Can ESL teachers play a role in helping maintain the home language?

By September 21, 2016Education
ESL teachers play an important role in home language maintenance (Image Credit: Macquarie University)

ESL teachers play an important role in home language maintenance (Image Credit: Macquarie University)

Learning the host country’s language is important for migrants but we should not forget that maintaining the home language is just as essential for the next generation’s success in life. Unfortunately, in Australia there are no policies in place that support the home language maintenance of languages other than English. In the absence of top-down approaches, changing teacher beliefs can be a grassroots way to support bilingual education and combat migrant disadvantage.

I teach “Planning and programming in TESOL” for English language teachers as part of the Graduate Certificate of TESOL program at Macquarie University in Sydney. A great proportion of our students are in-service teachers who have decided to specialize in English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) teaching. EAL/D teaching is delivered in a variety of ways, which include providing support to students who need help with English alongside a class teacher or collecting EAL/D students into a separate group and providing full-time intensive support. In 2015, 251,336 students (32.3% of all students) enrolled in New South Wales government schools had a language background other than English. And over 145, 000 students (ca. 20%) were learning English as an additional language.

Home language maintenance

As one of the assessment tasks, our in-service teacher students analyse their teaching context and pinpoint salient features in the given context. Many of them identify the fact that EAL/D students in Australian schools do not speak English at home as problematic. This view constitutes a ‘deficit’ model of bilingualism, meaning it concentrates on what negative effects speaking a minority language might have for migrant children and speaking another language is simply seen as an obstacle on the way towards integration.

How can we turn this belief around so that bilingualism comes to be seen as an advantage? Highlighting the long-term educational and cognitive effects of bilingualism constitutes one strategy. These benefits have been covered widely in the media (e.g., here) and also here on Language on the Move (e.g., here). Economic benefits may be another long-term effect of home language maintenance. US research has found that bilingual children of migrants have higher earnings in adulthood than their English-dominant counterparts (Agirdag, 2016, see here for details) and that biliteracy is associated with better educational and occupational attainment (Lee & Hatteberg, 2016, see here for details).

In sum, research consistently points to the fact that bilingualism should have priority in education over fast assimilation into the dominant language group for the future benefit of the children.

Contesting monolingualism in language policy

To enable a positive bilingual strategy, it needs to be backed up by language policy. Australian language and language-in-education policies unfortunately consistently result in monolingualism, as Schalley, Guillemin & Eisenchlas (2015) found in an examination of literacy policies from the past 30 years. These researchers found that “the more multilingual Australian society has become, the more assimilationist the policies and the more monolingual the orientation of the society politicians envisage and pursue” (p. 170). Much of this assimilation to English monolingualism is achieved indirectly. This means that even if language policies appear to promote and value diversity and bilingual learning, they may result in monolingual outcomes: “standardized assessment, year-group performance targets and league tables undermine diversity and bilingual learning and can be highly damaging to the academic achievement of minority students” (Piller, 2016, p. 139).

What can be done to overcome the monolingual bias of our language policies that fly in the face of the research evidence to support the benefits of bilingualism? Schalley, Guillemin & Eisenchlas (2015) emphasise the importance of grassroots activism to enhance home language literacy. It is precisely here where our TESOL program aims to make a difference.

Teachers as grassroots language activists

All too frequently we hear stories of migrant families changing the home language to English in response to advice from their child’s ESL teachers. To parents, recommendations like these may appear to be based on professional authority but they are not backed up by research. The English language learning benefits of switching the home language may be minimal, particularly if the parents lack confidence in their own English. Against this small or non-existent short-term English gains, we must consider the long-term harm to the home language: changing the home language to English deprives EAL/D children of the long-term educational and economic benefits of bilingualism.

Research related to the benefits of bilingualism and to strategies to support bilingualism at home and in school need to be available to teachers. An ideal platform for this is through teacher education, as in our TESOL program. Changing teacher beliefs must be considered an important form of grassroots activism for a bilingual Australia while we work towards a national language policy for our times. References

Agirdag, O. (2016). The Long-Term Effects of Bilingualism on Children of Immigration: Student Bilingualism and Future Earnings. In I. Piller (Ed.), Language and Migration (Vol. 4, pp. 341-358). London: Routledge.

Lee, J. C., & Hatteberg, S. J. (2016). Bilingualism and Status Attainment among Latinos. In I. Piller (Ed.), Language and Migration (Vol. 4, pp. 359-386). London: Routledge.

Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice : An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Schalley, A., Guillemin, D., & Eisenchlas, S. (2015). Multilingualism and assimilationism in Australia’s literacy-related educational policies International Journal of Multilingualism, 12 (2), 162-177 DOI: 10.1080/14790718.2015.1009372

About the Graduate Certificate of TESOL at Macquarie University

Layout 1The Graduate Certificate of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is a course designed for current teachers and people wishing to teach English to speakers of other languages. The course prepares students for a variety of language teaching contexts in Australia and overseas. It integrates current theory and practice of TESOL, including teaching methodologies, programming and planning, and linguistics for language teaching. For further details visit the website.

Author Agnes Bodis

Agnes is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University, where she also works as a Lecturer in the Graduate Certificate of TESOL program. Her background is in teacher training and teaching English as a second language. Her research interests are in language education and language policy, language testing, teacher training, and TESOL.

More posts by Agnes Bodis
  • Andrea Schalley

    You are making a very important point here, Agnes. Unfortunately, research results are currently largely disregarded in any policy discussions. While educational and economic benefits – as well as socio-psychological ones – are important to the bilingual individuals and their families, they are unlikely to feature in any political decisions soon. In line with Cross (2009), it appears that the current approach is aimed at maintaining “the existing distribution of power, knowledge and skills within society more broadly” (Cross, 2009, p. 514). This is why grassroots activities are so important.

    [Cross, R. (2009). Literacy for all: Quality language education for few. Language and Education, 23,
    509–522. doi:10.1080/09500780902954224]

  • Flora Launay

    Interesting article, Agnes. You are so right to pinpoint the importance of bilingualism and all its benefits. However, I also understand the teachers’ point of view. They have one goal: teaching a foreign language. In order to do so, I understand why they encourage their students to interact in the language they teach and not in their mother-tongue.
    It does not mean that I totally agree with these practises though. I do believe that it is important to not deprive an individual of their own culture and language. In order to change the teachers’ beliefs, what do you suggest?
    I am a French as a foreign language teacher and I found myself in certain teaching situations when it was easy to propose grassroots activities. For example, what to do when your students come from 10 different countries and that they represent maybe 5 different languages? Even though I tried to encourage them to talk about their own cultures and customs, it was not easy for me to relate to their own languages, especially because I could not speak any of them. However, I did sometimes encourage plurilingualism in the classroom by asking them “How is it in your language?”, “Do you also have this particular sound?” or “How many tenses are there in your language?”.

    • Agnes Bodis

      Thank you, Flora! As you say, using L1 can function as a tool to empower students and their identities as bilinguals in the classroom. Little things like ‘teach me these words in your won languages’ when you are covering vocabulary in French can make a difference.


    I totally agree with Agnes. The significance and benefits of being bilingual in Australia are not fully appreciated by our policy makers. I have noticed that there is lots of talk about the promotion of multiculturalism and bilingualism but realistically policies in schools appear to be formed around the achievement of English monolingualism which is sad when over 25% of Australians are born overseas. Australia must look at Europe and Asia’s bilingual and multilingual educational models and their long-term economic and sociocultural benefits. As a future ESL teacher, I will strongly emphasise to my students the importance of maintaining their ‘home’ language.


    This article seems to emphasise an important, new aspect of language education, especially, in multicultural English-speaking countries such as British, America, Australia, and so on. I agree that if children can become bilingual, they should keep learning languages. However, it does not seem to be easy for children to experience well-balanced bilingual language learning. Based om my teaching experiences at a Japanese community school in Australia, some students cannot have Japanese learning opportunities except three hours a week at the school. Thus, the bilingual learning circumstances probably depend on rather home environment and children’s motivations than school settings.

  • Yeongju Lee

    Hi, Agnes, thanks for your interesting topic,
    I’ve never thought about this issue that we need to consider to make policies to maintain the language at home for students who learn English as their second or third language. Actually, it is true that we do need some policies considering this issue.
    I have been volunteering for leading a conversation group as a conversation leader at ELC in MQ.
    There are a few students who live with people who speak the same language with them, which means they do not use English at home. Especially, I saw a student whose second language is English. He has been living in Sydney for 2 years with his parents who can not speak English at all, which means he does not speak English at home at all. His English is not as good as other students who live with foreigners since he stops using English after school. I thougth if he lived in the condition that he had to speak English, his English would be better than that.
    Thus, I agree that we need to maintain speaking time of second language at home to improve English.

    • Agnes Bodis

      Thank you! I think you are talking about a different group of students: adults, whose L1 would be quite established by the time they arrive in Australia. My post is about children who move to Australia and for whom English becomes a dominant language in a short period of time while their L1 becomes less significant or they might even lose proficiency of it.
      It is important that adult learners of English engage with the language outside of the classroom but that can happen in many ways, not only living with speakers of other languages.


    Spot on, Agi- thanks for the encouraging article. I’m aware of the plus of being bilingual or even multilingual but never been aware of the policies to support the bilingual programs at schools as well as the importance of maintaining the balanced proportion of home and school language. As I’m trying to relate the concept of bilingualism to EFL contexts, do you think encouraging students to do independent out-of-class learning of English will be enough? It may be because most parents in non-English speaking countries aren’t able to speak English to accommodate their kids’ needs of being bilingual.

    • Agnes Bodis

      Hi Hanifa, thanks for your comment! Regarding your question, the internet can work as a great out-of-class medium to practice English in EFL contexts. Just like I wouldn’t encourage parents to switch to English when they move to Australia, I wouldn’t want them to do so in other countries either.

  • Dwitiya Nugrahaeni

    Hi Agi
    It is interesting to see that our TESOL program is encouraging the use of students’ home language since the English-only policy (even at home, as what you mentioned) still seems to be perceived as the key to maximise the English learning process. In my opinion, having to live in the context where English is used everywhere for every purpose, these students would have the immediate need to integrate with the society by being able to communicate in English. This need can then turn into external motivation for them to master the language. We also need to take into account that those languages they speak at home are parts of their identities that we cannot just simply ban for the sake of integration to the new culture. And, yes, as what you pointed out, changing the home language to English might limit the potential they could have for their future.

  • 44277660

    Hi Agnes, thanks for your interesting post. Many Vietnamese families in Australia that I know also change their home language to English as their child’s teachers advise them to do so. Someone told me that even when they dine at a Vietnamese restaurant, they also pretend that they do not know Vietnamese and prefer to speak English to the waiters (while their parents speak Vietnamese). I do not know the reason why but it is true that being bilingual is really beneficial. According to scientists, bilingualism not only enables us to converse with a wider range of people but also makes us smarter. Besides changing teachers’ beliefs as Agnes mentioned, I think something should also be done with student’s beliefs. They must be aware of the benefits of being bilingual and overcome monolingual bias in the host country.

  • Nhung Nguyen

    I really agree with the point you made here, most of the immigrants tend to pursuit competence in using the language of host country while maintaining their home language are rarely taken in account. I know many Vietnamese children in immigrant families who are living in Australia or the US. Almost without exception, they can only speak simple sentences in Vietnamese and cannot read or write at all.
    Although it is reasonable to serve their immediate survival need in a new country, I don’t think giving up the advantages of being bilingual is a good decision. It would be great if bilingual or multilingual educational programmes were implemented in the schools. Even if a students’ mother tongue is not on the list of these programmes, he/she at least can have a sense of multilingualism and home language maintenance.

  • Gloria Christabel

    I come from Malaysia, a country that prides itself on it’s multiculturally diverse society. We are generally multilingual, however, there are many who are not. I had the privilege of working in an international school for a few months and I know of many people who work in international schools in Malaysia where students come from various cultural backgrounds. The main language in use in these international schools though, is English. The national language of Malaysia is not made compulsory to be taken by students, as is the case in Malaysian public schools.

    The parent languages that students enter into these schools with quickly take a backseat due to the absence of support for multilingualism or even bilingualism. While some language classes are provided, they are limited to certain languages and the schools do not encourage students to be proficient in their parent languages. More importance is given to the learning of the English Language, even by parents themselves. Language policies need to be revised and revamped and teacher’s definitely need to be educated on the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism.

    • Agnes Bodis

      Thank you, Gloria! How interesting that the prestige of the English language works in a similar way in a country where English is not actually an official language – even though it’s emerging to become at least a de facto official language.

  • Binisha Sharma

    For me personally, learning the language of the country where we stay is very essential. Yet, the mother tongue should not be forgotten.
    Probably, the first generations of immigrants speak English at school as well as other places and at home, they may perhaps speak the mother tongue which may to some extent preserve the language. However, for the next generations, English will be the language for both learning as well as communication. As a result, mother tongue disappears. The advantage of bilingualism is directly associated with demand for language skills which expands employment opportunities too. Thus, opportunities to learn mother tongue formally, proficient teachers, necessary planning are required to encourage bilingualism and preserve mother tongue.

  • Ha Pham

    A new language opens a new horizon. Clearly, being bilingual offers people with greater chances of knowing new things, new cultures, and new people. As shown above, those who speaks 2 languages can get better jobs and achieve more success than their monolingual counterparts. So why do people try to forget their home language just to learn new one? it is better to maintain the 2 languages in a more balanced way, isnt it?

  • Jo.

    I agree that teachers should be the grassroots activists in promoting the values of multilingualism. Teaching as a profession, on the background of larger institutional pressure, requires us to deploy most efficient strategies to get the highest accomplishment out of our students in the shortest time. Efficiency and quick results, however, are not always sustainable. Sometimes we just forget that what we do within the school can have a long-term impact on the studens’ lives. By requesting parents to forgo their own language for the sake of their children doing well at school, we unconsciously teach our students that there is only one right way of looking at life, and only one language to help them achieve goals. In the long run, such an “economical” mindset would undermine personal growth because it doesn’t support open-mindedness.

  • Bindu pokhrel

    Language is always at the center of a communication process. It works as a tool for exchanging our ideas and thoughts, to understand others and express ourselves so being acquainted with the language of the place where we live in is substantially crucial. In the present global context students are exposed to other languages along with their local dialects or heritage languages. Different studies have shown that students who are good in their native language can perform well in other languages too and also the bilingualism benefits them in various ways. Many psychologists believe that multilingual children are faster, smarter and possess higher cognitive skills. ESL teachers can play a vital role to inculcate the supreme virtues of attaining their first language among the learners. If English teaching is made flexible with the distinct contextual concepts since the same formula or principle may not imply across the globe, professional ESL teachers have to be able to help the students enhance their English language skills as well as motivate them to learn their native language at the same time. Being bilingual or multilingual is a privilege and learning mother tongue can also be seen through a cultural perspective. Every culture is important and so is every dialect.

  • MonyCRole

    It is true that children who knows both languages in their home country and the country they migrate to could be more outstanding in future competitive situations, such as competitions, job hunting and research conducting, because their capacity of understanding bilingual literacies would grant them the ability to process complex work more thoroughly. For instance, in China’s job market, candidates with bilingual or even multilingual capability will receive privilege in job interviews and could be prioritized in employment.

    Furthermore, the significance of mother tongue cannot be underestimated. The first language provides the speakers with logic of the language by building the frame of the language and the culture it represents so that the speakers could have access to the language system and form the idea of what a language suggests, offering a rudiment for further learning of other languages.

  • Rąwąn Alħąlwąni

    It is an interesting topic actually that I have come across an article that tackle the same issue. As the Census 2016 data showed, more than 500,000 homes spoke only English which indicate that Australian students are stopping learning a second language (Theodosiou, 2017). The article that I came across, Preparing Bicultural, Bilingual Children to Succeed in School, advices families to concentrate on enhancing the child’s literacy by speaking the mother language more at home and pay less attention to English as the child will pick it up faster than the mother language. In addition, parents recently worry about their children’s academic performance and stress the importance of learning perfect English as they need it more to succeed in their life. Nevertheless, these parents forgot to look at the benefits their children can have with two or more languages for their future careers.


    Osborn, H. (2012). Preparing Bicultural, Bilingual Children to Succeed in School written. BILINGUAL, BICULTURAL CHILDREN. Retrieved from

    Theodosiou, P. (2017). Census 2016: Second-language learning in Australia ‘needs urgent attention.’ SBS. Retrieved from

  • Long leg

    Home language maintenance could be seen in many Vietnamese families who have lived in exotic countries for a long time. As my experience, I met many Vietnamese people who were born in Australia, America or other countries normally communicate by English in their daily life, at school or in their worksite, and they, of course, can read and write English naturally as a normal native one. However, their Vietnamese ability has be seen as very low level. They may understand Vietnamese, but couldn’t speak fluently and unable to read or write Vietnamese due to lack of formal instruction. However, I can’t deny the advantages they can get from their bilingual ability. They can easily emerge into both these languages communities. In my opinion, ESL teachers, instead of advising learners and their parents to change their home language to English only, should encourage their learners maintain their home language alongside English learning at school.

  • Gin Parrish

    Thank you for shedding light on a very interesting aspect of bilingualism.

    An idea I would like to contribute to this subject of study is that language is often associated with identities, and many studies of ‘multiple identities’ have shown that when switching from their first language to English, the learners often view themselves as a different ‘self’, compared with the ‘self’ they use when speaking their first language. Therefore, I think it’s important for the teachers to encourage students’ recognition and development of different selves, as it is essential for them to engage and socialise in various communities including at home with their parents and relatives, and at school with local and international friends.

  • Nancy

    It is common sense to learn the language of the country where we stay. However, the preservation of home language also needs to be made prominent because of the advantages bilingualism bring to migrant children. Being bilingual not only broadens people horizon in many aspects of life but improves the competitiveness in the job market and opens up career opportunities. Thus, it is crucial to raise teachers’ awareness on the importance of bilingualism and promote the maintenance of mother tongue.

  • Roxxan

    Thank you Agnes for the post relates to the daily life. As we notice that there is an increasing number of immigrants settle down in Australian, most of them speak a foreign language and learn English as a second language. In this case, the children from these kind of families may be confused that what they learn in school and what they need to use at home is different. As Australian is a English speaking country, most of primary education institutions are English dominating, while children spend most of their time in schools where require English communication instead of their mother tough. As a result, children may be getting used to speak English rather than their family language. For example, a child learns how express himself in school, teachers may ask him using ‘English mode’, while he express the same willing at home, his parents may not be familiar with this, they may ask the child to switch the ‘language mode’ into mother tough. As a consequence, those immigrant children may gradually lose the proficiency of mother language and become native English speaker.