The Importance of Language Learning and Maintenance amid Brexit and COVID-19: Evidence from Successful EAL Practice

Post by Mattia Zingaretti, PhD Researcher in Linguistics & English Language, University of Edinburgh

The following thoughts and reflections are based on and inspired by the presentations given by Prof Antonella Sorace, Dr Naomi Flynn and Dr Yvonne Foley at the recent webinar ‘The new normal for languages at home, school and in the community’, co-organised by Bilingualism Matters (BM) and Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (SCILT).

Photo by Andrew Ebrahim on Unsplash

With only 32% of 15-30-year olds being able to read and write in two or more languages, the UK is far behind other EU countries, where the overall average is 89% (cf. Fig 1).1 The lack of language skills is linked with an immense loss of economic, cultural, social and research opportunities: £48bn a year (or 3.5% of GDP) is the estimated cost of linguistic underperformance for the UK economy.2 In addition to this, amid the Brexit transition period and the current global health crisis, the importance of language learning (and teaching) seems to be threatened even further – when, in reality, investing in languages would make the UK “[…] more prosperous, productive, influential, innovative, knowledgeable, culturally richer, more socially cohesive, and, quite literally, healthier.”3

Fig. 1. Ability of EU 15-30-year olds to read or write in two or more languages (per cent). Source: A Languages Crisis? (HEPI Report 123) by Megan Bowler.

So, what can be done? According to Antonella Sorace (Professor of Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, and founder of Bilingualism Matters) building bridges between language research and society is crucial for the teaching and learning of languages to prosper. This can be done by highlighting the benefits and challenges of learning other languages, as well as the importance of keeping one’s own (for example, home languages), and by trying to form and reinforce overall positive attitudes towards language learning in children.

Evidence pointing towards this direction comes from research on the teaching of English as an Additional Language (EAL) – that is, the teaching of English in the UK or other English-speaking countries to learners whose first language is not English and who may already be fluent in several languages other than English.4 For instance, Naomi Flynn (Associate Professor of Primary English Education at the University of Reading), who has been researching successful EAL practice in the US context, highlights the existence of cross-cultural and enduring pedagogic principles which can be applied to today’s UK classrooms, too.5 According to these principles, EAL learners need opportunities to talk for meaningful purposes, with the development of conversational and academic English being fostered by active social interaction.

Significantly, echoing Prof Sorace’s thoughts on the importance of home language maintenance, EAL learners with strong home language skills are found to be more likely to achieve results in line with native English-speaking peers, than those with weak home language skills. EAL is also facilitated by an explicit attention to linguistic form and function, and by a safe and welcoming classroom environment which seeks to keep performance anxiety to a minimum (for example, by having children engage in discussions within small groups).

In practice, this translates to the need for teachers to be aware of the language and academic backgrounds of their EAL learners, engaging learners in activities that reflect their home and school experiences, as well as facilitating and encouraging the use of children’s home languages for thinking and problem solving. These principles also underline the importance of using extra learning supports (such as visual cues, graphic organisers, and Directed Activities Related to Texts – DARTs) as well as adapting texts by making them more accessible, in line with learners’ language proficiency. EAL learners should ultimately take part in purposeful activities to engage with others and negotiate meaning.6

In order to best support teaching and learning in EAL environments, Yvonne Foley (Head of Institute for Education, Teaching and Leadership at the University of Edinburgh) stresses the importance of diversity in texts and curriculum activities – in that teachers should try to avoid the so-called “white gaze” by accurately choosing a diverse range of texts which do not only represent children from white backgrounds or that require localised cultural knowledge (otherwise unintelligible for those from different backgrounds).

Teachers should instead create a sense of belonging where classroom literary practices rely on the geographical histories, biographies and discourses of EAL pupils – so that learners feel personally engaged. In other words, diversity should intentionally be made the starting point of lesson design and all curriculum activities, by placing the focus on other languages and cultures as core parts of the lessons. According to both Flynn and Foley, the ultimate aim of EAL teachers should be to grant pupils a voice as active citizens of the world.

All in all, as the evidence from EAL practice outlined above shows, the maintenance and use of home languages is key in the learning of other languages. By using and valuing their home languages, children are better able to learn other ones: this represents an empowering process by which learners are able to construct their identity using their own voice(s) in a safe space – and should be valued in the learning of languages other than EAL as well, to ultimately help close the wide linguistic gap between the UK and the rest of Europe.

1 (April 2018) The European Education Area.

2 British Academy (2019) Languages in the UK: a call for action.

3 Ibid.

4 Definition of EAL by The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted).

5 Cf. Lucas, T., Villegas, A. M., & Freedson-Gonzalez, M. (2008). Linguistically Responsive Teacher Education: Preparing Classroom Teachers to Teach English Language Learners. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(4), 361–373.

6 For examples of EAL teaching resources, an excellent point of reference is the Bell Foundation’s website: