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Identifying as being multilingual may help kids perform better in school

Having a personal connection to other languages may lead to higher test scores

Young boy writing multiple languages on chalkboard
Photo (c) eli_asenova - Getty Images
A new study from the University of Cambridge explored how students’ relationship to different languages may impact their performance in school. According to the team’s findings, those who identify as being multilingual are more likely to receive better scores on exams.

“Too often we think about other languages as something that we don’t need to know, or as difficult to learn,” said researcher Dr. Linda Fisher. “These findings suggest that if pupils were encouraged to see themselves as active and capable language learners, it could have a really positive impact on the wider progress at school.” 

Being multilingual helped improve exam scores

For the study, the researchers asked over 800 eleventh graders in England to report on their language identity. The team had the students determine between 0 and 100 where they fell on the spectrum of monolingual to multilingual, with 0 representing speaking one language and 100 representing speaking multiple languages. 

The team then analyzed the participants’ grades from nine subjects on nationwide exams and collected information on whether or not the students were registered as English as a Second Language (EAL) learners. 

The findings showed that there were discrepancies among students who were registered as EAL at their schools and those who viewed themselves as multilingual; students who spoke multiple languages at home didn’t always identify themselves as being multilingual. 

“The fact that these terms didn’t correlate more closely is surprising considering that they are all supposedly meaning the same thing,” said researcher Dr. Dee Rutgers. “Just having experience of other languages clearly doesn’t necessarily translate into a multilingual identity because the experience may not be valued by the student.” 

When students viewed themselves as knowing more than one language, they performed better on the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams and in school overall. GCSE exams are qualification tests given to students in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in specific subject areas. 

Each additional point the students ranked themselves on the multilingual scale was linked with an increase in scores on exams. However, there was no effect on test scores for students who were registered as EAL at school. 

“The evidence suggests that the more multilingual you consider yourself to be, the higher your GCSE scores,” Dr. Rutgers said. “While we need to understand more about why this relationship exists, it may be that children who see themselves as multilingual have a sort of ‘growth mindset’ which impacts on wider attainment.” 

Adding range through language

The researchers believe that fostering a stronger understanding of languages may help students latch onto them more, which could impact how they view themselves and improve their school performance. 

“There could be a strong case for helping children who think that they can’t ‘do’ languages to recognize that we all use a range of communication tools, and that learning a language is simply adding to that range,” said Dr. Fisher. “This may influence attitude and self-belief, which is directly relevant to learning at school. In other words, what you think you are may be more important than what others say you are.” 

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