Bilingualism and academic achievement [Transcript]

May 17, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads. The podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, a mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we’re talking about bilingualism and academic achievement. To what extent does speaking another language at home affect how well a child does at school? Belgian researcher Orhan Agirdag tells us the answer, and I share another Kletsheads Quick and Easy. A concrete tip you can put into practice straightaway to make the most out of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic. Keep listening to find out more.

Sharon Unsworth: Every three years, teenagers around the world are tested on their abilities in maths, science and reading as part of PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment. Basically it’s a way of comparing how well countries are doing when it comes to educating their children. Because of COVID, the latest PISA data we have are from 2018, and what these data show is that in many countries there are huge differences between children in how well they score. Differences that are related to, for example, their parents’ level of education, often referred to as socioeconomic status, where their parents come from, whether they have an immigrant background and also the language spoken at home. What causes these differences and when do they emerge? Do we see the same differences for all bilingual children? In this episode of Kletsheads, we’re talking about the relationship between bilingualism and academic achievement. To what extent does speaking another language at home affect how well a child does at school? Does it matter which language they speak at home? What other factors play a role? And what can we do to reduce the differences we see between children in some countries? We discuss this with Orhan Agirdag, researcher at the Catholic University in Leuven in Belgium, and the University of Amsterdam here in the Netherlands. I started by asking Orhan how big the gap is between monolingual and bilingual pupils in the PISA data and to what extent the size of this gap is comparable across different countries?

Orhan Agirdag: Well, first, I should say that we don’t have a direct measurement of being bilingual. What PISA does have is, they ask children whether they speak in our language at home. So if that is an indicator of of being bilingual or monolingual, I would rather speak about native speakers and language minorities who speak maybe in other languages. Many of them, of course, bilinguals. If we compare their performances on different topics, in most countries you will see an achievement gap between the native speakers and between language minorities or bilinguals. It’s important to note that it is not all countries. There are no borders, no difference between those children. And there is a there are a minority of countries where this is the other way around, where minorities perform better. So the bigger picture is, yes, in most of the cases, like for instance, in the low countries in Belgium and the Netherlands and Germany, there is this huge achievement gap between language minority children and native speakers. Also, when we control for other factors such as migration background, such as socioeconomic status, etc.. How big is this gap is the question then? Well, it depends on the country, but on average we see up to 20 or 30 PISA points, which corresponds almost to 40 PISA points is one year of education.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha, okay.

Orhan Agirdag: About half and or even two thirds of a year achievement gap on average between minorities and the language majority.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, it’s quite large the gap then in the Netherlands and Belgium and Germany. You also said in there are countries where that’s not the case and countries where it’s even the other way round. Can you maybe give us a few examples of where where the where there is no gap or where it’s actually the other way around?

Orhan Agirdag: First of all, the other way around, if you look at the more Anglo-Saxon countries, you see that in the UK, for instance, in the newest round of the poll’s data, which looks which like similar to the PISA data, but with younger children, you will see that that the the children who speak another language at home perform better than native English speakers in the in the UK. That’s, that’s just one of the examples where there is an increasing achievement gap where minorities perform better. Again, this is after us where we control for for socioeconomic background. Another important thing to note, and we can calculate this with the new rounds of the PISA data, is that we are no more certain that the achievement gap is not related to exposure to the majority language. That’s not the case. How are we so sure about that? Because the newer rounds of PISA, they ask the language minority children oral questions about how much do you speak the mother tongue or how often or how frequently you speak your another language, or do you combine the languages? And interesting thing to see is that in most countries when we look within the language minority group, the ones who are more exposed to the language of instruction, to the national language at home, when they speak this with their mother, when they speak with the father, they do not perform better than children who speak mostly their native language, mostly their mother tongue or who combine the languages. And and I have the exact numbers with me from the last round, from the 77 countries across 60 of them students who mixed both languages at home outperformed the one who mostly speak the native language, native language. So the achievement gap that we have between language minorities and the native speakers are not related to being not enough exposures to do to the national language at home. There are probably other reasons. It’s not about exposure at home to the national language.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I think that’s very interesting, right. Because for for many language background is the explanation, right? It’s bilingualism that they think is the the issue and they’re not using the national language, the language spoken at school as much. But as you just said, that that doesn’t seem to be the case. The question then, of course, is what does explain these differences? How well educated parents are explained some of this gap, but only a very small part. The gap is still there once parental education has been accounted for. What appears to be key is how a country’s educational system is organized and how diverse a country is in terms of the number of languages spoken. Orhan explains.

Orhan Agirdag: If you take two random people in country, what is the chance that they speak a different language? That’s that’s the measurement, actually, of the city. So that takes account of the different languages and the size of the groups. For a country where, like 50% of the country speak English, 50% of Spanish, is less diverse. In a country where 50% speak English and 10% speak Korean, 10% speak Spanish, 10% … So it takes account of this diversity. That’s an index that can be calculated at a country level. That that matters. So more diversity is related to less inequality. That’s good news. But on the other hand, we see things such as tracking have an influence that that in countries that have a higher tracking that language minorities perform worse. Tracking in secondary school level.

Sharon Unsworth: What do you mean? What do you mean by tracking?

Orhan Agirdag: For instance, the planners and the Netherlands are very tracked that children have to make a choice or are tracked in a stream.

Sharon Unsworth: Ah, okay. Stream. Yes. So I grew up calling it being streamed.

Orhan Agirdag: Yeah. Okay, that’s more the UK term, right?

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Possibly. Yeah. Yeah.

Orhan Agirdag: In the US people use tracks, but in the more extreme cases like in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, the tracks are different at schools. In Germany, it starts at the age of ten. In the Netherlands and Belgium starts at the age of 12 when the national language is not your native language and you are still in the process of learning. But during this process of learning you might be tracked to a lower track and that can be devastating for your future chances.

Sharon Unsworth: What’s noteworthy is that in countries with a more comprehensive educational system, like, for example, the US and many Scandinavian countries, the academic achievement gap between monolingual and bilinguals or native speakers and language minority children, as Orhan calls them, is smaller. Without tracking or streaming, children who are learning the school language as their second language get time to catch up with their peers. And they don’t run the risk of being placed in a lower stream, not because of their academic abilities, but because of their language skills which are still developing. Orhan also mentioned that factors relating to teachers and how well prepared they feel to teach children from multilingual and multicultural backgrounds also plays a role in the achievement gap.

Orhan Agirdag: There’s a big variation across countries on this level as well. For instance, up to 50% of teachers in the US and up to around 40% of teachers in the UK say they are quite well prepared to deal with cultural and linguistic diversity. Well, this is only 16% in the Netherlands and in Belgium. There’s one country which does worse, that’s France, where only 8% of the teachers are well prepared. And the inequalities are also very large in France. That’s that’s that’s that’s that’s one context is more worse than than than Belgium and Netherlands in this case. This this influences how they deal with children, how they this this influences their expectations towards the children. This influence their their how they regard language minority students, how they regard their linguistic backgrounds, and finally give their chances. So both at the highest national level, but also at the school level and teacher level, there are factors of of of design factors that influences these achievement gaps between language minority, bilingual children and national majority or monolingual children.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Okay, that’s clear. So the gaps we’ve been talking about them based on the PISA data, are 15 year olds. So almost ready to ready to leave school. Can you tell us a bit about the research on early development? So with younger children?

Orhan Agirdag: Yeah, so we see actually from very young ages to these differences that that inequalities that brought from home the exposure to language at home. But what my research is more focused on is how what do the institutions do with these differences as well and how they enlarge these differences and make it better or compensate or make it worse. And we see, for instance, in Belgium that up to age of of toddlers in child care that one of the few determinants of educational quality of of, for instance, language support, one of the few factors that determines this is for number of children. That’s that’s clear because when you have more children to care of there’s less time to support. But the second even an important factor is are the linguistic backgrounds of children. When there’s more language minority toddlers, they get less educational support, they get less language support. And this is not of course not I hope not a conscious discrimination of toddlers, but it depends on the what we I have already talked about. What expectations do we have from children?

Sharon Unsworth: But what do you mean by they get less support? Maybe can you just make it a bit more concrete so that people understand what that means?

Orhan Agirdag: How many words they hear, for instance, from their, from, from, from child care staff. And that’s measured with observations such as are they talked to when they’re changing their diapers. And there’s no objective reason why a language minority child should be less talked to then a toddler who is monolingual from from the majority. I would even say that the opposite should be true in order to compensate for the differences.

Sharon Unsworth: So what matters then is the quality of children’s education. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the countries where there is a large achievement gap need to look abroad for examples of best practice. Also, in those countries, there are teachers who are very successful in providing high quality education to language minority children. Orhan explains.

Orhan Agirdag: Teachers who have been working with these children for many years and who have this high standards of high expectations and who are well trained and who and who regard the linguistic capacities of children as an assets. So the mother tongue that the children might have that has been different are many times regarded as an asset in the schools, as something where you can build education on. Children are, for instance, they are expected to say something about their mother tongue, to read in their mother tongue, to explain that in the majority language. So this this this idea of of translanguaging and using the different capacities of the children throughout education. That’s a concept, their idea.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. So I just want to talk a little bit more about the about schools and the idea of segregation. Right. So we know that the social and ethnic makeup of schools can vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, sometimes at the. It really is. We can’t really talk about segregation. That’s certainly the case here in the Netherlands, in Belgium. And I think it will be the same in many places around the world. I’m thinking of the the podcast Nice White Parents, which talks about this issue in in New York. And I know when I moved to the Netherlands over 20 years ago now from the UK, I was really shocked when I heard even educators and policymakers, teachers talking about black and white schools. Right. Depending on their ethnic composition. And I’m just wondering, what do you feel about the use of those terms and and to what? So that’s just, you know, you as a as a researcher, as somebody from one of the linguistic ethnic minorities yourself. And to what extent do greater and lesser degrees of segregation matter when it comes to academic achievement?

Orhan Agirdag: It’s a complicated topic.

Sharon Unsworth: It is.

Orhan Agirdag: And I should just start by saying that I take this personally. What I feel is, is I don’t feel anything wrong with only the notions of having black schools. I think black is beautiful and that that’s also okay for schools. So talking about segregation, then, then I think we should make a distinction between at least three types of segregation. Segregation that has been first is imposed segregation that’s that’s that’s what we had in in South Africa, apartheid regime where the very government that you go to the schools where we had this up to up to fifties in the United States, wherever there is this law imposed segregation, you go to this school, you go to these schools and there is no interaction. We know that that’s that’s that is detrimental for equality. We know that that there is not a practice that that that’s sustainable, that this is something I think we all should denounce. Does that happen still in our countries? I don’t know. I’m not sure about it. Maybe sometimes the tracking practices that we have talked about resemble this type of segregation. And so that’s imposed, right, that some children go to some schools, that’s something imposed. And then when this is imposed, segregation and there is and that comes always with curricular differences and quality differences between the schools for minorities and the majorities. This is detrimental. We should move from that. And I think the way to move from that from in many countries, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium is is to it’s to soften or getting rid of tracking.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Orhan Agirdag: That being said, that’s not the same as what I would refer as more, in Dutch, I would, I would say spontane segregatie, that would translate as spontaneous type of of of that where some people tend to choose to, to live with their people who resemble them in many way and deliberately choose for, for, for, for, for certain neighbourhoods or and go to certain schools and and wonder schools just just reflect the neighbourhood and and it’s black between black neighbourhoods then. And you have black schools in terms of of a minority of minority backgrounds of the children. Well, that’s fine. That’s not automatically detrimental for performance. It’s not that when an ethnic minority child sits next to another ethnic minority child, that their performance gets some magical way in a worse way. That’s not the case. And so you don’t need to sit next to a white kid to have good performance and to think that I think it’s I can I cannot find another word than racism. So we can have minority schools in the US, in the Netherlands, in Belgium, where there is very high levels of education. And also when you look at other outcomes, such as such as, citizenship, attitudes, etc., these schools exist and it’s perfectly possible when you have high expected and high motivated teaching force, it’s it’s, the ethnic makeup per se is not detrimental for performance. And a third way of of that can sometimes regarded as segregation is deliberate schools that are run by minorities, pu- public schools most of the times or most of the times they are these type of schools are established because there is broader discrimination in the mainstream society. You can, for instance, give the example of Islamic schools in the Netherlands, or if you go to the US, let’s see the historically black colleges, right? These are institutions run by minorities themselves. And this is not neutral or negative. This is positive for educational outcomes with the with alumni such as Kamala Harris, with alumni such as Oprah, these institutions just two examples of of graduates from historically black colleges. This is not segregation. This is, I would rather call this emancipation. And we see the same pattern, actually, for instance, about Islamic schools in the Netherlands who do quite well in terms of performance with their children. So this is certainly not the the imposed segregation that I’ve talked about as the first form. So there was a complex topic. You need to make the distinction between the rules of segregation. Is it something imposed as a curricular difference from the government? That’s bad. Is it some spontaneous processes of people looking for the similar background? That’s neutral, that can go in the wrong direction when there is this this this low expectations, when there is this discrimination, that’s that can be negative. But it can also be just okay when when you have good instruction. And at the, and at the third, you have this this more voluntary separation of minorities who who look way to to to to navigate their way through this societal discrimination that works positive in the long term.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. And yet, just going back to, you know, the the use of those terms, black and white schools in the Netherlands or in Belgium, I mean, the the use of a black school is a maybe, you know, definitely, but it’s not usually meant in a positive way, right?

Orhan Agirdag: No. And that’s that’s that’s where it becomes becomes wrong when when you see that that as as a black as as an indication of low quality.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Orhan Agirdag: But for me, black is beautiful. For me is.

Sharon Unsworth: For me too just be clear.

Orhan Agirdag: But the strange thing is, at least in the Dutch language. And this holds for for the whole continental Europe, there is this racial taboo. We don’t talk about race.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, that’s true.

Orhan Agirdag: You cannot talk about race. You don’t register colours. You don’t just register race. You just shut up or you can talk about another euphemisms such as migration background. Which is which is which is which is just a euphemism most of time for race. Because my American colleague does not seem to have a migration background. While I’ll do, I’m here like no, my grandfather immigrated once, but I’m an immigrant. But my recently immigrated American colleague is not an immigrant.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like my my kids aren’t immigrants. Even though I’m an immigrant to.

Orhan Agirdag: I am even my grandchild will be an immigrant in that case. So it’s just an euphemism for my for my race, for my racial appearances. But we don’t talk about it. Strangely, we do talk about what it’s about since it’s okay to talk about it when it’s about schools. So you talk about black school that that’s a racial reference. Clear racial reference.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah.

Orhan Agirdag: And most of the times the, the, the, the, the, what I see from, for some of my progressive friends who were triggered by the term are not triggered because it’s pejorative. But by just using the term. “Why you use a racial term. We don’t just speak about migration backgrounds or anything.” So they are more triggered by the I would say, more honest way of using the racial term then the pejorative that has been linked.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s yeah. Yeah.

Orhan Agirdag: That’s problematic. Let’s let’s agree on that that that that seeing anything black as being negative. That’s that’s something that we should be doing, not the use of of of. But there can be another another argument in against this term, and that is that most of the children in those schools wouldn’t consider themselves black. And that’s something, that’s might be an interesting thing that that that it does not resemble the identities of this children. That’s that that’s that’s that’s an argument I can live with.

Sharon Unsworth: We’re going to leave our conversation with Orhan now to hear another Kletsheads Quick and Easy. A concrete tip that you can put to use straightaway to make a success of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic.


Kletsheads Quick and Easy

Sharon Unsworth: Today’s Kletsheads Quick and Easy is from the PEaCH Project. You might remember the PEaCH Project from last episode when I spoke to Ute Liemacher-Ribold. It’s a European project that provides advice and support to parents of bilingual children. And what it does is provide a range of resources, such as a digital handbook, videos and materials for activities and games that you can play with your child to support their language development. And that’s where the Kletsheads Quick and Easy for today comes in, because it’s play a game with your child. This gives them a great opportunity to practice the heritage language and learn new vocabulary. And it offers you as a parent the chance to share your own cultural heritage.

Sharon Unsworth: You can do this in many ways. You can find a game that you used to play yourself as a kid or a game that is typical of your culture. With young children, you can do jigsaw puzzles and whilst you’re figuring out what goes were, ask your child what he or she sees. On the PEaCH website, you can even download pictures that you can cut into pictures yourself to make your own puzzle. Or you could look for a picture yourself on the internet, for example, of a city or landscape or something else from the country where you come from. With older children, you can play the game word chain. The first person starts with a word, for example, pig, and the next person has to think of a word that starts with the last letter of the previous word. So pig ends with G, so the next word might be grapefruit. This is also a really nice game to play in the car, by the way. On the PEaCH Project website, You’ll find dozens of other ideas. The website’s currently available in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian. And as we heard last time, the idea is that the materials will, if possible, be available in the 24 languages of the European Union. The link is in the shownotes. So that was this episode’s Kletsheads Quick and Easy. Play a game with your child.

Sharon Unsworth: We’ve talked about children at school and, you know, from toddlers through to teenagers. And I want to talk a bit more about what happens after they leave school. One of the advantages that you mentioned before was an economic advantage to being raised bilingual. So you have maybe bilingual, multilingual capital. I think you’ve talked about it in those terms, and that can increase your chances also maybe on the labor market because, you know, you know, you’ve got a skill, knowledge that maybe somebody else doesn’t have. And I know you’ve also done research on the relationship between how bilingual children are when they’re in high school and how much money they earn later in life. And I’m sure there are plenty of parents listening who will be quite interesting to know what you found for that. So maybe we can finish by you telling us about that line of research?

Orhan Agirdag: It’s a while ago that I have studied this, and I’ve studied this only in the US. Yeah, because I had the data there. I was first amazed that this was not researched. There are many of plenty of studies to calculate what what’s learning the national language brings for immigrants and their income and their labour market chances. But the competencies that they are already do have the value for that for the labour market was not examined during that time. So first thing what I did was to check what investing in bilingualism would mean for children of immigrants throughout your school career and after that when it comes to the labour market. And I found a quite important bonus in terms of finding a job more quickly, at first and secondly, the income that they derive from their starting income. So there was already a good couple of thousands of dollars difference on a yearly basis between what same ethnic, same educated level, monolingual and bilingual earn. So in the US case, it mostly means when you’re children of a Mexican immigrant or a Cuban immigrant, most of the time Hispanic, Hispanic or a Chinese immigrant. When you keep investing in the mother tongue and children become balanced bilinguals compared to English monolingual, so many children completely assimilate towards even not any more using their mother tongue. There is this difference in their incomes between the ones who stay balanced bilingual, who speak English and their mother tongue, and those who only speak English. So it is better to to also invest it in an economic way is something that you can give advice for teachers, for parents. But I would not say that this should be their only drive. For for for instance, I, I have my two years old. I’m of course, raising them in Turkish and Dutch. The reason for that is primary reason is I want I want these kids to be able to talk to grandfather and grandmother. That’s that’s an and then a huge support if you are working with two parents, when you have the grandparents, that’s that’s this this emotional familial support is is one person. Secondly, I’m happy that that that you don’t see I can maybe show here are my books, wait.

Sharon Unsworth: So what now, Orhan’s now showing me his books in his living room.

Orhan Agirdag: Half of these books are in Turkish, so I’m happy that the kid will be able to read Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak and and these other important authors in the native language that the cultural capital letter that is the brain is this is for it’s enormously and also the social elements that it comes with it. When when my kids goes to any town in Germany, he yeah, he will be able to speak and find the best restaurants and best cafes by having this connection to the local communities that primarily function in these languages. I think around 100 million people in the world can understand this language. So this not not passing through this this capital would be which would be very strange for me to not give this this this this potential to the children. And, of course, there is then this, this, this there might be this this this economical benefits that that also documented. I take that with me. I am not against economic welfare, but that’s not the primary reason. And I’m not even talking about the ongoing cognitive research on the brain and etc. That’s..

Sharon Unsworth: That’s still that’s a whole can of worms that I think we probably will won’t open.

Orhan Agirdag: I’m not I cannot think about a second issue regarding to the raising of my children that that that brings so many plusses. So that’s that’s something to consider, I believe.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, definitely. So lots of potential advantages for children who grow up using both of their languages and lots of challenges on as to how we can make sure that within our education systems that we can achieve that. It’s a lot of food for thought there. Thank you very much Orhan for talking to us today.

Orhan Agirdag: Thank you for having me.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s it for this episode of Kletsheads, where we learnt that in many countries monolingual children do better at school than their bilingual or language minority classmates. This, of course, does not mean that all bilingual children perform more poorly. Perhaps counterintuitively, for some, it’s the bilingual children who do not use the school language at home who score best. In other words, there’s no reason to believe that speaking your heritage language at home with the children will have a negative impact on their academic achievement. Quite the opposite, in fact. And as we’ve just heard, the children might experience potential economic advantages once they’ve left school and start their career if they’ve grown up using both languages. Interestingly, the achievement gap that we’ve been talking about in this episode does not exist in all countries. It’s less pronounced in countries which are more diverse and which have a more comprehensive educational system. So one where children are not tracked or streamed at an early age. What is really important is the quality of education which children receive from early on in childcare and preschool right through to the 15 year olds in the PISA data we talked about at the start of this episode. Teacher’s attitudes and how well they’re trained are also key. When their expectations are low, and in many places, this is unfortunately often the case for children who speak a different language at home, at least certain languages, then this has a negative effect on how well children do. When teachers feel better prepared to teach culturally and linguistically diverse classes, though this has a positive effect on how well linguistic minority children perform. Orhan briefly mentioned the use of children’s heritage or home languages in the classroom using Translanguaging. If you want to know more about Translanguaging, listen to episode nine of the first season of Kletsheads. We’ll be back in two weeks’ time with another episode when in Hot Off the Press, I tell you about a recent piece of research on language mixing in bilingual children. In the meantime, give this episode’s Quick and Easy a try. Play a game with your child in their heritage language and let us know how you get on.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app. And if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening. And until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch: tot de volgende keer!

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Aniek Ebbinge.

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