics). These more subtle, but no less important, rules and conventions of the additional language such as implied meaning, and formality and politeness may also need to be learned. In sum, the school curriculum and classroom activities should provide opportunities for students to develop the following aspects of the English language, none of which should be seen in isolation from the others.

... more subtle, but no less important, rules and conventions of the additional language such as implied meaning, and formality and politeness may also need to be learned.
  • A new system of sound-symbol relationships, new sounds and grouping of sounds which may or may not bear some resemblance to the first language.
  • New intonation patterns and their specific meanings, including ways of speaking which are rarely seen in written form.
  • A new lexis: new words for known and unfamiliar meanings and concepts.
  • A new way of stringing words into meaningful units (phrases and sentences), and meaningful units together (coherent chunks of speech and written passages).
  • A new set of non-verbal gestures and signs.
  • A new set of social signals: ways of indicating approval and disapproval, indicating and recognising speaker/listener relationships, status, degrees of formality, attitudes, opening and closing conversations, humour and expressing emotions.
  • New sets of culturally specific and culturally shared/understood information about both the concrete world and abstractions: values, behavioural modes, rituals, indications of class/status, culturally inappropriate behaviour, anachronisms, etc.
  • Culturally-specific ways of perceiving, talking about reflecting upon the world, which requires making judgements about and between cultures.

Another fundamental difference between first and additional language learners is the experiential trajectory. Unlike first-language learners who begin their language development from infancy, additional language learners embark on the process at different ages. Motivation for language learning of additional language learners may also be different. It is generally understood that, among other things, first-language learners use and develop their language facility because of a basic human need to communicate (Mitchell, Myles and Marsden, 2013). The motivation of EAL learners to learn the language often stems from being in an environment where English is the medium of instruction and study, and is not always out of the individual’s volition. There may well be, to an extent, ‘instrumental motivation’ (Ellis, 1997), where the purpose is to pass an examination or further educational or career goals. This means they may adopt language-learning strategies and engage with the use of language with effects that are different to that of firstlanguage students.

Professional experience and research in Anglophone countries in the past 30 years consistently suggests that in school environments supportive of EAL development, students tend to take approximately 18 months to develop a reasonable level of spoken fluency for everyday purposes and five or more years to develop peer-level academic English language competence.

Professor Constant Leung, King’s College, London

Nandhaka Peiris, National Association

of Language Development in the Curriculum

March 2016