12 MARCH 2015

Bilingualism: Necessity or Luxury?

Bilingualism: Necessity or Luxury?

Building Bilingual Education Systems – Forces, Mechanisms and Counterweights' combines research and practical approaches to leading and managing bilingual programmes.

What is the state of bilingual education?

Bilingual Education has moved a long way from the experimental approaches initiated in Canada 50 years ago in 1965. In our global, interconnected world it is increasingly the norm to know several languages. The motivation may be economic – selling is more successful in the local language; social – maintaining heritage languages while fostering social cohesion; or cultural – culture is embedded in language and language is a means to deepen understanding across a cultural divide. There are now more second language English speakers than native English speakers—clearly, knowing English is important, but knowing only English is not enough.

Bilingual education is not a “zero sum game”

Decisions involved in bilingual education are often counterintuitive because these programmes in some ways challenge common sense – teaching children in two or more languages will not jeopardise their native language development or academic achievement but will result in functional proficiency in a new language. One of the most powerful forces undermining the development of bilingual education is fear, particularly among people who are monolingual. Parents and politician are motivated by the best intentions – to ensure the success of young people – and it can seem very risky to put students in a school where, for example, they will be learning mathematics in Mandarin Chinese when they do not know either the subject or the language. However, bilingual education is not a “zero sum game”. People do not learn less because they are learning through two languages. In fact, research over the last 50 years shows that students actually often achieve more in bilingual progammes than in monolingual ones. This may be because these programmes are challenging to both teachers and students and they rise to the challenge. 

Are programmes effective?

Parents, educators and policy makers who are contemplating bilingual forms of education are often fearful that students will achieve less well in their native language and experience lower levels of achievement in maths and science if they are taught through a second language. These fears motivated the parents in St Lambert Quebec, home of the first immersion programme, to initiate a 14-year programme of research in collaboration with researchers from McGill University to evaluate their new programme. We now know from this research and many other evaluation studies of bilingual education around the world that, when student performance is assessed over a number of years, students in bilingual programmes can attain the same levels in maths and science as students in monolingual programmes and often better; they maintain the same level of native language competence; and at the same time they become functionally bilingual. Students’ native language may lag during the early years of a programme - when the second language is used as the main medium of instruction; but students quickly catch up to their peers in monolingual programmes once the native language is used as a language of instruction. These findings have been reported by researchers in communities around the world: Estonia, Japan, Wales, New Zealand, Hawaii and Australia, and even when the languages are quite different from each other – such as Japanese and English, or Estonian and Russian or Hebrew and English.

Bilingual education is a motor for reform

Bilingual education can be a motor for reform because it requires schools to revisit their existing practices, and calls for adopting new approaches to pedagogy. Teachers need to identify the most effective ways to teach language and content together. Also, teachers cannot just assume students have understood a concept, they need to regularly elicit feedback in order to monitor comprehension. Students have to concentrate hard on both subject matter content and language. This helps keep them engaged. Moreover, they know that not paying attention brings greater risks and makes it harder to catch up later.

Bilingual programmes are also often under greater scrutiny than regular programmes. This has the added benefit of encouraging schools to plan their work in a more systematic and transparent manner. Increased scrutiny is also likely to lead to increased feedback which in turn can foster improvements.

Benefits of bilingualism

Clearly it is a huge advantage in a global era to be able to communicate in more than one language and to be able to draw upon a wider number of sources of information on the internet and in print. Bilingual individuals also often acquire better communication skills – even in their native language, for example, in their use of body language. Researchers have found that bilinguals also benefit from an ability to look at things different perspectives. They have increased self confidence when communicating with others, and an ability to cope with unfamiliarity.

There are cognitive benefits too. Being bilingual enhances working memory - this is important for learning in general because what we learn is constrained by what we can retain in the memory. Bilingual individuals tend to have enhanced abilities to control and switch attention during problem solving – neuro-cognitive skills that are referred to as “executive functions”. Also the brains of bilinguals appear to develop more robust neural networks which enable bilingual people to stave off the effects of dementia for up to 4 years on average in comparison to their monolingual counterparts. 

Building Bilingual Education Systems-– Forces, Mechanisms and Counterweights addresses the gap in the market for a practical guide to developing and maintaining bilingual programmes. These programmes can often be fragile in their early years - Case Studies and Voices From the Field provide guidance by outlining approaches others have previously taken. The book sets out a framework (of forces, mechanisms and counterweights) within which the multitude of details of different programmes can be considered.  It also provides a set of planning tools to help anyone involved in developing bilingual programmes explore and prioritise all aspects of implementation. Building Bilingual Education Systems is edited and co-authored by Peeter Mehisto and Fred Genesee and also contains chapters by: Diane J. Tedick, Hugo Baetens Beardsmore, Jamie Leite, Raquel Cook, Yolanda Ruiz de Zarobe, Gwyn Lewis, Rick de Graaff, Onno van Wilgenburg, Fatima Badry, Antoinette Camilleri Grima, Anne-Marie de Mejía, Kathleen Heugh and Ministery Officials, Parents and Head Teachers. 


Peeter Mehisto is a visiting research associate at the Institute of Education, University College London and editor and co-author of Building Bilingual Education Systems. 

Related Tags