Home Madrid language schools Learning English: Defenders of Bilingual Education in Spain: “It is a mistake to think that students will speak English as they speak Spanish” | Society

Learning English: Defenders of Bilingual Education in Spain: “It is a mistake to think that students will speak English as they speak Spanish” | Society


In recent years, an educational trend has gained ground, one where a purely British accent – the Queen’s English – should no longer be the prevailing one when teaching, learning or using English to communicate. This trend, known as ELF (English as lingua franca), favors a more neutral pronunciation where the goal is to get the message across.

“The important thing now is to be able to communicate; the purity of the accent is a thing of the past, ”argues María Luisa Pérez, professor of English studies at the University of Jaén and a leading researcher on this issue.

This line of thought has to do with the debate on whether the Spanish-English bilingual education model used in some public schools in Spain is really up to the task, given that some regions – which have devolved competences in education – require teachers to level B2. , indicating proficiency but not proficiency as defined by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages ​​(CEFR). Other regions require teachers to prove a C1 level, for proficient users of the language.

In recent years, nearly 90 centers have abandoned the bilingual education system, deeming it ineffective. But Pérez, like other experts, warns that many people just have a bad idea of ​​what a bilingual model actually does. “It is a mistake to think that children will end up speaking English the way they speak Spanish; the goal is for them to reach a functional level that will allow them to communicate and work in the future, ”she explains.

Spain‘s first English-Spanish bilingual program for public schools was introduced in 1996 as a joint initiative of the Spanish Ministry of Education and the British Council. The aim was for students to become ‘fluent’ in English, which was considered ‘decisive for fostering employment prospects and professional ambitions’. From the year 2000, regional governments began to launch their bilingual programs, and the number of enrolled students increased by 498% in a decade.

At no point was it ever claimed that students would end up speaking perfect English, although this continues to be the hope of many families who enroll their children in these programs. So says David Marsh, who in the 1990s (before the introduction of the bilingual model) coordinated a team of psychologists, educators and scientists to analyze why, after eight years of study in schools of various European countries, graduate students were barely able to put together a single sentence in English.

False expectations

Marsh and his team found that the major problem was the methodology used in the centers, based on memorizing and repeating concepts, with critical thinking relegated to the background. Their solution was a system called CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), which was included in the action plan to promote linguistic diversity launched by the European Commission between 2004 and 2006, and which is at the heart of the bilingual model of today.

This system defended the learning of a new language through the study of other subjects such as mathematics, geography and history. But there was a limit: the pupil would never speak the second language as well as his mother tongue. “The word bilingual is dangerous and creates false expectations,” says Marsh. “Families think that if they take their children to a bilingual school, they will learn another language in no time, but the real goal is for Europeans to be able to communicate at a basic level. “

The administrators of the Isaac Albéniz high school in Leganés (Madrid) defend the bilingual model and say they are satisfied with the results. “It is impossible to get students to speak perfect English, we teachers are not natives, but we know enough to teach high school students“, explains Inmaculada Alonso, head of studies at the school and herself an English teacher. Alonso was a member of a panel that assessed teachers’ ability to be part of the bilingual program in the Madrid region, which requires a C1 level. “During the oral test, which lasts about 15 minutes, we made them talk about their life, their favorite films… we didn’t let just anyone pass,” she says.

His colleague Óscar García, another school administrator, is convinced that accent plays a secondary role. “Some of them [students] have better pronunciation than others, but what’s really improved is their understanding, the way they take lessons … we’re on the right track. he says.

However, many teachers of Spanish believe that under the current system, students do not learn English well and do not grasp the content taught in this language – in primary school, in natural and social sciences as well as in arts and crafts; in secondary, 40% of courses including geography, history, physics, chemistry and biology.

But there are studies showing that performance in English has improved, while remaining stable in other subjects taught in that language. In 2018, the universities of Jaén and Cordoba published the Mon-CLIL report after working with a sample of 2,245 students in 43 public centers, three private and eight concerted (semi-private) in the regions of Andalusia, Extremadura and the Canary Islands. This report showed that children in bilingual programs scored 1.23 points higher in English than their peers in unilingual programs at the primary level, and 2.4 points higher at the secondary level. But they also scored 0.46 points better in Spanish at primary level and one point higher at secondary level. As for other content taught in English, fourth year secondary students scored 0.50 points more than students in non-bilingual programs.

The same report also highlighted the problems of teacher training in bilingual programs, including a lack of familiarity with the concept of CLIL, which is theoretically at the heart of the new methodology. Another weak point was the low skill level of teachers when it comes to communicating effectively in English with their students in the classroom.

“Each for himself”

Pedro, a 36-year-old interim teacher in a bilingual high school in Torrejón de Ardoz (Madrid), has never heard of CLIL. “No one told me how to teach my class; I understand that this falls within our academic freedom. The only thing they made clear was that the classes had to be taught 100% in English and the tests had to be administered in English as well. According to him, the situation could well come down to “every man for himself”. He obtained the C1 certificate during a year at Oxford and teaching in English is no problem for him, but he has not received any specific training in methodology. No regional government requires it to teach in a bilingual program.

Enrique Lafuente, who teaches a Masters in Teacher Education at the University of Zaragoza and has a degree in English Studies, believes the biggest problem is that bilingual programs have been launched without previously providing sufficient and in-depth training. teachers. “It’s not just about translating a textbook into English and teaching the class like you would in Spanish,” he notes. “CLIL involves a specific methodological change. Before tackling a new topic, you ask students what they already know and share it aloud with their peers. This creates a prior reflection as well as a stimulating motivation.

Teachers should have a basic knowledge of how a new language is learned and help pupils produce texts as well as hold conversations in that language. “The teachers have to provide the scaffolding, the textual structures that can be imitated in order to produce work of a certain quality … the science teacher has to be aware of the language needs of the student.

The program created by the Ministry of Education and the British Council, with 147 participating public schools in 10 regions of Spain, theoretically includes what is called a language adviser, who serves as a sort of coordinator and must have experience in the Anglo education system, preferably with UK field experience. This person is responsible for transmitting educational strategies to the teaching staff and planning an integrated program combining Spanish lessons with elements of the UK system. But this role does not actually exist in bilingual public schools in Spain – instead, there is a coordinator who is usually the teacher with the best English skills.

english version by Susana Urra.


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