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Bilingual schooling obsession is gambling with children’s future

The Madrid region’s efforts to improve schoolchildren’s level of English is laudable, but ultimately misguided. Students’ English will not improve as much as it should and teaching of other subjects will suffer.


Irregular verbs, anyone?

At the beginning of this school year, a mother commented to me that she had moved her daughter from one public school in Madrid to another in the same neighbourhood. When I asked why, she said it was because of the bilingual schools project that Esperanza Aguirre, president of Madrid’s regional government, has created, which entails teaching 40-50 percent of the school curriculum in English, except mathematics and Spanish language. I was surprised to find out that in fact this mother had changed her daughter from a school that was about to enter the bilingual project to a school that had no intention of doing so.

In a country that is so preoccupied with getting a grasp of the English language, and which is very rapidly doing so through better teaching techniques in schools and a hefty investment in private classes on the part of parents, it seems odd that this suspicious attitude to the bilingual schools project is fairly widespread. Instead of parental excitement that a child in a bilingual school could become fluent in English, there is an apprehension that other subjects will suffer due to being taught in English.

My son is in primary school, and I certainly felt that something was missing from the Science course in the first year of primary, when instead of beginning to explore the world that surrounds us, and what makes us work, the first term seemed like a basic English language course. “A cat is an animal, a dog is an animal, a lion is an animal” rapped the CD with a tinny beat that we were encouraged to play in the car, or at home, at all hours. I had been looking forward to a journey of discovery of the plant and insect world with my six-year-old, rooting around in the garden and getting our mouths and minds round words like “photosynthesis” and “proboscis”.

Admittedly, the bilingual schools plan will need some years to develop and to iron out the creases, for teachers to find their feet and develop their teaching style in a second language. One crease I could point out already is that starting a “bilingual” approach to education in first primary is not the ideal moment. The leap from pre-school to primary is a big one, with the project-based “horizontal- style” curriculum and the interesting corners of discovery and learning that a pre-school classroom offers disappearing, to be replaced so often by rows of desks, lots of text books and an idea that the fun is over and it’s time to get down to work.

Later starters

Add to this dramatic (and unfortunate) scene change the “real work” that starting in a language inevitably involves and which many won’t even have been in contact with before, and you can’t expect great results. If the project is serious about producing bilingual children, it should start earlier. My feeling that pre-school education is some of the best young people will receive in their whole childhood will have to wait for another time.

So many parents in Spain look for communicative, fun and dynamic ways of introducing their children to a second language, precisely because their own experience of English class was cramming vocabulary and learning lists of irregular verbs, and they didn’t learn a thing. Methods of language acquisition through dynamic and communicative activities such as theatre, dance, music and artistic expression are widely considered to work extremely well and are being incorporated more and more into English books used in the Primary and Secondary classroom.

My fear is that with the pressure of having to learn to read and write in English to a relatively high level in a short time (by third primary, children will be writing essays in Science), we may well abandon the communicative approach in favour of cramming and lists again to ensure we reach the level expected by school inspectors.

So what is the aim of the bilingual project?

If I were to be cynical I would say that it is about individuals in public office who have tapped into an area of parents’ concern and have tried to milk it for its political value. Rather than taking as a model schools that have a more intense English language programme but leave other subjects in Spanish (which gives excellent results both in English and all other subjects), they have grouped together what they see as the ‘Marias’ or less important subjects, such as art and music, and put them in English, thereby short-changing everyone.

Inspiration’s the loser

Teachers end up having to make the best of a bad job, trying to make the most of the small amount of time allocated to these subjects but hampered by serious linguistic barriers. Parents worry that their children won’t be able to keep up with the pace and will start to fail exams at an even earlier age, and subjects such as art, music, drama, and science, so vital in preparing children for a 21st century society and fluid work market based on innovation, creativity, adaptability and inspiration, take another beating.

To return to the worried mother at the beginning of the article, the answer I gave her was, for my own conscience, far from satisfactory. I told her, as perhaps many generations of teachers have been telling parents, that her daughter would “muddle through in the end”. I was left with a feeling that in a country with so much ambition to improve its language skills, “muddling through” will be a waste of a great opportunity and shouldn’t be an option.

Education should always strive for excellence. Parents spend a lot of thought, time and money on giving all they can to Spain’s next generations. I would like to say the same about the inventors of the bilingual schools project.

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Published: Sep 30 2011
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “Bilingual schooling obsession is gambling with children’s future”

  1. I think you are wrong…..

    It is based on very solid research and language theory which includes the idea of peer learning.

    Down in Andalucia this has been runing for a few years now. I was involved in teaching the post grad oppositions course for teachers, I have been involved with kids at both primary and secondary level and I know teachers who are teaching secondary level subjects in bi-lingual schools. Down here it is Spanish/English or Spanish/French. It has been very popular.

    It has had several interesting effects so far and certainly is producing some very confident primary language speakers. It has had an unintended effect of helping to integrate immigrant kids who suddenly gain status with their peers for being language ‘helpers’. The kids gain fast at primary level and thus science lessons at secondary level are not really a problem for most.

    A big investment was put into the teachers and as they have had language training with foregn teachers and in foreign countries during the summer before launch, it has impacted positively on teaching methods.

    As for the idea that it is just a political move, my understanding is that there was cross-party agreement fo this and the money is ring-fenced so government change should not affect it.

    I might also add that many countries are watching closely, including the UK with an eye to replicating in some way.

    The key issue is to teach language at primary where they absorb it so fast. I have seen kids from very poor barrios with no parental back-up gleefully chatter away in English. That, I think says it all.

  2. Thank you for your interesting comment, Lucia. I am very glad to hear that an unintended effect of the programme has been the integration of immigrant children.
    While I have no doubt that children’s second language skills will develop more quickly in the bilingual system, what I am trying to get across in the article is that it will be to the detriment of other subjects. English is not the only subject on the curriculum. I suggest, if you do not already know it, looking at Ken Robinson talking about creativity in schools (you can find his talk on TED talks or Youtube)

  3. Hi,
    nice article. I live in the village of El Alamo on the outskirts of the Madrid region. The local school (concertado) where I send my five-year-old boy is looking at implementing the bilingual project, and that frightens me. My son won’t have a problem because he’s growing up in a bilingual family, but the reality is this – the bilingual programme will mean great Spanish teachers trying to teach science or history in not so-good English to mostly Spanish pupils. The school struggles to attract native speakers of English to this part of the region, and unless that is rectified, a lot of teachers and pupils at many of these schools are heading for trouble. What’s needed is a good English programme with native speakers!

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