Countries, Cultures, Languages and Education Systems

Learners joining schools in England from overseas, including those who use English as their first language, come from many different countries, and some of them arrive in England after having lived and been to school in other countries. Children from the same country may have diverse ethnic, religious, political and social class backgrounds, and may speak different languages. It cannot be assumed that two students arriving from the same country will share similar backgrounds or should automatically be grouped together.

Learners' prior experiences impact on how they will settle and learn in a new school.  It is, therefore, important for schools to develop an understanding of a learner’s background, including their previous schooling, to support planning for inclusion.

Language information

Learners speak different languages and understanding the differences between their first languages, other languages they use, and English can help schools plan appropriate support.

Having some understanding of areas where learners might find English significantly different to their first language or other languages they know (e.g. word order, use of tenses) is useful in providing targeted support.  For example, in a lesson about the characters in a book, an Arabic speaking student might benefit from some input on the difference between who and which, since relative pronouns in Arabic do not distinguish between human and non-human forms. Michael Swann’s Learner English is an excellent source of detailed information on 19 different languages, together with other families of languages. Each chapter includes general information about the language, together with a detailed and fully exemplified comparison with English, focusing specifically on phonology, punctuation and grammar, vocabulary and common areas of interference. By sharing information on culture, first language and other languages a pupil using EAL knows with a learner’s teachers, a school can equip themselves with the means to provide meaningful language support.

Four language information booklets, published by the British Council, provide teachers of EAL learners with useful information on first languages or languages of previous education, and on some aspects of culture. Booklets about Arabic, Polish, Chinese and Urdu are available to download at the bottom of this page.

Typical differences between these languages and English have been highlighted to make teachers aware of when focused language support might be beneficial. It is important to note, though, that these are guidelines and that individual learners may not find the areas mentioned in these resources difficult.

The following information can be found in the booklets and can help teachers meet the needs of their EAL learners:

  • Particular features of specific languages
  • Conventions observed by speakers of those languages
  • The socio-cultural contexts in the countries or the regions where their languages are spoken
  • Information about education systems
  • Cultural-specific naming systems
  • Cultural and linguistic differences in courtesies and levels of formality
  • Particular differences between the languages of EAL learners and other languages they know and English in terms of:
    Phonology (the sounds used in languages that might make a difference in meaning)
    Grammar (the structures of languages and the ways languages refer to the world and the speakers’ experiences)
    Writing (scripts used for languages and nature of spelling systems)
    Vocabulary (where the languages get their words from)

This list could be used as a template for practitioners when creating their own information documents for the languages spoken most widely in their school, which would then be shared with other members of staff.

Further resources:

Further ideas on using a learner’s first language can be found on Translanguaging, and on using bilingual dictionaries.

Booklets are available for the following languages: