Katharine Anderson, the Head of the English as an Additional Language (EAL) Department at The British School in The Netherlands at Senior School Voorschoten, shares insights about how international families can support their children’s transition into a new school in a new language.
Most of us have experienced that awkward moment in response to the first brave words we stumble through in a new language, when the person we’re talking to has no idea what we are saying. We doubt ourselves and question whether we will ever be able to master pronunciation, grammar or choose the right words at the right time. It is a difficult, and at times, uncomfortable experience. Now imagine being a teenager, in a new school and possibly a new country as well.
Research on culture shock shows that various stages can be expected when settling into a new environment. For new arrivals who are also new to English, there is an additional struggle to express themselves and communicate their abilities. Part of my role with students who are learning English as an Additional Language (EAL) is to ease this transition and help them thrive from the start.
Getting to know individuals
We welcome New to English students before they start school and spend time building relationships both with the student and their family online. Setting time aside to listen to their stories and celebrate home languages is crucial in building resilience throughout the transition journey.
All students bring rich experience and abilities from their previous education. Focusing on what they can do as opposed to the challenges they face is central to maintaining their academic confidence.
Like all great adventures, starting a new school in a new language will inevitably mean many ups and downs. In our international community, many of the other students and staff have been through similar experiences and understand the challenges as well as the enormous benefits of multilingualism.
Making friends and feeling comfortable is an essential step and one that can feel quite daunting. We always encourage learners to take these first steps in their own time.
For some, first friendships are formed with bilingual students who speak the same home language and can provide support during those tricky first weeks. Others prefer to remain quiet as they take in their new environment.
In EAL lessons, new arrivals meet other students in the same situation. This creates a bond, allowing them to lean on each other and learn about cultures from all over the world.
One of the best ways to support New to English students in transition is for parents to discuss schoolwork in their home languages. Children develop a deeper understanding when previous education is connected to what they are learning in English.
Maintaining and developing children’s home language skills also makes it easier for them to learn additional languages. Research shows that regular, enjoyable reading in any language (at the right level) has far-reaching benefits for language acquisition.
Finally, parents are often surprised at how tired their children are during the early stages of settling in. Absorbing change, listening actively, and trying to understand a new language as well as a new culture and routine is a lot to process. The importance of extra patience and understanding can’t be overestimated.
It’s a process
Settling into a new environment takes time, as does learning a language. Both require courage and perseverance. In difficult moments, we remind students of the progress that they have made and reassure them that it will get easier.
Invariably students find more and more opportunities to ask questions, express opinions and seek out language that gives them full access to their new community. It is always a joy to see students who are new to English take part in a drama production, present with a group, or to find them simply enjoying lunch with a group of friends, sharing a joke. These seemingly small moments are always achievements to celebrate.
Katharine is the Head of EAL at Senior School Voorschoten, The British School in The Netherlands, in The Hague. She joined the school in 2016 having previously worked in the Spanish high school system. She has a research interest in teenage language learners in immersion settings and enjoys cycling as much as possible, when the northern weather allows.