Bilingualism is a difficult area to research, a dense forest of confounding variables, of which sampling, education levels, tasks used, variations in the languages themselves and different outcomes from different language combinations, are but a few. There is evidence, however, that expertise in more than one language provides cognitive benefits on top of increased opportunities. Findings in neurology have related language acquisition with structural changes in the brain that assist with executive functions such as cognitive flexibility, creative thinking and attention management.
What is bilingual education?
Human behaviour and perceptions are mediated through our language; the codes that are unlocked when new languages are learnt help create a new level of perception. Leading Swiss academic and expert on bilingualism, Francois Grosjean, has shown how the bilingual child or adult is not simply the sum of two (or more) monolinguals; rather, he or she is the owner of a unique and specific linguistic configuration. The bilingual manages and manipulates attention to one language or the other, actively but often subconsciously. Their languages not only coexist; they interact to produce a complete system of its own.
Benefits of Bilingual Education
In the modern globalized world bilingual education plays a crucial role and offers distinct advantages especially for the younger generations.
1. Global Citizens
Bilingual people are invaluable in today’s world. They will find that employment prospects open and social horizons expand. Their engagement with the world and the human society we inhabit is rich; their minds are agile.
2. Psychological benefits
Furthermore, their attributes go beyond simply translating words from one code to another; to know another language well brings subtle psychological benefits. These include the ability to see both sides of the story, to appreciate extended meaning and enjoy a wide range of conceptual understanding. Such attributes are good for the individual involved and crucially, help towards that elusive goal of international harmony. Bilinguals act as bridge builders, the go-betweens who can explain one culture to members of the other and act as intermediaries between the two.
3. Language proficiency
International schooling has helped boost language proficiency. As families become more global and more young people travel for studies and work, they might meet a future partner far from their country of birth, resulting in more multi-cultural families sharing several languages in their international households. While we face the dominance of one language across broad areas of human activity, with English as Language 1 or Language 2 for many, if not most, of those students, it is fascinating to note how that is resulting in more and more versions of English being recognised. The population of global citizens sharing the benefits of various forms of bilingualism is increasing.
4. Understanding cultures
On top of the functional benefits of language learning, bilingualism is about understanding cultures. With the creation of their unique language system, the bilingual is also making sense of his or her relationship to both of the cultures to which the linguistic code has given access. At the same time as managing their attention to this code, its vocabulary and its syntax, the bilingual will be paying attention to the cultural variants between the languages. They are constantly combining and blending aspects of the cultures they are living, making linguistic and cultural choices according to the needs of the circumstance.
The result is a “space between”, like the habitat of Third Culture Kids. The idea of the Third Culture Kids was developed to refer to children growing up outside the native countries of their parents (who were often expatriates themselves). They become part of a third culture rather than one that derives from a simple mix of the home and host countries. Francois Grosjean points out that bilinguals who are allowed to be who they are, and to accept their dual (or multiple) lived experiences, are invaluable members of society who bridge the gap between the cultures they belong to. This is an important role played by the sort of educational provision to be found at Institut Montana.
Bilingual Education teaching strategy
The Bilingual classroom
The bilingual classroom is an inspiring place. Just seeing children’s school-work on display, with captions and labels exhibiting proficiency in two languages, is mind expanding. But it does not happen by itself and the pure quality of instruction is critical – every child must feel happy and confident to be open to the challenges as well as the benefits of learning bilingually. Research into the bilingual brain is guiding teaching methods. It is understood now that these children use both languages to make sense of the world; they are very adaptive, deepening their understanding of the first language while acquiring the second; and the process has important positive effects on other aspects of cognitive development, such as attention management. The Bilingual Elementary section of Institut Montana has the school’s long history of international education on which to draw, as well as the dedication and expertise of its staff. Teaching in the bilingual classroom requires a thorough approach, with plenty of individual assessment and on-going help. Quality teaching comes from using evidence-based principles of instruction, such as teacher modelling and verbalizations, guided practice, and brisk lesson pacing to maintain student engagement.
The Montana Elementary school classrooms are tucked away in a pretty corner of the magnificent Institut Montana campus. As soon as a new child arrives, their language needs are quickly assessed and appropriate support organised. It might be that the child has some skills but needs in-class support to benefit fully from the lesson. In this case, teachers deploy the integrative EAL (for English) or DaZ (for German) programme where support is provided by an additional teacher within the normal classroom following the standard lessons. If the child would benefit from more intensive language tuition, they receive help specially tailored to their needs. For half of the English or German language lessons, they work with an extra teacher outside the classroom so that they quickly learn the foundational skills to enable rapid progress in the new language and find the subject matter within their reach. For the other half they continue to participate in normal lessons so that they can interact with their peers. Peer interaction in the bilingual classroom takes on a special importance. One of the keys to language learning is motivation, and children who find themselves playing and forging friendships that transcend what would have been language barriers are very motivated. Social skills are finely tuned through the process of welcoming someone to the group and helping the new arrival to feel at home, whatever language gaps there might be. In this multi-lingual group of young learners, it is important not to hold up one language, and therefore cultural identity, as superior to another. Seeing one of the languages and its culture as the dominant one is counter-productive to the cultural harmony the bilingual classroom seeks to promote, even when the curriculum followed belongs to one of the languages. The Institut Montana Bilingual Elementary School follows the curriculum of its home country, Switzerland, but the balance between the two languages is scrupulously maintained. Teaching is distributed at 50% of the time for each language. Each academic year the groups change Class Advisors, swapping between German and English speaking, so there is a further balance in exposure to both languages.
Effectiveness of the bilingual education
A Bright Future
There is no doubt that learning a new language broadens horizons and adds a useful skill. Furthermore, it brings great cognitive benefits which, in spite of being subject to too many variables to separate out, are real and meaningful. At Institut Montana, as they reach the end of their years at the Elementary School, these children greet a world of opportunity. They have the advanced skills in German that open the door to the academically demanding Swiss Matura, which they can choose to study in German or German and English. They can embark on the route towards the International Baccalaureate Diploma, a passport to universities all over the world. Or they can continue their bilingual studies at the Bilingual Secondary School while assessing where their ambitions might take them. Children coming together to learn, to play and to collaborate in a space where two languages are common currency creates a hybrid space with a culture that belongs to neither one nor the other. The bilingual classroom is a space for inclusivity, where a new light is shone on ideas about cultural identity. Its students will be the global citizens of tomorrow, broad-minded and insightful adults who are adept at sharing and discussing knowledge in a multicultural environment and totally at home in an international Zoom meeting. For these bright children, the future is bright.