Inequality in education: bilingualism is not to blame


Bilingual education is in decline, or so the numerous headlines that have bombarded the media since the beginning of the academic year seem to indicate, announcing that 90 centers in Castilla y León, Castilla–La Mancha and Navarra have abandoned the bilingual program (out of more than 3700 bilingual centers , everything is said).

These news often echo the supposed dangers of bilingual education, such as certain drops in academic performance , the difficulty of studying content in a foreign language , or the inability of parents to help with homework .

However, all this news has something in common: the psycholinguistic and cognitive consequences of bilingualism in the individual (in their brain, in their capacity, etc.) are not being discussed; you are talking about politics. Of linguistic and educational policy, yes; but politics.

Chronic Problems

Therefore, the benefits of bilingual education for the mind and brain escape debate and bilingual education is judged by problems that are chronic in the Spanish educational system as a whole.

In this way, it is denounced that in bilingual education the level of content is lowered, but what happens in the rest of the centers is overlooked or if these contents are useful ; the academic performance of students in the bilingual system is criticized, ignoring the fact that the general school dropout rate in Spain is the highest in the European Union (around 20% for men and 11% for women); or it is said that bilingualism prevents parents from helping their children with homework, but why parents should be involved in this work is not questioned.

Socioeconomic level and academic results

In the end, the social and political aspect of the debate is usually reflected in one of the main criticisms of the bilingual system: according to some, it is segregationist and is not suitable for students of low socioeconomic status (see, for example, the opinion of this teacher interviewed : “I was a teacher at that time and I was already seeing that due to the characteristics of our students it was not going to work”).

This view is supported by empirical studies carried out in the Community of Madrid and in the Netherlands , according to which students from the bilingual system of the lowest socioeconomic level obtain worse results in “non-linguistic” subjects (mathematics, history, etc. ) than their standard system counterparts. However, there are also large-scale studies, such as the MONCLIL report , that contradict these data.

In short, the biggest argument against bilingual education to date is that it is detrimental to the lower social strata. There is no doubt, therefore, whether it is a good thing that our future head of state is studying in English or why renowned private centers fly the flag of bilingualism; It is questioned whether educational bilingualism is positive for the daughter of a humble family.

Bilingual education helps all students

Given this, a team of researchers from the Pablo de Olavide University (Seville) and the University of Granada have carried out a large-scale study, which has been recognized as the best linguistic research article of the year 2021 by the American Association of Linguistics Applied.

In this study , a sample of 3800 students from 184 Andalusian institutes was selected through random sampling stratified according to their geographical distribution, their linguistic model (bilingual in English or not bilingual) and their socioeconomic level (from level 1 to level 4). ). That is, all these variables were proportionally represented in the selection.

These students then took proficiency (level) tests in Spanish, English, and history, and the results were statistically analyzed.

What this study revealed was that, precisely, the much denounced segregation of bilingualism is a constant in ordinary schools: in non-bilingual education, students obtained better results the higher their socioeconomic level, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, in bilingual education, all socioeconomic levels achieved equally good results (higher, in most cases, than those of the non-bilingual system). Furthermore, the level of Spanish was not impoverished by the use of English in the classroom, as is sometimes feared, but rather improved.

Neutralize inequalities

This shows that one of the great criticisms of the bilingual system, inequality, is typical of the general educational system. It is alarming that the socioeconomic level of students continues to condition their academic success and that educational authorities are failing in their function of redistributing cultural capital. In this sense, the bilingual system is indeed a success, since, at least in Andalusia, it manages to neutralize these inequalities.

Of course, this does not exempt educational bilingualism from all criticism. As we said at the beginning, it is the result of a political process, and it can and should always be improved . However, the most serious dangers of bilingual education are, for the most part, the dangers of plain education . An example of this is the overcrowding of classrooms and the bureaucratization of the teaching profession, which pose great burdens for attention to the diversity of the student body, with or without bilingualism.

A multilingual future

What seems clear is that the educational future of Spain is not only bilingual, but multilingual. In 2017, the European Union set a goal for all its citizens to speak two languages ​​in addition to their own. How we will achieve this remains to be seen.

If we look at linguistic research , the early introduction of a foreign language in a child’s life is only worthwhile if it is subjected to abundant hours of exposure (of contact and use of the language). Therefore, limiting these hours to those of the English class would be rowing against the current.

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