What is it like to teach in a bilingual school?
In my job as a travelling teacher and teaching consultant, I have the privilege of visiting a lot of different schools around Europe. Recently I had the opportunity to visit two quite different bilingual schools. It occurred to me that Bilingual Education is a particular niche in the field of international education that isn’t discussed much. This is despite the fact that 20% of the world’s population is estimated to be bilingual. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to share some thoughts and insights based on my experiences and discussions with teachers in the schools I visited. The aim of this article is to give a brief overview of bilingual education, to highlight some of the benefits of bilingualism and to discuss some of the issues and challenges associated with teaching in a bilingual school. While this blog is aimed primarily at teachers of English, because of the nature of bilingual education, teachers of other subjects may also find this article of interest.
What are Bilingual Schools?
In bilingual schools, academic content is taught in two languages, usually (but not always) the first or local language and a second language. In this article, we will assume that English is one of those languages (which is the case in the majority of bilingual schools). The characteristic of this type of education is that all subjects across the curriculum are taught to some degree in both languages.
There are three main types of bilingual school. The first two underline the fact that historically, bilingual models used for English Language Learners have focused on helping students transition from their native language to English.
Transitional bilingual education involves the partial or total use of the child’s home language when the child enters school, and later a change to the use of English only. The goal of transitional bilingual education is to transition students into English-only classrooms as quickly as possible.
Maintenance bilingual education involves the use of the child’s home language when the child enters school, then a gradual change to a mixture of English for teaching some subjects and the native language for teaching others.
These days however a growing number of schools opt for a fully bilingual environment across the curriculum and throughout the student’s passage through the institution. Both languages are given equal status and prominence in the life of the school on a roughly 50/50 basis. This is the type of school we will focus on in this article.
The Benefits of Bilingual Education
Many studies have shown that bilingualism can be a huge advantage in a student’s personal and professional development. Some research even indicates that having a bilingual background can delay the onset of dementia later in life. In this article, we will confine ourselves to a brief outline of the cognitive and educational advantages associated with bilingual abilities. (You can find a selective list of further scientific and educational studies into bilingualism at the end of the article).
Intellectual Flexibility and Development
Some studies indicate that having developed the capacity to speak two languages, bilingual learners develop a flexibility of intellect which eases communication with others and encourages the appreciation of cultural differences. Bilingual children find it easier to adapt to new cultures and integrate new ways of thinking. As a result, they are often able to learn and assimilate new and complex concepts more easily.
Learning other languages
Bilingual children generally find it easier to learn additional languages. The language acquisition areas of their brains are primed to assimilate new grammar, vocabulary and syntax more easily than those who have learned in a monolingual environment.
A professional advantage
Bilingualism is a highly prized professional trait in international business, banking and diplomacy. Applicants with a truly bilingual background often have an advantage when seeking prestigious professional opportunities. A certified bilingual background can make as much impact on future employers as degrees and exam results.
Teaching in a 50/50 bilingual environment.
When teaching in a fully bilingual environment, there are several special considerations that need to be taken into account.
Policy and Expectations. When speaking to teachers in bilingual schools perhaps the most common area of concern was about how the bilingual policy of the school is implemented across the curriculum by different members of staff. What exactly is the school policy on bilingualism and how strictly or uniformly should it be implemented? There needs to be clarity about where and when the two languages are used in each subject, and the degree to which individual teachers should control the language used in the classroom. If a lesson is supposed to be taught in English for example, is it acceptable for students to ask questions in the other language? Moreover, is it acceptable for the students to expect the teacher to answer questions in the other language? Some, perhaps most, teachers will do this from time to time, but is that fair to the teachers who take a stricter approach (because that is their interpretation of the policy)?
Most teachers that I spoke to seemed to feel the most logical approach was to insist that the language teachers of both languages take a stricter, monolingual approach within their own lessons (E.G. English entirely in English, German entirely in German) while teachers of other subjects could take a more liberal approach when necessary. It is assumed that any teacher in a bilingual school is fluent in both languages.
These are things that need to be discussed and agreed upon between the teachers and the management team; but clearly it is important that all teachers have the same understanding of, and commitment to, the agreed policies. Once that is settled, other factors can be taken into account.
Language Assessment. Student’s ability levels in both languages need to be considered when assigned to classes, and for small group work within classes. Many students are likely to be much more proficient and confident in one language and relatively weaker in the other. For this reason, it is useful to establish regular language assessment tests in both the written and oral forms of both languages. The results of these will influence the makeup of classes.
Differentiated instruction. Once classes and groups have been established, teachers will often need to differentiate instruction by providing additional support for students that are weaker in the teaching language for a particular subject, while simultaneously challenging students who are more proficient. Pairing students with different language abilities can boost language development through social interaction and cooperative learning. The extra work and planning this can involve may sometimes be mitigated by clever use of group work in which more fluent students can help those who are less confident in the language.
Cultural awareness and sensitivity. The very fact that a student is attending a bilingual school is an indication that they and their family are likely to have linguistic and cultural backgrounds which are different to the norms of the area. Good bilingual schools celebrate the diverse cultural backgrounds of bilingual students and promote an inclusive environment that respects and values the cultural identities of all their students across the whole curriculum. However, teachers also need to be aware that having a different cultural and linguistic background may set students apart from their contemporaries in a way they are not always comfortable with. Even within the school, a preference for one of the two languages can be a fundamental aspect of the student’s self-expression; for example, some students may want to identify more with the language used by their peers than the language used or expected in their families. A high degree of sensitivity is required when confronted with these issues.
Languages. Explicit language instruction is given in both languages used within the school, focusing on vocabulary development, grammar, and syntax. Many bilingual students will also have an interest in, and aptitude for, other languages as well. Therefore, most bilingual schools generally try to foster a language-rich environment by incorporating authentic materials, such as books, audiovisual resources, and real-life experiences, in order to expose students to a diverse range of language contexts and opportunities for practice.
Parents and Families. Parental involvement is often higher than normal in bilingual schools. Parents and guardians will have chosen and invested in a bilingual education for their children for a variety of reasons and are often actively involved in the management of the school. Teachers in these schools are usually encouraged to engage with parents or guardians as much as possible. Often the school itself will be a focal point in the cultural lives of the communities represented by the languages spoken at the school; a centre for meetings and cultural events.
A Unique Environment
Bilingual schools offer a unique learning and teaching environment. They may not be suitable for all students or teachers. Students probably need at least some knowledge and experience of both languages being used to make a confident start in such an environment. Prospective teachers will need to have a proficient level in both languages even if they are not specifically teaching either language. Bilingual schools are often the hub for social and cultural events connected with the communities speaking the languages used in the school. Teachers in these institutions are likely to find themselves deeply embedded in those communities.
If this article has kindled an interest in bilingualism or whetted your appetite for teaching in a bilingual school, we leave you with some suggestions for further reading.
“Bilingual Education and Bilingualism: Promoting Success for Language Minority Students” by Kathryn Lindholm-Leary (2018): This book provides an overview of the research on bilingual education, language development, and academic achievement in bilingual settings, offering insights into effective instructional practices.
“Bilingualism and Cognitive Control: A State of the Science Review” by Ellen Bialystok, Fergus I.M. Craik, and Gigi Luk (2012): This review article discusses the cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism, including enhanced executive control functions and improved attentional processes.
“The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual” by Viorica Marian and Anthony Shook (2012): This study explores the cognitive advantages of bilingualism, such as increased cognitive flexibility, metalinguistic awareness, and higher-level problem-solving skills.
“The Bilingual Advantage in Attentional Control: A Meta-analysis” by Angela de Bruin, Janet G. van Merrienboer, and Ellen Bialystok (2015): This meta-analysis examines the effects of bilingualism on attentional control across a range of studies and provides evidence for the bilingual advantage in attention-related tasks.
“Bilingualism as a Protection Against the Onset of Symptoms of Dementia” by Ellen Bialystok, Fergus I.M. Craik, and Morris Freedman (2007): This study investigates the potential protective effects of bilingualism against the onset of symptoms of dementia, suggesting that bilingual individuals may experience a delayed onset of cognitive decline.
“The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals” by Jean-Marc Dewaele, Kristin Lemhöfer, and Alex Housen (2018): This study examines the social advantages associated with bilingualism, such as improved interpersonal communication skills, empathy, and perspective-taking abilities.