Monolingual bias in New Zealand classrooms

Dr Jae Major, Victoria University of Wellington

“No speaking Korean – I’ll tell the teacher and you’ll be in trouble.”

So Sonia (Year 5) told Song Min during class when Song Min was talking to a Korean classmate in his home language. This snippet of data from a Year 5/6 class in a multicultural primary classroom is just one piece of evidence of monolingual bias (that is, a bias in favour of using just one language – English) that may be limiting the development of linguistic diversity in New Zealand schools.

What is monolingual bias?

Monolingual bias is particularly common in the English speaking world, the result of the international spread and dominant position of English as a (or perhaps ‘the’) world language. While bilingualism is common in many parts of the world, it is much less common amongst those of us who speak English as our first language.

In New Zealand, being monolingual is the norm; over 80 percent of New Zealanders speak only one language (English) according to 2013 Census figures. The majority of bilinguals in New Zealand (60%) are migrants bringing their home languages into the community, rather than native English speakers learning additional languages. So New Zealanders tend towards monolingual bias because most of us are monolingual. This means that we favour using just one language (English), and can be suspicious about and uncomfortable with people using other languages.

An example of monolingual bias is a recent debate, raised by former Prime Minister Don Brash, about the level of te reo Māori used on State-owned Radio National. One of the main objections was that he (and other monolingual English speakers) couldn’t understand te reo Māori, so despite it being an official language, it should not be used. Intolerant responses to bilinguals using their wide language resources instead of just using English, are further indication of monolingual bias.

“So what?” you may be thinking; “Why does this matter?” Well, many of those who do use languages other than English are children and young people, and their success in learning English and reaching their bilingual potential is impacted by monolingual bias in schools. Studies of teacher attitudes towards bi/multilingualism suggest that most teachers have a positive attitude towards the idea of bilingualism, and many recognise the positive outcomes of inclusive approaches to learners’ languages in the classroom. However, many of these same studies also point out the gap between teachers’ rhetoric about the value of bilingualism, and their classroom practices in relation to the ongoing support of bilingual outcomes.

Monolingual bias in NZ classrooms

 “No speaking Korean – I’ll tell the teacher and you’ll be in trouble.”

Returning to this quote from data that focused on eight bilingual children in two classrooms, Song Min’s response to Sonia was to fall silent. The teacher in this class had never explicitly communicated an ‘English-only’ policy, and did on occasion encourage bilingual children to use their home languages. However, there was mainly silence about being bilingual or using other languages at school, and this contributed to a feeling that English was the only language that mattered.

Misunderstandings about bilingualism contribute to this form of monolingual bias. There is a prevalent and widely held belief that languages are separate and should be kept so during acquisition to avoid confusion or interference between languages. However, language systems are inter-related and dynamic use of bilingual resources – also referred to as translanguaging – contributes to cognitive as well as language development.

Bilingualism – an invisible resource

I don’t really even notice it … … I don’t really think about it”

This is Ms Jones, a Pākehā teacher in a New Zealand primary school, talking about her response to the high level of cultural diversity in her class. On the one hand, this could be seen as an indication that, for Ms Jones, diversity has been normalised to the point that it is no longer noticed. On the other hand, it could be an example of “colour-blindness” or “naïve egalitarianism” where difference and diversity are ignored in a philosophy that promotes seeing everyone as the same. Ms Jones later said, “… maybe sometimes we do need to acknowledge [difference] rather than actually treating everyone the same … There is a balancing act with that…”, suggesting some conflict about the best way to respond to diversity. This sense of ambivalence reflects monolingual bias and is problematic for bilingual children because it suggests that their linguistic funds of knowledge may be overlooked or rejected.

A sense of belonging is a fundamental psychological need, and children work hard to belong at school. Bilingual children should not have to reject or hide their home language in order to belong. Equity requires that difference is acknowledged and not erased.

A matter of belonging

“What about if you’re born here but you’re from a different country?”

Uncertainty about belonging is evident in ten-year-old Taka’s words (above), uttered in response to his teacher’s instruction that, for the dictionary task they are about to complete, children who are “from another country” or “go to ESOL” should not work together. In subsequent discussion, the teacher explained her intention was to ensure that bilingual children had support from a competent English-speaking peer. The result was confusion for Taka who was born in New Zealand to Japanese parents, and was bilingual in Japanese and English. He resists being positioned with other bilingual children who need support, and his teacher quickly reassures him that he is ‘fine’, i.e., not in need of such support.

While the teacher’s focus on the English language needs of learners is well-intentioned, in fact, the bilingual children would benefit linguistically from discussions about the meanings of English words in their home languages. Furthermore, monolingual children also benefit from engaging in conversations about language, gaining insights into their language and how it works. A characteristic of monolingual bias is that the native English speaker becomes the ideal for language learners to aspire to, and bilinguals receive the message that English is more important than their home language. As a result, English language learners may be characterised as incompetent monolinguals rather than flourishing emergent bilinguals, and may reject their home language in favour of becoming monolingual English users. Monolingual bias also has detrimental effects on the take up of languages learning in school. In recent years, the numbers of NZ school students learning additional languages have continued to slide, particularly at secondary level.

Ways forward

So how can the power and dominance (the hegemony) of monolingualism be challenged and changed?

  • First, we need to move beyond outdated notions of English language teaching where home languages are discouraged, where translation between languages has no place, and where languages are treated as separate entities.
  • Second, we need to shift from a focus on monolingual English outcomes to articulating bilingual outcomes for migrant and refugee students in schooling.
  • Third, let’s change the language we use to talk about bilingual learners by referring to them as bilingual, instead of using English focused terminology such as EAL (English additional language), ELL (English language learners), ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) etc.
  • Finally, let’s develop a national languages policy that supports and gives coherence to the range of language learning activities happening throughout the country.

If we can accomplish these things, and create classrooms which actively value and support multiple languages, perhaps we can break down English monolingual bias and achieve rich linguistic environments for all learners.


The research on which this blog post is based was published in the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, NZARE’s official journal (a Springer Education publication):

Major, J. (2018). Bilingual identities in monolingual classrooms: Challenging the hegemony of English. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 53(2), 193-208. doi:10.1007/s40841-018-0110-y


jae-major.jpgJae Major is a senior lecturer in primary English literacy at Victoria University of Wellington. She has a background in primary teaching and applied linguistics, and has worked in teacher education in New Zealand and Australia. Jae’s research interests include intercultural competence, culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogies, and literacies across the curriculum.

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