The need to communicate is instinctive. The development of language is fundamental to that need to communicate; it supports and enhances our thinking and understanding. Language permeates the world in
which we live; it is socially constructed and dependent on the number and nature of our social interactions
and relationships.
The learning process simultaneously involves learning language—as learners listen to and use language
with others in their everyday lives; learning about language—as learners grow in their understanding of
how language works; and learning through language—as learners use language as a tool to listen, think,
discuss and reflect on information, ideas and issues (Halliday 1980). An appreciation of these aspects of
language learning may help teachers better understand and enhance students’ learning. However, these
three aspects are so inextricably linked they are best not thought of as discrete processes.
Language plays a vital role in the construction of meaning. It empowers the learner and provides an
intellectual framework to support conceptual development and critical thinking. In the IB Primary Years
Programme (PYP), it is recognized that the teaching of language should be in response to the previous
experience, needs and interests of the student, rather than the consequence of a predetermined, prescriptive
model for delivering language. Fragmenting learning into the acquisition of isolated skill sets can create
difficulties for learners—for example, learners may be able to read, write and spell words correctly in
isolation but may not be able to read, write or spell those same words in other contexts. Learners’ needs are
best served when they have opportunities to engage in learning within meaningful contexts, rather than
being presented with the learning of language as an incremental series of skills to be acquired.
The language profiles of students in PYP schools may be complex and diverse; however, the influence of
mother-tongue development is significant for all learners. It is acknowledged that development of mothertongue
language is crucial for cognitive development, and in maintaining cultural identity. Success in
mother-tongue development is a strong predictor of long-term academic achievement, including acquisition
of other languages.
The complex processes involved in language learning represent a series of developmental continuums. A
teacher is able to identify where on those continuums a student is positioned to better design appropriate,
contextualized learning experiences—to move the student from one development phase to the next. In
this way, the learner is able to build on established skills and understanding, while being supported to meet
appropriate challenges to extend their learning within their “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky 1999),
which may be represented by more than one phase.
In PYP schools all students have the opportunity to learn more than one language from at least the age
of 7. Every learner benefits from having access to different languages, and, through that access, to different
cultures and perspectives. Acquisition of more than one language enriches personal development and
helps facilitate international-mindedness. For these reasons it could be argued that bilingualism, if not
multilingualism, is the hallmark of a truly internationally minded person and that this requirement should
be central to all three IB programmes. However, to accept this premise one would have to argue in support
of the reciprocal position, that a monolingual person has a limited capacity to be internationally minded.
This is not the position the PYP has chosen to adopt. As well as the learning of an additional language, the
other elements of the PYP framework that contribute to international-mindedness are described in Making
the PYP happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education (2007). Most IB World Schools
implementing the PYP, particularly state or national system primary schools, would struggle to create a
learning community where bilingualism was a realistic goal—indeed, it would be an impossibility in most
cases. Consequently, the strategic goal of the IB to broaden access to its programmes would be in conflict
with the notion of IB World Schools having bilingualism as a goal for all of their students.
Effective language teaching and learning are social acts, dependent on relationships with others, with
context, with the environment, with the world, and with the self. Such learning is relevant, engaging,
challenging and significant. Exposure to and experience with languages, with all their richness and diversity,
creates an inquisitiveness about life and learning, and a confidence about creating new social interactions.
Language provides a vehicle for learners to engage with the world and, in an IB World School, to relate to,
and accept, responsibility for the mission of the IB to “help to create a better and more peaceful world”.