Attitudes towards multilingualism and multilingual children in primary schools

The EAL Journal blog publishes plain language summaries of Masters and Doctoral research related to EAL. In this post Clare Cunningham Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at York St. John University presents a summary her doctoral research into attitudes towards the language practices of EAL learners among educators in the North of England. Her research reveals some deep-seated, and sometimes uncomfortable, ideologies.

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Clare Cunningham

Why did I do this research?

The EAL population in our schools has increased every year so far this century, and all sorts of important work has been done to increase teachers’ capacity and confidence to deal with this changing classroom dynamic. However, teachers haven’t often been asked about their attitudes towards working with the multilingual children in their classrooms. So, after writing my MA dissertation about classroom interactions and a research report on EAL for the British Council, I decided that this would be a useful aspect to find out more about. Individual peoples’ attitudes can tell us a lot about society’s ideologies and teachers are the ‘front line’ for school children, not only acting as a conduit for passing on ideologies but also potentially as a conduit for social change.

Attitudes are funny things. They can be ‘uncovered’ by looking at the way people talk about how they feel, the way they behave, or the way they think. Language, bilingualism and immigration are hot topics in our society, and our attitudes towards them are, of course, influenced by how our media discuss them. It’s not easy, therefore, to get a grasp on what people’s attitudes really are, and you certainly shouldn’t think you’re hearing the ‘truth’ about someone’s attitude when you ask for it! Taking that on board, it is useful to look systematically at the way people talk about any given topic. It often reveals something interesting about what is going on underneath the surface, in terms of ideologies and beliefs.

What did I do?

I spoke with 15 staff members, including head teachers, deputy heads, EAL co-ordinators, bilingual learning assistants, teaching assistants, and higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs) in six northern English schools about experiences working with multilingual children. I looked at how they expressed attitudes about various aspects of their roles and experiences, using a technique of analysing the things that people say called ‘appraisal’. Appraisal lets you look at language really carefully and makes you realise how much choice we have when we decide what to say and how to say it.

What did I find?

Although there were many very positive attitudes expressed about working with multilingual children, including lots about valuing other languages and cultures and changing practices in schools to make the learning experience better for all, some of the ways that teachers expressed themselves about non-English languages are worth digging into a little more. The sort of themes that came up say more about our society than the individuals speaking, of course. There were many interesting themes, and I will focus on a few notable ones here.

One of the key themes that came up concerned a way of thinking that values English as the most important or sometimes even the only language of value. This can be seen in many ways in the way people talk. The following comment about the parents of a Polish boy, made by an HLTA and EAL co-ordinator is particularly revealing. She said “dad could speak, mum couldn’t. Maybe it is a cultural thing – dads can all speak, mums can’t, mainly”. Ignoring the generalisation based on gender, the idea that if you can’t speak English, you can’t speak at all has been seen in other studies from around the world and definitely highlights how dominant English is in the mind of the speaker.

Another major theme was about the control of children’s home languages in schools. An EAL co-ordinator said “there isn’t a culture of children being allowed to use it [first language] without there being a bilingual member of staff to sort of oversee it”. This highlights the importance of control and choice over when non-English languages are welcome. Children receive confused messages about the value of those languages. For example, children are often encouraged to use their home language to answer the register on days when cultures or nationalities are being ‘celebrated’, but told off for it at other times. One class teacher even compared using home languages to swearing, saying:

I would encourage what they have got but it’s about the inappropriateness of language. At my previous school we never told a child that swearing was wrong because actually you’re criticising what they hear at home all the time, and so what we would say is ‘We don’t swear in school’ and in a similar way here ‘We don’t speak in Punjabi, we don’t speak in Urdu’ or whatever in school.”

These confusing messages for children are likely to be a result of contradictions in their teachers’ attitudes towards home languages in schools. The class teacher quoted above had been recently head-hunted for her experience with EAL but now found herself in a school that was quite negative about other languages, which may have explained the contradictions that were certainly noticeable in the way she talked about her role. It was interesting that the people I interviewed in schools where the leadership was more involved in encouraging home language use were more positive overall.

What does it all mean?

While I’ve only been able provide a tiny flavour here of my findings, overall, my study suggests that we need to take attitudes and language choices very seriously. The way that professionals in schools can pass on messages about how society feels about different cultures and languages has a huge impact on the children in our schools. We shouldn’t underestimate the effect of our language choices. My question now is how to equip school leaders and teachers with the power to be agents of social change, through closely examining the language choices that they make, to make our society a better place for multilingual children.

Clare’s full thesis ‘Saying more than you realise about ‘EAL’: discourses of educators about children who speak languages beyond English’ is available through the White Rose Universities Consortium repository here.

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