Bilingual education

From Academic Kids

de:Zweisprachiger Unterricht The phrase "bilingual education" has multiple definitions:

  • education where two distinct languages are used for general teaching
  • education designed to help children become bilingual (sometimes called "two-way bilingual education"; e.g., Spanish speakers and English speakers in a classroom are all taught to speak both languages
  • education in a child's native language for (a) the first year or (b) however long it takes; followed by mainstreaming in English-only classes (in the US)
  • education in a child's native language for as long as his parents wish (with as little as 30 minutes a day of ESL instruction)

In the latter cases "native-language instruction" may be a clearer definition.


Examples across the world

United States

According to the U.S. Department of Education website a bilingual education program is “an educational program for limited English proficient students”. Furthermore, the term ‘limited English proficient’, when used. with respect to an individual, means an individual whose primary language is other than English and whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or the opportunity to participate fully in society.

In the 50 states of the United States, proponents of the practice argue that it will help to keep non-English-speaking children from falling behind their peers in while they master English. Opponents of bilingual education argue that it delays students' mastery of English, thereby retarding the learning of other subjects as well. In California there has been considerable politicking for and against bilingual education. Much of the argument against hinges on the idea that California is in the United States and that everyone in the US should learn to speak English (although it is not the official language—there isn't one).

In 1968 U.S. Congress first mandated bilingual education in order to give immigrants access to education in their “first” language. There are two different approaches to this form of instruction. One is called ‘bilingual education’ and it involves teaching in the students’ first language and also English. The other is known as an ‘immersion program’ where the teachers instruct predominantly in English, and use the students’ native language only for explanations.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong where both English and Chinese are official, both languages are taught in school and are mandatory subjects. Either English or Chinese is used as the medium of instruction for other subjects.


In Japan, the need for bilingualism (mostly Japanese and English) has been pointed out, and there are some scholars who advocate teaching children subjects such as mathematics using English rather than Japanese. As part of this proposal, subjects such as history, however, would be taught solely in Japanese.


Bilingual Education was introduced in Singapore due to the mixed racial group nature. English is seen as a link between the different racial groups.


In Canada, education is under provincial jurisdiction. However, the federal government has been a strong supporter of establishing Canada as a bilingual country and has helped pioneer the French immersion programs in the public education systems throughout Canada. In French immersion students with no previous French language training, usually beginning in Kindergarten or grade 1, do all of their school work in French. In higher grades they will have some instruction in english. There are also some private schools and preschools that do immersion programs in other languages.


There has been much debate over bilingual education in recent times.

Proponents of bilingual education say that it is easier for students to learn English if they are literate in their first language and that good bilingual programs strive to achieve proficiency in both the primary and secondary language for the student. Some claim that this type of learning works well in a classroom where half the students speak English and half are considered limited English proficient (LEP). The teacher instructs in English and in the LEP’s primary language. The dual purpose of this type of classroom is to teach the children a new language and to let them learn about another culture. It is alleged that if the program is well designed and the teachers are well equipped then kids have a better chance of success.

Opponents of bilingal education claim that many bilingual education programs are, in fact, native language programs with a minimal emphasis on teaching students proficiency in the primary language of the culture they are in (e.g., English). This charge has been particularly brought to bear against the bilingual technique known as transitional bilingual education which emphasizes the theory that students must first become fluent in their native language before learning a second language. Critics of bilingual education have claimed that studies supporting bilingual education tend to have poor methodologies and that there is little empirical support in favor of it. Supporters of bilingual education challenge these contentions.

The controversy over bilingual education is often enmeshed in a larger political and cultural context. Opponents of bilingual education are sometimes accused of racism and xenophobia. This is especially so in the case of such groups as English First which is a conservative organization that promotes the stance that English should be the official language of the United States.

Proponents of bilingual are frequently accused of practicing identity politics to the detriment of children and of immigrants, a position that may be bolstered by the fact that various polls have shown that immigrant communities often support the curtailing of bilingual language programs.

The controversies involved in this issues were highlighted by California's Proposition 227[1] ( which sought to curtail bilingual education in favor of so-called "mainstreaming". In 1987, California voters passed the proposition over strenuous objections from bilingual advocates.

The ultimate effect of the passage of Proposition 227 is also controversial. Some have claimed that statistics have shown an improvement in student scores while others have disputed those same statistics with their own. At best, the results can be characterized as ambiguous.

Further reading

  • Carter, Steven. (November 2004). “Oui! They’re only 3.” Oregon
  • Dutcher, N., in collaboration with Tucker, G.R. (1994). The use of first and second languages in education: A review of educational experience. Washington, DC: World Bank, East Asia and the Pacific Region, Country Department III.
  • Gao, Helen. (November 2004). “Fight over bilingual education continues.” The San Diego Union-Tribune.
  • Gonzalez, A. (1998). Teaching in two or more languages in the Philippine context. In J. Cenoz & F. Genesee (Eds.),Beyond bilingualism: Multilingualism and multilingual education (pp. 192-205). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
  • Grimes, B.F. (1992). Ethnologue: Languages of the world Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Hakuta, K. (1986).Mirror of language: The debate on bilingualism. New York: Basic Books.
  • Kloss, Heinz (1977, reprinted 1998). The American Bilingual Tradition. (Language in Education; 88) McHenry,IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems. ISBN 1-887744-02-9
  • Summer Institute of Linguistics. (1995). A survey of vernacular education programming at the provincial level within Papua New Guinea. Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea: Author.
  • Swain, M. (1996). Discovering successful second language teaching strategies and practices: From program evaluation to classroom experimentation." Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 17," 89-104.

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