Marta, a 9-year-old student, fourth grade in a Madrid bilingual school, is doing very well in her studies. In the last Science exam the lesson was known “from top to bottom”: Granite is made up of quartz, felspar and mica. Obsidian and pumice are igneous rocks …
The teachers at his school took care of helping all the students to review the unit of the subject of Social Sciences, which they teach in English. They took a short test to check that the children had been learning the concepts of the lithosphere according to the current curriculum .
But not all of Marta’s classmates are doing so well: many do not remember the words they have studied. No matter how good the intentions, could they be disadvantaged by this way of approaching bilingualism, also known as Integrated Language and Content Learning (CLIL)?
Nobody is aware that Spain has made learning English a priority for a couple of decades. Although, according to some sources , it does not quite get the desired results. One of the measures adopted has been to bet on bilingual schools for Primary Education, and even from the infant stage.
Now, despite the fact that these initiatives have been extended and consolidated – after more than three decades – the diagnosis of their effectiveness continues to be a source of controversy.
With what has already been experienced, what conclusions can we draw? What could be done better to promote optimal learning?
Languages in childhood
The commitment to extend and strengthen the learning of a second language in childhood is not exclusive to Spain. The Council of Europe, at its meeting in Barcelona almost 20 years ago, set a similar goal. In fact, it was more ambitious: to introduce the learning of two foreign languages in the first school years.
Parents of young children are often very enthusiastic about these types of programs. Perhaps it is because of the naturalness with which the speech of the first language is acquired. They see that a baby does not care to acquire one or several languages at the same time. The whole process unfolds naturally, effortlessly, from exposure to these languages.
In fact, researchers like Patricia Kuhl have shown an astonishing predisposition that brings us the power of language innate to the human mind. It allows us to build a series of implicit knowledge of language, of very high complexity, during the first two years of life.
And, except in exceptional cases, for example associated with certain pathologies, at the age of 7 all children end up mastering the oral language. In addition, they have already acquired much of the grammatical aspects that form the basis of full language literacy.
Lights and shadows of bilingualism
As we grow older, it is not always so natural to do well in learning second languages. Despite beginning learning very early and receiving many hours of English classes and, in the case of bilingual programs, in English, there are critical voices from within educational communities.
It seems that they do not favor success as much as would be expected, something unacceptable in a country burdened by high levels of school failure .
While these bilingual programs could offer great potential to go further in the second language, the reality is different. The development of the current curriculum in the classroom requires a deployment of technical languages from different disciplines. To what extent do they represent the basis of a communicative competence?
Given the overload of content, together with linguistic demands, learning based on attention to the level of the word tends to predominate, and it is not exactly the most practical vocabulary for those who do not master the language, but it is so specific that it is difficult to it can be very meaningful to students.
The action from the approach of the communicative approach, based on the action , which bases the current perspectives, raises the prioritization of focusing the meaning over the attention to the forms.
What is really proven about whether learning at a younger age is more effective in becoming proficient in second languages is that exposure in natural contexts leads to higher levels of proficiency in the long term.
Precisely, these are contexts where meaning is addressed above all else: where what matters is to make yourself understood. The process necessarily includes stages in which errors occur in the second language; These should be valued positively, as steps prior to the precision that is achieved over the years.
To optimize second language learning in school, there are some essential conditions that are often not emphasized enough. Until the end of primary school, children do not develop the abstract thinking required by a learning approach based on the study of discrete units and structures, isolated from any communicative purpose. It seems that this is often what is done in the English subject.
On the other hand, the effectiveness of teachers offering, around a motivating topic, models of stories, anecdotes, brief descriptions or reports has been demonstrated . They guide students on how these texts have their own communicative purposes, which in turn determine the structures and expressions they include.
It is about focusing attention on the purpose of the messages we issue. Then check the correspondence with the expressions and structures that best suit this purpose; both in the communication of daily social life and to delve into the different disciplines of the school .
Languages must be understood, first of all, as the means by which we communicate. Assuming this, the potential it brings to spend more time learning of a second language and using that language can be optimized in the face of the future.
Author Bio: Aoife Kathleen Ahern is Full Professor, Linguist. specialist in teaching-learning of second languages and pragmatics at Complutense University of Madrid