Going back in Time
Turn back the clock twenty years and a visit to an international school may not seem that dissimilar in its appearance to present day. It will not seem too out of place in the suburbs of any major modern city of the world. However, it is fair to say that times have changed.
The glossy prospectuses of fresh-faced children from the expatriate community have been replaced with websites full of colourful images of ethnic groups huddled in labs and classrooms or hanging out together on campus. These images represent the school’s student body and the dramatic demographic shift that is taking place in our international school across the world.
The main drives for these changes are the global rise of English and the pull of a ‘western’ education close to home. The international school has found a new purpose from its original conception. No longer is it for children of expatriates and diplomats, but for wealthy locals whose children can have the opportunity to compete for places at western universities, and eventually work at multinational companies.
The growth of international schools in the last twenty years has been staggering with an estimated doubling of these schools in the next 10 years. This provides parents with better choices of locations, prices and facilities. However, the demographic shift means the curriculum model delivered twenty years ago can no longer be sustained, as the more dominate group do not have English as their first language.
The road to acquire English can be a bumpy one, whereas, in contrast for others they only have minimum difficulties with the learning process. For students with limited English, the reality of studying in a language, which they have difficulty operating at both socially and academically, is a daunting prospect.
In our world of instant fixes where we can upgrade with a click or a swipe of the finger, we often seek quick remedies. This is often the case when schools have limited speakers of English by herding them into academies and shelter groups, so within time the belief is that they will emerge as fluent English speakers.
Much to blame for these well-meaning solutions are due to the acquisition of our first language, which is generally achieved without much thought, and with little conscious effort or awareness. These boaster classes serve their purpose of generating the survival English to get around at school, but rarely help with the academic language that is needed to cope successfully in the mainstream classrooms.
There is no simple way to solve this problem – in fact there is probably no solution that all international school would completely agree on. This is due to the complexity of language acquisition as well as the factors that affect English language learning in different environments.
In trying to understand the potential success of learning second language acquisition, we must develop successful strategies in our English-medium international schools to better understand the demands of learning English. The answer to the demographic changes, and challenges, that lie ahead have to come from the international schools themselves, particularly as more schools compete for students whose first language is not English.