Is English really learned in schools with a bilingual program?



Bilingual education in public and subsidized schools has improved language learning and put an end to the traditional low levels of linguistic competence of students in Spain.

Under the auspices of the European Commission, in the 90s a methodological approach known as Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL / CLIL) was designed, which consists of teaching curricular content in a non-mother tongue, on which it is based bilingual education and on which numerous studies have been carried out both nationally and internationally.

Although bilingual education is not without its critics, most of them are without foundation . In general, it can be said that this produces great benefits to the students who take it.

Despite this, educational administrations are reluctant to evaluate their bilingual programs and only the Community of Madrid carries out external final stage tests that serve to verify the linguistic level reached by its students.

This community is where more information on bilingual education is generated, as shown by the evaluation reports from the Ministry of Education itself or from external entities .

In the field of concerted education, more and more centers are facilitating their students to take external level tests , aware that good results certify the quality of their teaching and reinforce the confidence of families.

Bilingual education in Spain has been operating for more than three decades and, in the absence of rigorous external evaluations, the best indicator of its good health is the number of students enrolled in this model – one third of the total student body, close to one and a half million students– and the constant increase in the supply of this type of education as a response to the satisfaction of families who, after 16 years of existence of the first bilingual education programs, continue to demand it.

In which autonomous communities does it work?

In the absence of leadership from the Ministry of Education on this issue, each autonomous community has developed its own bilingual teaching program, giving rise to 18 different models .

It is convenient to start from a simple premise: bilingual education works well if it is imparted with adequate levels of quality. The study “ Comparative evaluation of the normative quality of bilingual education programs in Spain. Evidence and recommendations ”reveals notable differences between communities.

Despite the fact that these programs operate with reasonable degrees of acceptance, the information from the different regions collected by the Asociación Enseñanza Bilingüe indicates that their quality may be conditioned by a series of factors such as the model, teacher training, resources , the involvement of educational administrations, etc.

The number of variables involved in the development of these programs makes it difficult to measure their quality, although a clear indicator may be the growth of bilingual centers and their percentage with respect to the total number of centers in each region.

Some autonomous communities have extended their program in a progressive, controlled and aligned way with the economic and human resources available and others have chosen to increase the number of bilingual centers without previously ensuring the existence of enough trained teachers to serve them.

Regarding the level of English that students can achieve, this will largely depend on the number of hours per week taught in that language and on the linguistic and methodological training of their teachers and professors.

The longer the time of exposure to the target language and of interaction, the more chances they will have of reaching high levels of language competence.

Requirements for successful learning

To improve the quality of their bilingual teaching programs, the autonomous communities should ensure at least 30% of school hours in the foreign language, have teachers with a high linguistic level (C1) and methodological training, have human and financial resources enough (conversation aids) and establish some external evaluation system.

But how is bilingual teaching being maintained in these times when teachers are lacking and many students are blended? The pandemic has caused an unprecedented crisis in our society and, of course, also in education, generating negative effects in terms of schooling, learning and socialization.

The closure of educational centers during the past year and blended attendance have had adverse implications for bilingual education. As regards teachers, this has been affected in the same way as the rest of the teachings, since the shortage of teachers does not seem to have penalized some subjects more than others.

English in blended learning

However, there are at least two factors that could have produced some additional damage: the interruption of the presence during the past academic year deprived the centers of the adequate use of the valuable resource that the conversation assistants represent and, far from being resolved, in the present course, for reasons of limitation of international mobility, the number of assistants has been reduced.

Likewise, it is probable that the change from face-to-face to blended-in-class mode in an unforeseen manner, without the training of teachers and the necessary resources, has produced a decrease in the use of the language and in interaction, a fact that has yet to be assessed, with the consequent decrease in language acquisition and improvement.

In any case, the impact of this pandemic has brought out weaknesses and needs in the educational system. This situation should be used as an opportunity to review bilingual education programs and guide policies towards improving their quality.

With its lights and shadows, bilingual education is possibly the greatest educational innovation of this century in the field of language acquisition.

Its objective is to provide our young people with one of the most powerful tools demanded by today’s society, allowing them to compete with their foreign counterparts on equal terms in the professional field, and therefore should remain a priority in the political agenda of all educational administrations.

Author Bios: Virginia Vinuesa Benitez is Professor and Director of the Master in Bilingual Teaching and Xavier Gisbert da Cruz is Professor and President of the Bilingual Teaching Association both at Rey Juan Carlos University