Research suggests students who identify as ‘multilingual’ do better at school.

The study of just over 800 pupils in England found a relationship between high school scores and ‘multilingual identity’; a term describing whether pupils expressed a personal connection with knowing and using other languages. 

Those who self-identified as multilingual typically outperformed their peers not just in subjects such as French and Spanish, but in non-language subjects including maths, geography and science. 

This applied whether or not they actually spoke a second language fluently.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, not all pupils who were officially described by their schools as having ‘English as a Second Language’ (ESL) thought of themselves as multilingual, even though the term is used by schools and Government as a proxy for multilingualism. 

Correspondingly, these pupils did not necessarily perform better (or worse) as a group at than their non-ESL peers.

The results indicate that encouraging pupils to identify with languages and to value different styles of communication could help them to develop a mindset that supports academic progress overall.

The study’s authors argue that being multilingual means far more than the official ESL definition of being “exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English”. 

They suggest that even young people who see themselves as monolingual possess a ‘repertoire’ of communication. For example, they may use different dialects, pick up words and phrases on holiday, know sign language, or understand other types of ‘language’ such as computer code.

The study involved 818 Year-11 pupils at five secondary schools in South East England. 

As well as establishing whether pupils were officially registered as ESL or non-ESL, the researchers asked each pupil if they personally identified as such. 

Separately, each pupil was asked to plot where they saw themselves on a 0-100 scale, where 0 represented ‘monolingual’ and 100 ‘multilingual’. This data was compared with their high school results in nine subjects.

School-reported ESL status had no impact on results, although pupils who self-identified as ESL generally did better than their peers in modern languages. 

Those who considered themselves ‘multilingual’ on the 0-100 scale, however, performed better academically across the board.

The strength of this relationship varied between subjects and was, again, particularly pronounced in modern languages. 

In all nine subjects assessed, however, each point increase on the monolingual-to-multilingual scale was associated with a rise in pupils’ exam scores. For example: a one-point increase was found to correspond to 0.012 of a grade in Science, and 0.011 of a grade in Geography.

The findings appear to indicate that the positive mentality and self-belief which typically develops among pupils with a multilingual identity has spill-over benefits for their wider education. 

The full study is accessible here.