Does bilingual education affect the development of the mother tongue?


“In the end, with this bilingualism, children do not learn English or Spanish.” Who has not heard, on leaving school or at a bar counter, reasoning of this type?

This concern goes beyond purely informal settings and is shared even by teachers. In 2009, a study revealed how some Spanish language and literature teachers were reluctant to coordinate their actions with those of the bilingual program, since they considered it a threat to Spanish. What is the truth behind this belief?

When does bilingualism subside?

On very specific occasions, learning a second language can be detrimental to the mother tongue. This phenomenon, known as subtractive bilingualism , occurs when, at key stages of linguistic development (childhood and adolescence), the speaker’s attention is monopolized by the second language, who abandons their first language or relegates it to a minority use.

This occurs in situations of contact between languages, in which speakers of minority languages ​​may come to favor a dominant language due to imposition, pragmatism or prestige. Two well-known examples worldwide are the Australian indigenous communities and the speakers of Hispanic heritage in the United States.

In Australia, the language policy of teaching only in English was causing the disappearance of Aboriginal languages , which were mother tongues for many children. It was precisely the introduction of bilingual education in 1973 that promoted its use in the classroom and saved these languages ​​from extinction.

Currently, there are almost as many native Spanish speakers in the United States as there are Spaniards in Spain ( 42 million, 10% of the population ). However, the use of Spanish exclusively at home causes the majority to have difficulties using it in academic settings .

Expulsion from formal contexts

We see therefore that bilingualism only remains when a majority language imposes itself on another minority (or minority) and relegates it to informal or low-prestige contexts. In Spain we are not free of examples either. During the Franco dictatorship, the use of regional languages ​​was not only expelled from the educational system, but was also made illegal and sanctioned in the public space .

In addition, today there are still important linguistic communities whose mother tongues do not constitute languages ​​of instruction in the educational system. This would be the case of Arabic in Ceuta (or dariya ), which, despite being the mother tongue of 24% of the population , still does not have an institutional presence in schools.

What happens with educational bilingualism?

In this section we are going to focus on bilingual education in which Spanish coexists with other foreign languages, mainly English. As much as English enjoys the status of a lingua franca (or global language), the conditions for its use in the classroom to threaten the learning of Spanish are not met at all.

In the first place, Spanish continues to be the vehicular language of knowledge: the minimum use of English in bilingual centers is established at 30%, and in the best of cases it reaches 50% of class hours.

On the other hand, Spanish enjoys great vitality, both in our streets and worldwide . Therefore, logic pushes us to think that Spanish is not at risk in the classroom.

Scientific support

However, on many occasions science reveals patterns contrary to logic or common sense. Hence the importance of submitting these beliefs to the scientific method. This is what we have done in the BIMAP project at Pablo de Olavide University (Seville), in which we have carried out three studies to analyze the interaction between Spanish and English in bilingual schools.

In a first study , published in the journal Applied Linguistics , proficiency tests (level) in Spanish, English and history were administered to 3,800 students from 184 high schools (bilingual and non-bilingual). Among other things, this study revealed that students in the bilingual system obtain better results in Spanish than those in the non-bilingual system (in this other article , we analyze the interaction between results and socioeconomic status).

In a second study , which has just been published in Language and Education , 20 of these students are followed for 2 years. Here we see that the Spanish of the students develops in a totally optimal and appropriate way: they use a richer lexicon and a more complex syntax as they advance in the educational system. In other words, they respond without problems to the linguistic demands of the different academic disciplines, which progressively increase in difficulty.

Transfer between languages

You may wonder how Spanish can improve when it is replaced by English as the language of instruction in certain subjects. The answer to this question can be found precisely in the third study of the BIMAP project.

Since the eighties of the last century, the hypothesis of common underlying competition has been sustained . That is, it is thought that there is a common linguistic knowledge for all the languages ​​that an individual speaks, and that the advances in one language are also transferred to the other.

In the third study , recently published in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism , we find evidence that supports precisely this hypothesis. During the two years of the second study, the English development of these same 20 students was also analyzed. At this time, there is a simultaneous and parallel development in both languages ​​of linguistic aspects such as the nominalization of discourse, lexical richness and the structuring of ideas, which suppose common bases for the abstraction and organization of thought.

Therefore, we have enough data to answer the headline’s question with sufficient certainty. Yes, bilingual education in Spain affects the development of the mother tongue: it reinforces and improves it.

Author Bio: Adrian Granados Navarro is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Pablo de Olavide University