Language Policy

Why are languages so important?

A resource to use with staff when writing or reviewing your Language Policy.

Compulsory language learning is one of the distinctive elements of IB programmes. Why does the IB place such importance on the learning of languages?

This page is both a discussion document and prompt for writing/reviewing your Language Policy.

For a more detailed inquiry about multilingualism refer to Multilingualism.

The importance of language

Activity 1: Reflect

  • Why do you think language learning is important?
  • Why is it central to learning in International Baccalaureate programmes?
  • Create a diagram to illustrate the links between the IB Mission Statement and the IB Learner Profile with the development of multilingualism.
  • “You can’t completely understanding a culture without speaking the language.” Discuss.

“It is mankind’s discovery of language which more than any other single thing has separated him from animal creation. Without language what kind of thought is possible? Without language, what concept have we of the past or future as separated from the immediate present? Without language, how can we tell anyone what we feel or what we think? It might be said, that until he developed language man had no soul, for without language how could he reach deep inside himself and discover the truths that are hidden there, or find out what emotions he shared or did not share with his fellow men or women?” (Davies, R., Happy Alchemy, 1998).

“The ability to communicate in a variety of modes in more than one language is essential to the International Baccalaureate (IB) concept of an international education that promotes intercultural perspectives.” (Language and learning in IB programmes, IB, 2011:1)

The requirement to communicate in more than one language is built into the IB Standards and Practices (A:7; B1:5; C1:8; C3:7; C3:8) and is one of the IB Learner Profile attributes.

Language learning is important because language:

  • Encultures – it communicates society’s expectations and we develop our cultural identity through it. Wade Davis put it this way: language “archives the wisdom of a people” (ECIS Conference 2009). Note how with the birth of the nation state languages become associated with nationality and often accompanying ideology. Note the concept of ‘native speaker’ vs being ‘foreign’. Because of the link between language and culture the link is made between learning a language and developing intercultural awareness.
  • Shapes our thinking – it plays an important role in the construction of meaning and knowledge. Consider the language of each academic discipline, and how language creates conceptual understanding.
  • Develops critical thinking – which is important in the development of intercultural awareness. We live in a world where diversity has become a feature of everyday life. We become exposed to new ideas and alternative perspectives. By responding to these different perspectives we can engage in critical thinking. The Council of Europe “encourages students to critically reflect on their own responses and attitudes to the experiences of others.” (Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters, 2009:5)

“To learn another language is quite simply and profoundly one of the best ways of learning to recognise the world and to see how others and otherness inhabit it. It is an education in difference as a pathway to understanding how to contribute to … global citizenship.” (Michael Worton, 2010, quoted in Reisz,M. 21 October 2010. Sorry, non comprendo, I’m British, Times higher Education Supplement)

At Kuei Shan, language is seen as the primary vehicle for communication, the primary instrument for developing critical thinking, and as the primary apparatus used for enabling creativity. Furthermore, language is also seen as being pivotal to Kuei Shan students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development—playing an essential role in the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the physical senses. (Caleb Lin, MYP Coordinator, Kuei Shan School,Taipei, Taiwan )

This video on the benefits of a bilingual brain is great to use with both students and staff to underline the importance of learning languages:

Some 21st century concerns

  • Bilingualism – Multilingualism: From its beginnings in the 1960s the IB has advocated a positive attitude towards bilingualism. However, there was a weakness in this advocacy in that it was assumed that one of the languages would be the language of instruction (English, French, Spanish) and the second language (mother tongue included) would be chosen from a selected group. This Language A+B model was built into the Diploma Programme. The new DP language programmes have changed this so that Group 1 is studies in language and literature, and Group 2 language acquisition.
  • ‘Using not having languages’: The 21st century world has moved the debate on. Globalization, demographic change (as people become a lot more mobile), the growth of pluralistic cultural integration (as opposed to assimilation) and the importance of inclusion have led to changes in the way we see languages. Governments around the world are not only recognizing the plurality of languages of their citizens but are also seeking ways to promote it. The emphasis is moving from stressing ‘having languages’ to being able to ‘use language’.
  • Multilinguality: The concept of multilinguality has entered the dictionary to refer to “an individual store of languages at any level of proficiency, including partial competence and incomplete fluency” (O’Laoire and Aronin, Thinking of Multilinguality, 2006). As the IB paper says: “The new terms ‘languaging’ and ‘translanguaging’ capture the idea that learners develop and integrate new language practices into a very complex dynamic multilingual repertoire.” (Language and learning in IB programmes, IB, 2011:8). A multilingual view recognizes and values diversity in language profiles as the norm. It is a potential resource in curriculum planning for developing intercultural awareness and international mindedness.
  • Valuing Mother Tongue: Equally it is important that an individual be encouraged to nurture and develop their mother tongue: “The education of the child shall be directed to … the development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values…” (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF, 1989, Article 29). The IB notes that “When the language one uses in daily communication is denigrated – for instance, not deemed fit to be used as a language of instruction – a child may feel that a part of him or herself is also being denigrated.” (Language and learning in IB programmes, IB, 2011:12).

Activity 1: Discussion Questions

To what extent does this teacher's approach align with IB philosophy?

  • “Isolating English as a Second Language (ESL) students from the mainstream, in an attempt to teach them the language they need separately from the subject areas, is not a practice that honours multilingualism.” (Language and learning in IB programmes, IB, 2011:13). So how do you meet the linguistic needs of the students?
  • How do you use mother tongue languages within your school to support student learning? Do you have a mother-tongue programme for ALL students?  Consider the following: “A growing body of research shows that sustained efforts to create environments that include activities, artefacts, and practices that constantly and explicitly valorise the first languages of learners in multicultural settings outside as well as inside schools are key to learner and programme success.”(Suarez-Orozoco et al, in Hornberger and McKay, Sociolinguistics and Language Education, 2010).
  • How do you welcome and embrace the diversity of languages? How do you use the diversity of languages to enhance learning?
  • To what extent does your school's philosophy and approach to languages align with the IB's approach to multilingualism?
  • To what extent are students in your school affirmed or not in regards to the schools' approach to languages? How do you know?

Activity 2: Thought piece: Language and Learning in IB Programmes

If you wish a reflective activity in preparation for staff compiling or reviewing your Language Policy use Language and learning in IB programmes, IB, 2011 as a think piece.

  • Assign individuals / pairs to read different sections of the document:
    Multilingualism as a fact page 10
    Multilingualism as a right page 11
    Multilingualism as a resource page 12
    Lingua francas and world Englishes page 13
    A continuum of language and learning domains pages 21-26
    The roles of language page 27
  • Use the Visible Thinking Routine ‘Connect-extend-challenge’ to allow a focused read of these pages
    Connect: How are the ideas and information presented connected to what you already know?
    Extend – What new ideas did you get that extended or broadened your thinking in new directions?
    Challenge – What challenges or puzzles have come to mind from the ideas presented?

Your Language Policy - Key issues to consider

  • How does your policy relate to your school language profile? What are students’ language histories? Which students are monolingual, bilingual and multilingual? How many languages are actually in use on a regular basis within the school? How might you work with students to map the school language profile?
  • What is the school's philosophy about language, its use and development? Is your language philosophy informed through wide reading of IB published documents (see sources of information below)?
  • Does the school language philosophy reflect the interests of the whole school community?
  • Are the languages of teaching and learning clearly identified? Are the languages of communication used in the school and outside of the classroom identified? Which languages are offered and at what levels? Note that in IB World Schools a language policy should enable a student’s language profile to be developed by providing for school-supported self-taught options in group 1 and opportunities for learning languages ab initio and languages B.
  • What is the school's position on (a) the active development of the mother tongue for all learners, and (b) the teaching of mother-tongue languages, different from the language of instruction? Have you considered alternative methods for developing and maintaining mother tongues (e.g. well resourced special request and school-supported self-taught options)? Does the school review the processes used to identify the language needs of each student?
  • Are there rules and expectations about language use around the school?
  • Are beliefs about language teaching and learning explained clearly?
  • How do your teachers demonstrate an understanding that they are all, in practice, language teachers with responsibilities in facilitating communication? What support does the school provide the teachers in developing language? How do you raise awareness with subject teachers on identification on any learning difficulties that may arise as a result of language?
  • How does the school enable students to learn of their host country or regional language and culture?
  • Ensure links to other key documents such as admissions, assessment and special educational needs policies.
  • How was the policy written (as a community and collaboratively?) and how is it reviewed?


The IB Guide to programme evaluation for use from January 2016 says that the language policy needs to include:

  • school language philosophy
  • school language profile
  • languages offered and at what levels
  • support for mother tongues
  • strategies to support all teachers in their contribution to the language development of students
  • support for students who are not proficient in the language of instruction
  • learning of the host country or regional language and culture.

Quick Facts

IB working languages = English, French, Spanish

Students need to study one group 1 and a group 2 subject OR two group 1 subjects.

Group 1 – studies in language and literature available to be taken in over 50 languages. Students can also make a request for examination in their best (mother tongue) language. IB also offers a school-supported self-taught course which means that even if a school cannot provide a teacher in the language a carefully planned self-taught course can be followed.

Group 2 – language acquisition (in two forms: one for students with some experience of the language and the second as language ab initio, for students with little or no experience of the target language). This course also involves the recognition and understanding of another culture.

A third language (from either group 1 or 2) can be studied instead of a group 6 subject.

Bilingual Diplomas: are awarded provided certain conditions are met (see Handbook of procedures for the Diploma Programme).

Sources of information

IB Website

  • Click here to access the IB webpage on Language Policy


  • The IB have published a Language Policy document on their website. It provides information on the International Baccalaureate’s support for languages, language courses and languages of instruction.
  • Language policy: Information on the International Baccalaureate's support for languages, language courses and languages of instruction, February 2014.
  • Access the IB Guidelines for developing a school language policy.
  • Access the IB document Learning in a language other than mother tongue in IB programmes
  • Access the IB Language and Learning in IB programmes. This is a very helpful document which discusses the various roles language plays in learning, a brief history of how the conceptualization of language is changing, a discussion on the emergent paradigm of multilingualism and an outline of a pedagogy for the development of multilingualism.

PS: Bilingual Education

This is a whole subject in itself. If you are interested a good article appears in the first Magazine of Keystone Academy, Beijing, a school dedicated to bilingual immersion. Click here to access The Keystone Magazine, and turn to pages 15-19.

All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and students at subscribing schools for the period of their subscription. Any unauthorised copying or posting of materials on other websites is an infringement of our copyright and could result in your account being blocked and legal action being taken against you.