Joining the global conversation

15th November 2013 at 00:00
Multilingual education is not just good for job prospects - it can also make young people better learners across the curriculum. But those who miss out may be left at a great disadvantage, even if they are native English speakers. William Stewart reports

When Oliver Redfern plays basketball, he is doing more than mastering the art of shooting, passing and dribbling.

The 12-year-old is also learning how to say and understand terms from one of the toughest languages in the world. This is because his physical education lessons are taught in Mandarin.

"You have to concentrate," says Oliver, who adds that getting to grips with some of the 40,000 different Chinese characters can be "especially difficult".

His tutor group - at Bohunt School, a state secondary in Hampshire, England - are taught around a third of their lessons in this most unfamiliar of languages. Many had some preparation through hour-long weekly Mandarin sessions at their primary schools. But that did not stop one of Oliver's classmates, Saskia Lambot, from feeling a bit apprehensive.

"If you look at Chinese writing and characters, you think, 'How do they do that?'" she says. "But when you learn, it does make a bit more sense. You have to memorise the simple ones.

"In (information communications technology), sometimes I get a bit confused," the 11-year-old adds. "But usually I get it, because if you are taught something a lot, and it keeps being said in the same way, then you understand it."

For those who do understand, the rewards are likely to be great. As the 21st century unfolds and booming Asian economies overhaul their exam-factory school systems, it is skills such as teamwork, communication, critical thinking and problem-solving that are increasingly being seen as vital for future success. But under the radar, another major and possibly even greater divide between educational haves and have-nots has been quietly opening up.

Oliver and Saskia may be a rare breed in their own country, but they are part of a much wider and fast-growing global phenomenon. From Canada and Mexico to Japan, via many parts of Europe, Kazakhstan and China, more and more students are being taught several subjects in a foreign language, or being educated in a bilingual or trilingual school.

Growing evidence suggests that they will not only emerge from the experience with improved language skills but will also be better equipped to deal with many of life's challenges.

As chief executive of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), an exam board operating in more than 160 countries, Michael O'Sullivan is well placed to notice the change. Indeed, his company is at the heart of much of it.

For example, CIE has been brought in to help with the latest stage in the reform of Kazakhstan's education system, which began after the country became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. The government is now creating "Nazarbayev Intellectual" schools where English will be used as the language of instruction in maths and science.

"Kazakhstan starts from a particularly challenging position in that they're already in some senses a bilingual society in Kazakh and Russian," O'Sullivan says. "But they want a trilingual curriculum because they want a knowledge economy. They want to educate young people who can be internationally competitive."

Malaysia is another country where more than one language is already in everyday use. "People switch languages in the middle of sentences," O'Sullivan says.

Malay and English are both widely spoken and other languages including Cantonese, Mandarin and Tamil are common. But this does not mean that everyone in Malaysia has the language skills they need to succeed. Earlier this year, Wong Chun Wai, group chief editor of The Star, one of the country's biggest-selling national newspapers, called for the government to bring back schools where English is the medium of instruction.

His idea was supported by a teaching union that said it was the only option if Malaysian children were to become global citizens, and by a Malaysian Microsoft director who said that students should not be put at a "competitive disadvantage".

In fact, some action was already being taken. Two years ago, Majlis Amanah Rakyat, a trust for indigenous people, brought in CIE to develop a bilingual curriculum for high schools in rural parts of Malaysia, with a major role for English as a medium of instruction.

O'Sullivan says the curriculum will start to level the playing field between the Chinese and Indian Malaysian communities, where a substantial proportion of children have a lot of exposure to English in schools, and a rural Malay population that is "less exposed to multilingualism".

In China, there is also a languages boom. But there, the change is not top-down. It is coming from the grass roots, instigated by individual schools and ambitious parents, with the authorities turning a blind eye.

Every year, millions of candidates in China sit the biggest exam in the world: the national university entrance test, or gaokao. Stakes are understandably high in a country where centralised exams have been deciding the fate and life chances of young people for more than 14 centuries.

In the run-up to the annual test, hotel prices shoot up as families book rooms next to exam halls so that teenagers do not have to travel in from home. Police shut down nearby streets to eliminate distracting traffic noise and rigorous precautions are taken to avoid cheating. This summer, one province banned bras with metal clasps and used ultra-sensitive metal detectors to prevent candidates from sneaking in wireless digital devices.

Going their own way

But over the past five years, another trend has been emerging: more and more young people are deciding not to take the gaokao at all. In June, a mere 9.12 million candidates sat the exam. According to China's National Institute of Education Sciences, that means a record 1 million potential entrants opted out.

Some of these absences are thought to be students, often from rural areas, who are put off by a poor graduate job market and expensive university tuition fees. However, a significant proportion of the rocketing number of no-shows are not giving up on education and exams but are instead choosing a very different alternative.

Last year, more than 400,000 students in China went overseas for university education, and that usually means they were taught in a foreign language at school. According to O'Sullivan, 50,000 students in the country took CIE international A levels and IGCSEs in 2012, with school numbers up 31 per cent compared with the previous year, and exam registrations up 27 per cent. Many others opt for American qualifications, take tests from other British exam boards or do the International Baccalaureate.

"This is not a top-down effort by the Chinese government to create a more bilingual school-leaving population," O'Sullivan says. But he adds that the authorities are permitting state schools in every province to offer an international alternative to 16- and 17-year-olds because of huge parental demand and because they don't want the private education system to have a monopoly.

And where bilingual education comes at a price, China's high economic growth and one-child family policy is helping to fuel demand, even among those of relatively modest means.

"A lot of adults stand behind a single child and pool resources to support the child's education," O'Sullivan says. "It wouldn't be unusual in China to find the daughter of a taxi driver and a cleaner making it through this pathway even into (the University of) Cambridge."

As ever in China, the numbers are breathtaking. The relatively small - but rapidly swelling - proportion of teenagers opting for a bilingual education already means that millions of Chinese graduates are flooding on to the global jobs market who have been taught in at least two languages.

So exactly what advantages will these students have over monolingual graduates, or those who have learned a language in a conventional way through discrete language classes?

"In many cases, learners' language skills far exceed expectations in terms of attainment levels," says Do Coyle, a professor at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

The expert in immersive language teaching, or content and language integrated learning (CLIL) as it often referred to in Europe, stresses that immersive teaching must be done properly, with the right professional support. But she says that where that is the case, "learner motivation increases, as does confidence to use languages for real purposes".

The method can vary widely depending on the amount of the curriculum taught in a second language and on the age it is first introduced to students. But the general concept of language immersion has been around for many years.

It can be traced all the way back to the 19th century and the German and French governesses employed by aristocratic families in Russia. These private tutors did not usually speak Russian. But they lived with families and taught the children at home, using their own language.

According to the European Commission, prior to the 1970s, CLIL was mainly confined to "linguistically distinctive" regions, close to borders or where two languages were already spoken. The aim was to produce bilingual students able to communicate with everyone in their own locality.

The prime example is a highly influential Canadian experiment in immersive teaching dating back to the 1950s. Groups of English-speaking parents in the country's Francophone province of Quebec were concerned that conventional language lessons were failing to equip their children with the French skills they needed. Immersive teaching was used as an alternative and proved enormously successful, helping to inspire similar schemes in North America and parts of Europe.

Large-scale 1980s immigration from Central and South America saw bilingual education take off in the US for Spanish-speaking students. But a backlash against multiculturalism in the late 1990s led to several states banning the practice. Since then, research into the benefits of being educated in at least two languages has changed the US climate markedly. CLIL and bilingual teaching have also been on the rise worldwide in recent years, but now the approach often has more to do with competing globally than helping students to function in their own society.

Spain is an acknowledged leader of the field, with several regions that have introduced CLIL into schools for students of all ages over the past 15 years. The idea is to raise standards in English, according to Philip Hood, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham. He says research into the Spanish schemes shows they have been successful: students involved usually gain linguistically without losing in terms of educational content.

Even in Japan, which is often thought of as insular, there is rising anxiety about a comparative lack of foreign-language skills. In 2010, the performance of Japanese people in an English-language proficiency test - which has become an admission requirement in many of the world's English-speaking universities - placed the country at 27th out of 30 Asian countries.

This summer, education minister Hakubun Shimomura said that he wanted to introduce fully fledged English to primary schools for students as young as 8 for the first time. New "super global high schools", where subjects such as science or maths would be taught using English, have also been suggested by a government panel of academics and educationalists. They would make Japan yet another part of the global explosion of immersive language teaching.

The full English?

But this is not about a sudden global hunger to learn foreign languages. There is of course an elephant in the room: the rise of English to the status of world language. This dominance may be driving the growth in immersive language teaching but it also has huge implications for the way it develops.

Ute Smit, an associate professor at the University of Vienna in Austria, notes that "plurilingualism is gaining in societal esteem and economic relevance".

But she adds: "One has to be careful about what kind of plurilingualism: some languages are definitely more equal than others when it comes to their socio-economic relevance and, clearly, English holds a unique status here.

"English plus other languages will give somebody a competitive edge over monolingual English speakers, but languages with low social capital will not do the same."

In some places the global importance of English has actually led to a narrowing of language education. Professor Lee Sing Kong, director of Singapore's National Institute of Education, says that the need to acquire the skills demanded by business led to the closure of the Tamil and Malay "vernacular schools" that existed in the years after the country's independence in 1965, because parents opted for an English-speaking education.

As far as Tony Smith-Howell, an education lecturer at Northampton University in England, is concerned, "the global cultural and linguistic hegemony of English" is a key reason for the "very piecemeal" CLIL provision in the UK.

Indeed, immersive language teaching in England lags so far behind much of the rest of Europe in terms of scale that, when looking for an example, you have to turn to individual schools (such as Bohunt, the first in the UK to use the technique for Mandarin) rather than the entire regions you find in other countries.

But should that matter if students in England - or indeed the US, Canada, Australia and the rest of the Anglophone world - are already native speakers of the new world language? Yes, says O'Sullivan, who warns that continuing immigration within the European Union will mean the arrival of "well-educated and multilingual young professionals" from other parts of Europe. "It should be a concern in the UK that a well-educated but monolingual workforce may face competitive disadvantages," he says.

In Utah in the US, there is already a recognition of the potential economic impact and the problems that young people could face if they leave school as monoglots. In 2009, funding was approved to try to get 30,000 students into immersive language teaching in French, Spanish, Portuguese or Mandarin by 2015, and 20,000 are already enrolled.

But Utah is just one of 50 states in the US. Some might imagine that high levels of monolingualism would not be an issue in a country with the world's biggest domestic economy and more than a quarter of a billion English speakers. However, O'Sullivan begs to differ. He points to the growth in trade with rapidly developing Spanish-speaking neighbours such as Mexico.

"The fastest-growing US demographic is Hispanic, and they are bilingual, and most of the others are not," O'Sullivan says. "I would be quite worried about comparative disadvantage in the workforce if you think 20 or 30 years ahead."

And the US is not the only country with a perceived in-built advantage that is at risk of failing to make the most of the new linguistic reality. India, with its British colonial heritage, enormous population and emergence as a potentially huge economic power, is often seen as a major driver in the global growth of English.

But O'Sullivan notes a significant divide between the language skills of the top few per cent and the rest of India's 1.2 billion population. "English standards outside the middle class are actually very low and in some cases non-existent," he says. "As India addresses issues of social inclusion and development, I think bilingual education and the role of English will become quite a live topic there."

The experience of Bohunt suggests it won't be just language skills that the educational have-nots lack in this new world. The 11-16 school has been offering language immersion for four years, with some mixed-ability groups being taught up to 40 per cent of their curriculum through French or Spanish, and this year Mandarin. Staff have found that students' achievement has improved across all subjects, not just languages, even though - or perhaps because - learning through a foreign language is so much more challenging.

"What you are effectively creating is a group of students who don't have a fixed mindset," says deputy headteacher Stewart Vaughan. "They buy into the idea that actually they will struggle, they will have to be resilient and they will make a lot of mistakes. They develop an approach to learning that is beneficial across the board."

As Coyle warns, for CLIL to work, it has to be done properly, and that means finding the right staff - with both subject knowledge and linguistic expertise - and the right support for them, which can be expensive.

But students such as Oliver are proof of the benefits it can bring. "If you don't concentrate, then you won't get it, and when we are talking about lots of things in Chinese, you will struggle," he says. "You have to concentrate more, so you concentrate more across everything."


The Links into Languages project produced a wide range of CLIL resources for cross-curricular, immersive lessons. Download them here: bit.lyLinksIntoLanguages

Try a scheme of work for an CLIL lesson on life in Nazi Germany. bit.lyLifeInGermany

Discuss in French what Norman castles are made from and why they were built. bit.lyNormansResource

Use this PowerPoint to get students thinking in German about the good and bad points of Victorian Britain. bit.lyVictorianThinking

Download vocabulary, worksheets and revision aids for a French lesson on medieval villages. bit.lyMedievalFrench

To find more CLIL resources, or to share your own, go to: bit.lyShareYourCLIL.

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