Does bilingual education marginalize?


Abdullah has learned three languages ​​other than his mother tongue in school, and by the end of the sixth grade he is proficient in all four. His school has 92% immigrant students of more than 28 nationalities and families of low socioeconomic status. The students of this center obtain excellent results in the assessments of basic competences in all languages , well above the average. Can education create inclusive and successful bilingual contexts that leave no student behind?

Despite the fact that for years there has been a wide debate about the advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism , the research of the last decades insists on the benefits of it in a globalized world. Being proficient in two or more languages ​​has various positive effects : from an increase in neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to create new neural connections – or better results in cognitive tasks, to greater protection from brain damage associated with aging.

Also in recent decades we have learned that children can acquire considerable levels of fluency in a second language when exposed to it from their social and educational environment .

Thus, the command of different languages ​​is today more important than ever in an increasingly linguistically and culturally diverse world and Europe. In fact, the Council of Europe Recommendation on the teaching and learning of languages calls for a comprehensive approach so that students obtain the necessary language skills. Necessary not only to study or work abroad, but also to broaden and open your perspectives to different cultures and countries.

Bilingual education only for a few

Despite the effort and investment that has been made to implement bilingual education programs, on numerous occasions they have not achieved the expected results. One of the main limitations identified has been the lack of scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of the program.

For this reason, the key factors that favor the acquisition of a second language are not taken into account at the same time as the curricular contents are acquired. In fact, proposing a bilingual education without creating optimal conditions for learning both the subjects and the language can lead to the exclusion and marginalization of certain students.

Furthermore, a large part of the teaching staff does not have the necessary training to face the challenge of educating children in a bilingual education model, which can be especially difficult in schools in more vulnerable contexts.

In this way, we run the risk that bilingual education will be reduced to being the privilege of a few and not a right of all. The issue, therefore, does not lie in bilingual education per se, but in putting into practice those actions that have proven to be successful in learning for all students in bilingual contexts.

Successful bilingual contexts for all

An approach to bilingualism from an education based on scientific evidence of social impact – which has been shown to achieve sustainable and transferable educational improvements – can respond to the challenge of moving towards an inclusive and successful bilingual education for all students. In this sense, some fundamental principles that we find to create successful bilingual educational contexts are:

  1. Quality interactions and productive dialogue for learning. People learn through social interaction and making use of the wonderful tool that is language. The creation of interactive and dialogic learning environments favors the acquisition of the language while the knowledge of the subject is achieved, for example by organizing the classrooms in Interactive Groups or in Dialogical Literary Gatherings that facilitate the participation and inclusion of all students , while improving their skills. This is possible because the student’s participation rates in learning and using the language increase up to 85% of the time. and they are interventions in which they create their own knowledge.
  2. Involvement of families and the community. The diversity and quality of the interactions that we offer to children is essential for their learning and development. Therefore, second language teaching does not depend only on teacher-student or student-student interactions. As families and other adults are involved in educational interactions, learning is enhanced .
  3. Value of the mother tongue. A successful approach to bilingual education enhances and values ​​the students’ mother tongue. Knowing the concepts well in the mother tongue facilitates the acquisition of new knowledge in a second or third language. It is what we have known for decades as linguistic interdependence .

In this way, in inclusive and successful bilingual contexts, children like Abdullah can learn without limits.

Author Bio: Rocío García Carrión is a Researcher Ramón y Cajal and Ikerbasque. Education deparment at the University of Deusto.