Words of comfort

17th July 2015 at 01:00

"Do you need any help, Miss?" I was trying to write my name in Arabic and Ibrahim could see I was struggling. As he helped me form the unfamiliar letters, I could see how happy he looked. It's not often that Ibrahim gets to help anyone with reading or writing.

We don't normally spend our mental maths slot writing in Arabic but this was a special occasion. Today was the start of languages week: a celebration of the fact that more than 30 languages are spoken in our school, not including English.

With the aid of some fabulous websites (and some equally fabulous parents), we put together a packed programme. After just a few days we had learned how to count in Urdu, write our names in Arabic and sing in Turkish. We listened to stories in Mandarin, ordered food in French, researched the etymology of English words and even tried sign language.

The children's response was fantastic. We didn't quite take to the streets speaking in tongues but we did find out that number five in Urdu sounds the same in Persian, and two girls who speak Farsi and Dari were delighted to discover they could understand each other. Like British backpackers discovering Heinz baked beans in a far-flung food shop, children all around the room fizzed into happiness at the sound and sight of their home language.

EAL (English as an additional language) children are amazing. They spend five days a week speaking a tongue that is not their own. They are given instructions packed with vocabulary they do not understand. They read books full of events they have never experienced. They hear idiomatic expressions that they cannot hope to comprehend.

For many children starting school, the only word they will recognise is their name - and not always then. I once taught in a school where a parent changed the name of her four-year-old on the admissions form because she thought it would help her to fit in. Not knowing any English names she simply picked the saint's name on the school entrance sign.

Our EAL children cope amazingly well, even when they join school in key stage 2. If I were 8 or 9 and plunged straight into an alien culture in which I was expected to identify noun phrases and demonstrate the use of fronted adverbials, I would probably just give up.

Thankfully, most children don't. But the pressure simply to keep up with what's going on must be exhausting. The EAL children I've taught are often fluent readers. They learn to decode and read texts out loud as if they understand them fully. They write scientific explanations using vocabulary copied from the board. They solve maths problems full of words they can only guess at.

They often cope so well we don't notice the effort they're putting in. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child gives all children the right to speak and have their voices heard. Sometimes it's nice for them to do it in the language they feel most at home in.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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