It’s a Polynesian festival of languages in the Finlayson Park playground, plus a smattering of English and a dash of Mandarin.

With a roll of 1100 it’s the biggest primary school in Aotearoa. All those who want to teach at this Manurewa school must be willing to study Teaching English in Schools to Speakers of Other Languages (TESSOL) and bilingual education.

Principal Shirley Maihi says the reason they are “off on this waka” is that about 90 percent of students have English as a second language. “A lot of students come with little or no language, and it’s really important that their first or heritage language is not cut off as it aids them to learn English.”

The school has 11 total immersion classes and 10 bilingual Samoan and Tongan classes. And to top it off, there are classes in Mandarin as a foreign language.

Maihi says most of her staff have a diploma in TESSOL. The online programme, offered at Auckland University annually, develops skills for extending children’s oral language, and this is later extended to writing. “It’s a great course with very good strategies that can be used for any teaching programme, whether you’ve got second language learners or not. Teachers are far more focussed on specific teaching because of what they learn, and they’re teaching to specific needs.”

As well as completing the TESSOL diploma, within two years of being at Finlayson Park School all teachers are expected to do university papers on the pedagogy behind bilingual education even if they don’t teach bilingually. “So we have a double strength of knowledge of children who come with two languages or more,” says Maihi.

Why not just teach English?

As well as the cognitive advantages to bilingualism (a bilingual brain is a nimble brain), Maihi says the school strongly believes in the value of nurturing a child’s first language.

At Finlayson Park, children keep using their first language until they turn seven. “We expect the child to read and write in their first language. We don’t say stop and do it in English.” And because their first language is valued, Maihi says, once they move on to English “they go flat out”.

Children transfer the skills learned in their first strong language, and they learn English much more quickly, often becoming fluent in under six months.

Pasifika bilingualism

Children in a bilingual class at Finlayson Park School.

Children in a bilingual class at Finlayson Park School.

Lynda Stuart of May Road School, where 80 percent of children have English as a second language, wants much more government support for bilingual Pasifika education. “There is no specific language policy in New Zealand, in fact some would say there’s no language policy at all.”

Stuart says there’s a real need for bilingual books and digital resources for students. “It’s really important that we address the needs of Pasifika students and support bilingual education – because that’s what will make the difference for our kids.”

She says her school board funds an extra teacher to try to keep class sizes small, which means children get plenty of opportunities to speak to adults and have good models of English.

Stuart says poor oral language can be a result of a generational deficit. Just as te reo Maori suffered because earlier generations were discouraged from speaking it, the same is happening with Pasifika languages now. “When people don’t have a firm first language or when it gets lost, there’s not necessarily a good model of English either.”

For example, Niuean is no longer being used much in the community, and some children won’t have strong models of either language.

Speaking up

With its strong multilingual focus, Finlayson Park School employs teachers and teacher aides from countries ranging from Kiribati to Iraq.

Finlayson Park teacher Ongo Fungalei has four children who speak English as a second language. She says when her children were in a mainstream class it was very hard for them to understand English, so sometimes they were not well behaved. “They are not connected with the teacher because they are very shy to speak out. So when they came to the bilingual (unit) they built up their confidence, they built up their achievement and everything accelerated.”

She says her family speak only Tongan at home. Now, instead of feeling inferior, her children are proud of being Tongan. “They don’t hide anything, like wearing a ta’ovala, our waist mat.”

Maihi says even children whose first language is English benefit from second language learning strategies, especially those with poor oral skills. As well as enriching their vocabulary, they learn good grammar and sentence structure. “For a lot of our children who haven’t had preschool experiences, it takes three to six months to catch them up.”

A large proportion of the children haven’t had any early childhood education experiences. Maihi says in many of the cultures represented at the school, parents like to keep their children close, and don’t realise the value of experiences outside the home.