Bilingual education – a competitive advantage

There are many studies exploring the positive impact of bilingualism on brain function. A second language can give students a distinct advantage in a highly competitive and globalised world, says Andrew Coombe of Cambridge Assessment International Education.

Relocate Magazine Autumn Issue 2018
This article is taken from the latest issue of Relocate magazine, sponsored by AKA.
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“A different language is a different vision of life,” said the film director, Federico Fellini. Around the world, it’s estimated that more than 50 per cent of the world’s population speak at least two languages. For many, the ability to speak a second language opens up a range of possibilities for their future.Providing students with the chance to study in another language can improve access to higher education, provide opportunities to study abroad and improve future job prospects. It has also been shown to enhance cognitive development. In an increasingly globalised world, a bilingual education could be one of the most important advantages parents can give to their children.

So, what is a bilingual education?

For us, bilingual education means that learners study typical school subjects – such as maths or geography – through an additional language (such as English) and some subjects through their first language. They may even study the same subject through two languages. We work with schools across the world that use Cambridge programmes as the English-medium strand of a bilingual education programme.In many academic institutions around the world, there has been a move towards ‘English as a medium of instruction’ (EMI). This means non-native English speakers are educated in English at a younger age, which helps prepare them for higher education, and ultimately work.TASIS-education-webinar-in-text-banner1“Being proficient in more than one language in today’s global market, can directly translate into greater professional opportunities,” explains Susan Stewart, head of multilingualism at ISL Surrey. “Imagine having two candidates, both similar in terms of educational background and experience, apply for the same position in Shanghai.“One of the candidates has Mandarin on their CV, which gives them the upper hand. Why? This candidate is going to settle into life in China with greater ease, given that they can communicate on the street, in the shops and over the phone. In the work place, this candidate might pick up subtleties in meetings, helping the company to gain the upper hand in negotiations.”
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But it’s not just a student’s career prospects that stands to benefit from bilingual education – this kind of learning can also have a significant impact on cognitive development.Dr Ellen Bialystok, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada, has been studying the advantages of bilingualism for almost 40 years. In 2013, Dr Bialystok found that regularly using more than one language can enhance cognitive abilities in some surprising areas. For example, bilingual learners tend to have greater working memory. In other words, the brain’s capacity to temporarily hold information, which is important for reasoning and decision making.As bilingual children use multiple languages, they learn to monitor and filter their use of words to ensure they use the right language. This process has been shown to strengthen ‘executive function’, the set of mental skills that help individuals with tasks such as managing time and paying attention.Bilingual learners also demonstrate greater cognitive flexibility – the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously.

Questions to ask when considering a bilingual school

ISL’s Ms Stewart provides some helpful pointers:
  1. When are the different languages used during the day and with whom?
  2. What is the dominant language in the school, which could be the ‘playground language’?
  3. How are children who are new to a particular language supported in their initial acquisition of the language?
  4. What percentage of the students are able to operate at a literature level in both languages?
  5. What is the ultimate aim of the bilingual programme?

What are the challenges of a bilingual education?

We see common concerns from parents considering bilingual education or schools for their children. For example, will it be too difficult for their child to study a complex subject in a second or additional language? Can teachers use the first language to aid understanding? How does it work in practice?
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Skilled bilingual teachers carefully plan lessons to make sure that the language development and course content are complementary. Teachers will also employ strategic use of the first language to aid understanding.One of the best ways to ensure students are well equipped to learn in a second or additional language is to introduce them to bilingual education as early as possible. This is because the course content won’t yet be too advanced and students’ language proficiency will grow along with the difficulty of the course.We’ve seen a growing global trend towards bilingual education in schools and education systems. This is due in part to parents and governments increasingly understanding how valuable students’ learning in additional languages is to their future studies and careers.

A global education trend

In 2011, Italy brought in educational reforms that made it mandatory in state schools to teach at least one subject in another language. Cambridge International is currently engaged in a long-term project of national education reform in Kazakhstan, which includes the introduction of bilingual programmes of study. Likewise, together with the Egyptian government, Cambridge International developed and delivered an innovative bilingual education system for Egyptian state school students.

Creating global citizens

Janina Sparks, head of school at Accadis International School in Germany, who provide a bilingual learning experience for their students adds, “By learning in a bilingual environment alongside classmates and teachers from all over the world, we are convinced that our students do not only improve their language skills but increase their understanding and respect for other cultures.“Our school community is made up of German families who recognise the additional value of a bilingual education, and of international families for whom it is important that their children not only speak English at school, but learn German, too, and can therefore integrate into the local community.”At Accadis, both English and German are taught through the immersion method. “By immersing children into the languages in their day-to-day engagement with each other, they learn both languages like their native tongue,” explains Ms Sparks.Passionate about the value of a bilingual programme, she argues that the benefit goes far beyond language acquisition. “By the time students leave school, they are prepared for life in an increasingly global society. Our students obtain school qualifications which are recognised nationally and internationally and prepare them to study at universities worldwide and pursue international careers, should they wish to do so.”
Relocate Magazine Autumn Issue 2018
This article first appeared in the autumn 2018 issue of Relocate magazine.

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