Multilingualism at Optimist International School


The Netherlands is such an outward-looking and international nation. It always has been since the very early days and as a trading nation on a global scale. That is still very much the case, and it is reflected in its current population. Its population nowadays includes people from well over 180 different nations. This is very visible when you visit any of the fine international schools in this country. The kids come from all four corners of the globe. Now, we all know how quickly kids can pick up a language. Parents often find themselves left behind in the language stakes. We are all very busy and many think that we can get by in English. But how does this fit in with the needs of the children and their new reality? We explore this important topic with Optimist International School. They have a deep understanding, having more than 40 different nationalities at school. Here is a Q+A on the topic of multilingualism at Optimist International School.


Children at school


When kids are exposed to structured and consistent language input, they usually learn languages more enthusiastically and faster than adults. Also, they are fearless and just get on with it. My own daughter was fluent in Dutch after a very short time, putting my own efforts to shame. But what should the parents do and how do the schools help things? What is the received wisdom for raising children in a new country and culture? That is what we want to learn more about here. Optimist International School (OIS) has experience in this field and so we asked their English as an Additional Language specialist (EAL) some of our burning questions on the matter and the answers reveal some very interesting insights. All parents can benefit from these answers. So here we go with the Q+A about multilingualism at Optimist International School.




q1. What are OIS’s views and actions for multilingual children?

At OIS we value students’ full linguistic repertoire, and constantly review and modify our policies and practice in order to make sure that children feel free and confident to access the curriculum in any language they feel they have a stronger competency of.

In day-to-day life, you will see children using different languages for different purposes. 

For example, if we are discussing a topic in our classes, children who have not developed English language skills yet, will use their own language to express their opinions and knowledge; the same happens when they are asked to produce a piece of writing; if the students do not feel confident yet, they can write in their strongest language. We do this by using multiple IT tools, language frames, and scaffolding resources. 


Many languages



Also, we try to utilise our multilingual students, staff, and parents to support language development. This helps us with understanding the languages and cultures of our community.

We believe that language is powerful and that children already have a command of it. Regardless of whether that’s English, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, or any other language. 

Moreover, when you walk around the school you will see information, art, key vocabulary and displays in all the languages of our students.

We feel that a language inclusive approach, not only makes children and parents feel welcome, but it enhances their sense of individual identity and belonging. At the same time this prepares them to become confident, empathetic global citizens.

Last year we actually became an accredited Language Friendly School, and are now part of a great community of schools, whose priority is to ensure that all languages spoken are welcome and valued at school.



Multilingualism at Optimist International School


q2. How quickly do new arrivals at the school fit in with their mother tongue?

There is no one answer here. It really depends on the child and their time and pace should be respected, but we ensure that they feel welcome and included and that their language is more than welcome, too. It can be quite stressful, and sometimes intimidating for children to go to a school for the first time and not be able to communicate even their basic needs, just because they do not speak the school’s main language. Imagine having left everything you know, entering a new environment without knowing anyone and not being able to say that you want to use the toilet, for example? 

 – Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS)

When it comes to additional language acquisition, Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), i.e social language, can take anywhere between 6 months to 2 years to develop. Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) can take a minimum of 5 years. This means that children arriving with no English can feel excluded and isolated for quite a long time if they are not given other opportunities to express themselves.





We, therefore, try to remove language barriers, as much as possible, in different ways. To begin with, we have started creating a library of welcome videos in all the different languages spoken in our school; these videos are made by children who speak these languages, and they are sent to prospective families. This way, students feel there are familiar faces in the school and are encouraged to use their first language(s) to communicate. Additionally, we assign buddies, who are volunteering to support the newly arrived peers in every aspect of the school. 

The students and teachers use various types of technology and translation software to communicate with each other, but also lots of visuals for basic needs. Finally, we engage with the parents both for linguistic, but also for moral support, ensuring that our goals for the child are aligned.  With all the above approaches, it can take from a couple of days to a couple of months or even more, before you see a child showing confidence in their new environment, however, all children are unique and their pace needs to be supported and respected.



Multilingualism at Optimist International School


q3. What advice do you give to parents for changes at home with regard to languages?

Continue speaking your first language(s) at home! Many parents believe that since the school’s instruction language is English, they should speak, read and, generally, communicate in English at home too, but the advice we like to give parents is to keep practising their first languages. Read a book, play a board game, watch a film with subtitles, discuss themes from school, any type of language-related activity, in the language(s) everyone feels more comfortable with. 

The children have exposure to English all day, every day, and they will definitely learn the language, eventually. But if they don’t practice their home languages then there is a risk, that these will fade; and this is such a shame. 

Language is part of our culture and our identity. Developing two or more languages at the same time, has multiple benefits, from strengthening your brain to learning languages faster and more effectively, to becoming a global citizen with a bigger understanding of the world. 



Multilingualism at Optimist International School


q4. The benefits of multilingualism are generally well known. What benefits have you seen in school? 

Children feel much more confident, and learn faster, when they are given the opportunity to express knowledge, opinions and thoughts in their strongest language. We see students who were very shy in the corner of a room on day one, to take the lead of their whole team within a few weeks! 

Children are happy to be in school, as they feel it doesn’t matter what language they speak. They can still show what they know and contribute to the lesson and activities. This can result in the students building their confidence enough, so they start exploring the English language as well. What we also see is that children feel more confident with taking risks in trying things out in their home language. They will speak, read, and write, even if they know they might make a mistake, as they understand that this is part of learning and they are satisfied that they have shown what they really know in languages that feel more solid to them.

We also notice that children show interest in each other’s languages. Asking each other questions about words and phrases; chatting in each other’s languages, making connections between languages and being excited about it. As a result, children are very tolerant and accepting of differences in general, and when a new student arrives, who doesn’t speak any English, for most students in class this is not a problem! They are all used to not considering the lack of the English language as a barrier. Instead, they explore the existence of other languages.



Multilingualism at Optimist International School


q5. What pitfalls should parents try to avoid on this important matter?

As mentioned earlier, one thing that would be great to avoid is stopping the development of home languages, just because the school’s instruction language is English. To be fair, this is not uncommon, as the ‘immersion’ approach, within which a complete exposure to one language brings the best outcomes, has been the most dominant one worldwide. English language specifically, is, some say the ‘queen’ of all languages, allowing the world to communicate and move. 

Therefore, parents and children feel the pressure of mastering English many times in the sacrifice of first languages. There is also a feeling of embarrassment when they can’t speak English. It is not easy to convince a child to speak another language.  This might be because they feel that they might not be able to fit in if they don’t speak English.  


Optimist International school



Language, no matter which one, is an immense asset, part of our identity and our global history; our unique way to communicate.  By speaking more than one language fluently, we sharpen and develop our mental as well as our social and interpersonal skills. We encourage parents to be proud of their languages and their cultures; these are their identities; multilingualism and multiculturalism are at the core of being a global citizen, after all. 

So there you have it. A really in-depth look into the subject of multilingualism at Optimist International School. Thanks to everyone at the Optimist International School for these very interesting answers. We are sure that this was of great interest to a large number of parents. It is such an important subject.


Contact details:

Optimist International School

Tel: +31 23 303 5924


OIS Website



Optimist international School

For more articles like this, see our Amsterdam blogs section.


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