As a child, I grew up following the French Immersion program in Canada, and for me, the logic behind it makes sense – teach all subject areas in French and assess students based on their academic knowledge of French. Students are evaluated based on content taught, which means that for the most part, a learner’s ability to carry out a day-to-day conversation in French is not the focus – the focus is on their ability to explain topics covered in science, social studies, math, etc. As long as one is clear that the main objective of French immersion is academic French, one can acknowledge that it is a strong program.
Which brings me to bilingual programs and it isn’t that I’m not for them – the idea of teaching students both in their native tongue and in the second language at the same time is a good one; in fact, while I was working at the Netherlands Inter-community School (currently NAS) in Jakarta, students in both the Dutch and English streams were grouped together for certain subjects and taught in both languages with success. My issue with bilingual programs isn’t with their potential benefit for students: it’s the clarity of the expectations of bilingual programs and the assessment of students’ language abilities that’s the problem.
When we look at the definition of a bilingual program, most of us would agree that it is to provide students with academic instruction in two languages – native tongue and second language. And if bilingual programs stuck to that, they would work just fine. Where the confusion arises is in how students should be evaluated in both languages. To address this issue, the tendency is to evaluate students on their academic skills in their native tongue and then to bring in a framework such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) to evaluate students on their ability to communicate in the second language. And this is where things fall apart – frameworks such as the CEFR were not designed to evaluate academic language, they were designed to evaluate conversational language – i.e. one’s ability to talk about family life, to shop at the grocery store, order food at a restaurant, and to talk about one’s interests, etc. While these topics may be covered briefly in a bilingual program, more time is spent on topics related to core subject areas, such as math, social studies, and science, so to use a scale such as CEFR to evaluate students’ ability to communicate in the second language simply doesn’t match the objectives of a bilingual program.
What is the solution for assessing student language ability in a bilingual program? Keep it simple and focus solely on students’ ability to communicate in a second language academically. To do this, one needs only to look at the academic curriculum set out in the learners’ native tongue and hold them to the same learning outcomes in the second language, which means eliminating the use of proficiency scales such as the CEFR. For example, if students in grade 1 should know how to count to 100 in their native tongue, then assess them on their ability to do the same in the second language. In this way, content taught is the focus of the evaluation, which directly aligns with the goal of a bilingual program is – for students to function academically in two languages.
A bilingual program can be just as strong as an immersion program if one approaches it with the same mindset and understanding – that the second language students acquire is based on academics. Our next article touches on tips and considerations for setting up the ideal bilingual program at your school - Setting Up a Bilingual Program at Your School.