Does bilingual education slow down language learning?

March 8, 2017
Does bilingual education slow down language learning?

Many countries around the world deliver their educational system in more than one language. Bilingual education means that academic content is delivered in two languages. 

There are different approaches to bilingual education and its success will depend on the age and language skill level of the child when they first begin learning in dual languages. For the purposes of this article, we have looked at bilingual learning as defined by the two-way or dual language learning concept, in which different lessons are provided in different languages. Lesson subjects are not repeated in each language. Instead, students are taught in a way that enables concepts taught in one language to be picked up and expanded in the second language, in what is known as a spiral curriculum. 

Bilingual education around the world

Many countries deliver education in two languages. This doesn’t simply mean that children compulsorily learn a second language, which is the case in many countries, but that lessons such as mathematics and history are delivered in more than one language. Examples of these countries include:

•    Hong Kong, where students learn in English and Cantonese (and increasingly in Mandarin, in recent years)
•    Senegal, where most schools teach in French, yet studies have shown that around 80% of teachers use a ‘local language’ when communicating with their students
•    The Middle East, where schools teach in Arabic and English or French. Some schools in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq even provide a triple language curriculum. 
•    The United States, where the English-only instruction law in California was repealed in November 2016, after 73% of voters approved public schools being able to give tuition in multiple languages. Bi-lingual education provision varies in other states.  

The advantages of bilingual education

According to the Los Angeles Times, there are 1.4 million students in California who are learning English, 80% of whom currently speak only Spanish. Yet less than 5% of the state’s public schools offer multilingual programs. The November 2016 vote means that can now change, with the needs of some 1.12 million Spanish-speaking pupils now able to be met in their native language. 

In California, bilingual education means that students who speak only Spanish can be taught science, geography and more in their native language. This will prevent them from falling behind academically while they work to acquire English as a second language. It should, of course, be remembered that while English is the most widely spoken language in the US, the country doesn’t actually have an official language. 

When bilingual education programs are delivered well, students are able to achieve academic qualifications while also learning to speak two languages proficiently. They leave school on a par academically with their monolingual peers, but with the advantage of having an entire other language at their command. 

Does bilingual education work?

Bilingual education is not without its critics. A 2010 study by the George Washington University’s Dylan Conger found that, “Students who enroll in bilingual education classrooms learn English less quickly.” Congler’s study of Puerto Rican students in New York showed that English-language acquisition was negatively impacted by the delivery of their schooling in two languages. The students would have learned English faster had they been taught solely in that language. 

Research by Collier from as far back as 1987 has shown that, while social language mastery takes just a couple of years, the competency required to learn subjects such as maths takes some five to seven years. Essentially, learning in two languages is harder work for students, but their linguistic competency at the end of the process is far greater than just social language acquisition. 

Final thoughts

Whether or not your child is educated in more than one language will depend on your personal circumstances. The country you live in, your own linguistic heritage and your language acquisition goals for your offspring will all play a part. 

Have you or your children experienced a bilingual education system? Do you think it is something that should be more widely introduced across the world? Or is it merely a convenient way to deliver education in areas where linguistic diversity makes doing so in one language too complex? 

As ever, leave a comment to let us know what you think! 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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