“Oh, you know what I mean….”

Photo by Colin Maynard on Unsplash

Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.

Rita Mae Brown

Why language choice really matters and what it means for us in our communities.

Take a look at the collection of images above. What impressions do these conjure up for you? What emotions or senses are evoked?

I used the site Unsplash to search for images based on the words I have included in the table below. These are all terms that are typically used to describe, and refer to, models of provision for multilingual learners in schools.

supportpull outadditional
extrabeginnerpush in

These words may simply be used to state a service, or denote a type of learner, however, they begin to paint a picture of what is valued, believed or perceived about multilingual learners in a community. The messaging we send to learners and their families begins before we first speak with them. It is conveyed through the systems we put in place, the structures implemented, and in the ways we talk to, and about, learners and about their learning.

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”

Benjamin Lee Whorf

The language we use has the power to shape our own and others’ understanding and beliefs about people, experiences and potential. Given the power that our language choice holds we therefore have the responsibility to select terms that will paint the most authentic picture of the people, experiences and potential around us. Words harness power to diminish, devalue and elict deficit thinking that can be detrimental.

When I have written in the past about multilingual learners and honouring all languages this is with a view to shifting our thinking from deficit based to asset based. So, how could we rethink our ‘typical’ terminologies? Despite the pressure to perhaps stick with the status quo because ‘everyone understands these’ and ‘oh you know what I mean..’, what language changes could we implement to propel multilingual learner success?

I believe we need to be brave, advocate for our learners and how they are represented within our communities. Whilst we must evaluate and adapt our language to shape community thinking, work continues to be required to deepen understanding of multilingualism. By putting effort into both, our beliefs and values around multilingual learning will evolve and better enable learners to thrive.

The suggestions below are not ‘cookie cutter’ terminologies that can be transferred to all schools. Indeed, some may not make sense for you at all. My hope is simply that by having conversations, questioning the status quo, and raising awareness, schools, and their communities, will select appropriate language to best enable learners to shape their story. A story founded in an asset mindset. After all, language and storytelling have the potential to frame us for success.

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

Patrick Rothfuss

Think about the language we want our learners and teachers to have to tell their story.

Language Choice Suggestions

Here are some thoughts and provocations to cultivate an asset based language around people and experiences.


  • Move from Language Support Teacher to Multilingual Learning Teacher/Guide/Coach or Specialist in Language Learning .
  • Move from EAL Learner/beginner/starter to Multilingual Learner.


  • Move from Language Support Team to Multilingual Learning Team
  • Move from intervention to learning sprint
  • Move from pull out to small group or personalised
  • Move from push in support to inclusive learning
  • Move from extra/additional language support to language provision
  • Move from tier or level to milepost or progression

Further Reading/Viewing

This Ted Talk is a wonderful exploration into how languages shape our thinking in different cultures and contexts.

The links below provide further reading to provoke thinking about adopting asset-based language and exploring the messaging of our systems and structures in schools.

Labels or Limitations: Recommendations for Asset-Based Language


I am curious to learn about how learning organisations are taking action to ensure the language we promote shapes the culture and thinking of our communities. Please reach out to connect!

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