Author: Anita Bamberger
The popularity of bilingual schools is increasing. This can be seen, for example, in the growing number of French schools in London, where the students follow a bilingual programme.
In many countries there is an emphasis on learning two languages (The Linguist, 2017). In Scotland in 2011 the government pledged to follow the European model of 1+2 languages. Every child would learn two languages in addition to their mother tongue, to celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity and thus facilitate the inclusion of other languages within the school.
A bilingual school offers systems of learning in two languages. In some schools – for example, in the French bilingual school in Prague – students are taught in English for certain parts of the day and in French for other parts (often in a 50:50 ratio). The importance of both languages is apparent to all the students, which in turn promotes a favourable attitude and increased motivation. Furthermore, as at least half the day is taught in the child’s mother tongue, the children feel more secure, operating within a familiar cultural space.
In this kind of bilingual setting, the emotive side of language-learning is significant. Whenever a student is upset or anxious, they revert to their mother tongue. When there is urgency or an intense feeling, the need to communicate in the easiest form becomes apparent. It is natural to identify with one language group more than another: learners often use their linguistic resources to mark their identity. I have observed cases where there is a strong connection to the mother-tongue culture and a strong accent in the other language.
Often, in the French bilingual schools, the English teacher does not speak French (or very little) and the speaking of French in the English lessons is discouraged. However, for beginners of English, the use of French can be helpful in an otherwise alienating environment, where they are struggling to access the lesson content. This situation can be likened to that of new-to-English learners in the English-speaking mainstream. In both cases, learners need support in the early days. In the French bilingual schools, the learners’ peers are very supportive of each other and frequently translate for other students when they see that they do not understand. However, in more relaxed settings, such as at lunchtime or playtime, the majority of the students revert to French, as this is the majority language that dominates in their free time. This poses an additional challenge for minority speakers.
When some students from a French bilingual school in London were asked for their opinion of the bilingual system, they said that they liked learning in two languages and were excited by the challenges. There is, inevitably, interference from the dominant language, as with all second-language learners. However, it is easier to predict the language-learning requirements, due to the differences and similarities between the two languages. Teachers can, for example, often predict which grammatical structures are required for their lessons.
Li Wei, a professor of applied linguistics and editor of the International Journal of Bilingualism (2000), states that bilingual children:
“understand the internal structures and subtleties of different languages. By having an automatic point of comparison, multilingual children automatically understand the universals of languages and have a high level of language awareness.”
In bilingual schools, students are exposed to both languages equally during the school day, rendering the students academically balanced bilinguals. This results in successful operation in two languages and, usually, in later success in two languages when assessed as a curriculum area. In turn, this permits learners to gain potentially broader qualifications, which may increase employment opportunities and allow for cultural bi-literacy, among other advantages.
Colin Baker (2000) mentions that doubling the language capacities of individuals also doubles the language resources of our society. This has become imperative in our globally mobile world (Foreign Language Education).
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