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INTRODUCTION TO CONCEPTS OF BILINGUALISM AND BILINGUAL EDUCATION

Let’s start first with a definition of bilingualism:

    Generally speaking, to be bilingual is to be fluent in two languages.

    Let’s explore this in greater depth, as the issue is more complex than it appears.

    According to Baker (1996), there is a fundamental distinction between bilingual ability and bilingual usage. Whereas some bilinguals may be fluent in two languages but tend to heavily favour one of them, others may be much less fluent in two languages but switch between languages much more frequently. In other words, bilingual ability refers to a person’s language proficiency in its four basic dimensions; listening, speaking, reading and writing – and naturally, also thinking. Separate from this is a person’s usage of two or more languages. As a bilingual moves from one situation to another, so may his/her language change.

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How is this different from Mainstream Bilingual Education?

    Mainstream Bilingual Education (MBE) is a title for the practice of teaching non-language subjects through the medium of a foreign language. The typical student is a mother tongue speaker of the official language/s of the country, who will be taught, for example, biology, history or business studies through a modern foreign language.

    The practice, which has been variously described as Immersion, Content-Based Language Learning or Bilingual Education, is by no means a new idea. Socrates’ Academy could be classified as a bilingual learning environment. More recently, the Canadian French immersion programme has shown that students can succeed in mastering the standard school curriculum through the medium of a foreign/second language, and in doing so attain high levels of competence in the target language.

    In Europe, national programmes in MBE, such as those in Canada, are still fledgling. In some German and French schools, there have been MBE streams since the beginning of the 1970’s. In other bilingual parts of Europe, namely the Basque Countries and Catalonia, there have been a number of successful initiatives aimed at restoring and maintaining the local language and culture but it is fair to say that, in Western Europe, the main non-elite MBE programmes have only begun to emerge during this decade. It is important to make clear that this description does not ignore designated International Schools which offer the International Baccalaureate, but rather that the term ‘mainstream’ precludes these, usually selective, institutions.

    One last clarification is needed: Mainstream Bilingual Education, as it is understood in countries which have a systematic educational programme, aims not at bilingualism.

    To aim at pupils being fluent in two languages is deemed to be either unrealistic or not appropriate.

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Click here for more information about the Bilingual Education Programmes in different parts of the world

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