Central and Eastern Europe, Education, International Journalism and PR

How the teacher’s knowledge about multilingualism can accelerate or hinder the child’s development

More than a quarter of children in Dutch primary education are estimated to be multilingual, having a different language/culture background than Dutch. This means that they speak several languages ​​at home, or that they speak a language other than Dutch at home. Dutch is a second language for these children. Children who speak dialects are not included in above mentioned statistics, which means that the numbers are even higher. Multilingual development does not differ in many respects from monolingual development, but there are differences. If teachers want to be able to properly deal with multilingual children, it is important that they are aware of these differences. Research by van Gelder and Visser (2005) has shown that teachers have too little knowledge about multilingualism to be able to teach multilingual children adequately.

Feeling accepted and child attitude at school= a good intercultural climate at school

When a child is not feeling well, or does not feel at home in the Netherlands, it  can have a negative influence on learning Dutch. Feeling insecure, not welcome, not at home, can have a paramount impact on daring to speak and making contacts.[1]

What helps to solve this problem is a good intercultural climate at school.[2] This ensures that children feel at ease (Kuiken and Vermeer, 2005). It is important that the teacher pays attention to the language and background of children. This also promotes contact with the students and their parents.

What teachers should know about other cultures and attitudes

Research by Capella-Santana (2010) focuses on the knowledge about other cultures and attitudes. When teachers have little knowledge of other cultures they cannot provide students with professional and objective lessons since the lack of knowledge and right education can lead to misunderstandings and inequality in assessments.[3] [4]For example, a teacher who is not well aware of Mexican-American culture can wrongly assess children who work together. In Mexican culture it is important to cooperate. Children can apply in the Dutch lessons this attitude even in the situations where this is not the intention, for example when taking a test. A teacher who is not aware of this will probably immediately punish these children for cheating. A teacher who is aware of this cultural difference will be able to make it clearer in advance that the assignment must be done alone.

 The more teachers know the better students learn

Diaz, Moll & Mehan (1992) show in their research that students with a different cultural or ethnic background perform better at school when they are taught by teachers who are aware of cultural differences. It is important to stress that the successful acquisition of a language is accelerated by the status the child’s environment ( here school) gives to his/her other language. Negative comments about child’s bilingualism, or biculturalism can hinder language acquisition (Kuiken and Vermeer, 2005). On the other hand, a teacher or other involved education specialist can accelerate the acquisition of the child’s second language by expressing a positive opinion about his/her other language. When it comes to acquiring a language, it is not just about the language itself but it is also important how the environment views the language  (Kuiken and Vermeer, 2005). This is partly determined by the culture in which the language is spoken (Capella-Santana, 2010). Attitude towards multilingualism seems therefore language bound, not all languages and cultures are equally accepted and approved of. Sharon Unsworth Phd, Associate Professor of Second Language Acquisition at Radboud University Nijmegen says in our interview: ”There are parents who have negative experience at Dutch schools and whilst I’m sure that things *are* getting better in the Netherlands when it comes to teachers’ attitudes to bilingualism, I know that this varies widely, not only depending on the teacher but also on the language in question (English is ok, Polish probably less so).” [5]

 How do the bilingual children differ?

Let’s have a look at such issues as different tempo of acquisition of languages, interference, silent periods and vocabulary to analyse how the lack of appropriate knowledge about the multilingualism/ multiculturalism of teachers can hinder the development of a multilingual child/multicultural child and test him/her not objectively stigmatizing him/her at the same time.

 Two language systems

Children who grow up bilingually develop two language systems instead of one language system. Simultaneous multilingual children go through the same development stages as monolingual children, but the difference is that the languages ​​are often acquired slower. (Roselaar et al., 1993). This is different with successive bilingualism. A successful bilingual child has already laid a foundation in the mother tongue. The only thing it needs to do is to build on this knowledge (Schaerlaekens, 2008). Different tempo of the development should not be regarded as a problem by a teacher.

Separate languages ​​and interference

Some children mix the languages ​​at some point. This phenomenon is called “interference” (Roselaar et al., 1993). Interference can occur at different language levels. The child can for example produce sounds in language A that belong to language B. But it can also use a word from language B in language A. Furthermore, the child can have difficulty in the beginning with the different sentence rules in both languages. What can then happen is that he/she may say a sentence in language A, according to the sentence structure of language B (Roselaar et al., 1993). Interference is part of a bilingual development and will naturally go away over time (Roselaar et al., 1993). Interference in speaking, writing, spelling, reading and whatever form should not be considered as a problem by a teacher.

Silent period

A ‘’silent period’’ is a natural phenomenon for bilingual children, younger and older. A silent period means hardly saying anything for a short or longer period of time (Wijsbek, 2012). The duration of the silent period is very variable. Some children already say something after a few weeks, others only speak their first words after a year (Kuiken and Vermeer, 2005). The fact that the child does not speak does not mean that it does not learn anything either. The passive language development simply continues. When the child has acquired enough passive knowledge, it will naturally speak again (Wijsbek, 2012). The silent period therefore should not be considered as a problem by a teacher.


 A bilingual child can have limited vocabulary in the languages he/she uses as far as the number of words is concerned and also fields. So, for example, if a child speaks Polish at home, he/she will know more Polish than Dutch words for home-related issues but for school-related issues the Dutch words will be used, because he/she goes to a Dutch school. However, if we add the vocabulary of two languages we will see that a bilingual child often has a bigger vocabulary than a monolingual child.

A teacher in a class with multilingual children should take into account the limited vocabulary of the students and determine the choice of methods and testing.  For example, an exercise where the child has to glue words for non-native speakers is very difficult (Kuiken and Vermeer, 2005). Imagine the teacher asking all children to do the following: “Here you see a list of words that do not exist. Cut the words and glue them to the right word:” pinshow, crissdeep, dairy slaughter, dockhead, nursing book, notecross, skinhome, tourist hand, pictureman, manoffice “.This is not an easy exercise for a foreign-language child who has to do this assignment at school in Dutch. You can check this out for yourself by doing such an activity in the language you are not native in. When a teacher is aware of this, he or she can choose another assignment, method which could be more objective for all children not only the monolingual children. (Kuiken and Vermeer, 2005).

Unexperienced teacher may hinder the development of children

Not knowing above mentioned features of development of bilingual children, teacher would apply wrong methods which would not meet the requirements of the multilingual child and therefore this would hinder the development of the child. The wrong methods could lead to the insecurity of bilingual children, lack of motivation or behavioral problems. If tested by not bilingual friendly methods this lack of knowledge could lead to stigmatizing and lower results.

 The CITO tests for example are normed on monolingual children so they will never reflect the full language knowledge of multilingual children. Keeping in mind the above factors such as interference and the tempo, DMT tests, spelling tests and reading tests normed on monolingual children would be not objective and would stigmatise bilingual children as worse or not suited to Dutch monolingual standards.

Biassed vision, retention, alternatives

The combination:  not-experienced teacher, wrong methods, teaching instructions and exercises, wrong attitude at school to the child’s language and culture, too much criticism and finally not objective testing can give a biased, not objective  vision of  the development and functioning of the multilingual child.

Dutch Central Planning Bureau  Centraal Plan Bureau (2015) and prof. Hattie point out that children with a different language and culture background belong to the group which is more often retained in the Netherlands. Prof. Hattie says that children from this group have a chance of retention 4 times as big! The latest report by the Inspectie van het Onderwijs a special government organization in the Netherlands controlling the quality of education confirms it. These are the numbers: 15,8%  of children with no migration background repeat the class in the Netherlands as contrast to: 21,6% children with the western immigration background,  21% not western 2nd generation and  27% not western 1st generation. What is also shocking is that children with a migration background more often are advised by primary schools to follow education at a lower level.  So for example: 19,4% of  children with a migration background who are in the Netherlands shorter than 4 years  receive ‘’advice’’ for VMBO-B (preparatory secondary vocational education) as contrast to 5,9% children with no migration background. When we look at the VWO advice ( pre-university level of secondary school) , we see a spectacular change: 8,2 % children with a migration background who are in the Netherlands shorter than 4 years receive the highest advice in contrast to 21,2% children with no migration background. Differences are visible for all children with migration background.[6]

Retention costs the Netherlands national purse 1,4 billion euro per year, which means 80 euro per person. Additionally it does not work, as prof. Hattie calls it ’No single intervention by schools is worse than retention’’. The Dutch Central Planning Bureau also calls for experimenting with alternatives.

So, why not devote more attention to  the field of bilingualism and biculturalism in order to offer equal chances to all children in the Netherlands?

Image: pixabay, Tumisu

  • Driessen, G., Mulder, L., Leest, B. & Verrijt, T. (2014). Zittenblijven in Nederland: een probleem? Tijdschrift voor Orthopedagogiek, 53, 297-311
  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta- analyses relating to achievement. London/New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis group.
  • Hattie, J. (2013). Leren zichtbaar maken. Nederlandse vertaling van Visible Learning for Teachers. Rotterdam: Bazalt Educatieve Uitgeverijen.
  • Inspectie Onderwijs (2019). De staat van het onderwijs. www.onderwijsinspectie.nl
  • Inspectie Onderwijs (2016). Analyse en waardering van de opbrengsten www.onderwijsinspectie.nl
  • Inspectie Onderwijs (2015). De staat van het onderwijs. (www.onderwijsinspectie.nl).
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  •     Roselaar, T., Lindijer, H. en Evegroen, R. (1993). Taalontwikkeling en meertaligheid in kindercentra. Den Haag: Koninklijke bibliotheek.
  • Schaerlaekens, A. (2008). De taalontwikkeling van het kind. Wolters Noordhof: Groningen
  • Wijsbek, L. (2012). Stille periodes: een onderzoek naar het ontwikkelen van een enquête om meer kennis te verkrijgen over stille kinderen in het basisonderwijs. http://dspace.library.uu.nl/bitstream/handle/1874/252212/MA%20scriptie%20Stille%20Perio%20des.pdf?sequence=1
  • Van Gelder, F. en Visser, S. (2005). Van misverstand tot meertaligheid: een onderzoek in het kleuteronderwijs in de stad Groningen.

[5] Bruggeman-Sękowska, B.,(2019).  ‘’Bilingual children have two language systems and this makes them different from monolingual children. Not better, not worse, just different’’. Interview with Sharon Upsworth. Communications-Unlimited.nl https://www.communications-unlimited.nl/bilingual-children-have-two-language-systems-and-this-makes-them-different-from-monolingual-children-not-better-not-worse-just-different/