top of page

Building better bilingual programmes

There is a rising interest in bilingual education in both international education and national education, in a variety of forms. For the most part, this means introducing English earlier in non-English speaking areas, but this is (thankfully) not the only new iteration of bilingual programmes. While this is a positive step forward in recognising that education does not need to be monolingual, it is important to consider what the desired outcomes are for any programme calling itself bilingual.

What is Bilingual Education?

There are three main aspects to bilingual education. The first is how much teaching is done in each language, the second is what kind of teaching is done in each language, and the third is what is the end-goal of the programme.

A classic model of bilingual education that is used in many (if not most) North American bilingual schools is a time/teacher split between two languages. Some programmes are a 50/50 model, with teaching time being equally split between the two languages, either by half-day or by day on/day off patterns. Generally there is one teacher for each language, and the teachers do not use the other language at all. There is a growing trend in Spanish/English bilingual schools in the US to have one teacher providing teaching in both languages, but this is still the exception rather than the rule in most bilingual programmes. Other programmes operate on the same time/teacher model but have a transitional pattern from lower to upper primary; 90/10, 80/20, 70/30, and so on. These programmes are often designed to provide support for language learners until they can learn in English and do not have bilingualism as their goal. This reveals the first issue with the term bilingual education. The term is used for schools and programmes that have vastly different goals, and correspondingly different methods.

On one end of the spectrum we have programmes that teach in one language and have another language present in the curriculum, but not as a vehicular language for core content. Sometimes they simply have a greater number of language classes per week, sometimes they have non-academic subjects (art, PE, music) taught in another language. These schools are promoting language learning on a greater scale than average, but are not promoting full academic bilingualism. At the other end of the scale are schools that do a significant amount of teaching through the minority language, but the end-goal of the school is to have all the students learning in the majority language. So they are using a bilingual programme to attain monolingualism. This reveals that the presence of two languages in school, and in the classroom, does not make a bilingual programme.

A true bilingual programme meets the following characteristics:

  1. Use of two languages (L1 and L2) as a media of instruction in content areas of curriculum

  2. The progressive development of both languages within the school setting (additive bilingualism)

  3. The implementation of some kind of Content-based instruction

  4. Students’ overall academic achievement and cognitive development is considered in both languages

(Abello-Contesse, et al, 2013, p. 4)

Programmes that meet these characteristics are developmental bilingual programmes, in that academic bilingualism is one of the main goals of the curriculum. It is clear from this definition that many of the programmes described above are not truly bilingual education programmes, but simply education programmes that involve two languages in various ways.


Building a Bilingual Education Programme

In addition to the variation in application of the term bilingual education, there are also on-going issues with implementation within bilingual programmes. Initially, schools may look to models developed in other areas, often using different language pairs, for a programme model. What this neglects to take into account is the many local factors that influence the potential success of any bilingual programme. It is critical to understand the local language ecology, and how the chosen vehicular languages are situated within this. Attempting a bilingual programme using a low-status language alongside a high-status language is a different process than attempting a programme using two high-status languages. Other factors that need consideration are the potential student population, including social, political and cultural factors, as well as the parents' motivations for choosing the programme. Serious attention needs to be paid to both staffing and resourcing the programme, in terms of the chosen curriculum and the local context as well. Careful consideration of factors that will promote or hinder success will help create a better programme from the start, rather than causing a series of issues or crises along the way that require adjusting to redefining the programme altogether. Given how strong an influence local factors have on success it is clear that there is no ideal bilingual programme that can be imported in and set up in schools easily. Each school considering implementing a bilingual programme needs to carry out an extensive needs analysis and development process, to create a programme that fits their needs. The appendices of Mehisto and Genesee's (2015) edited volume Building Bilingual Education Systems contain two very good tools to help schools get started. Colin Baker's classic Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (now in it's 6th edition, with Wayne Wright) should be required reading before any school undertakes the task of developing a bilingual programme.

What would be of immense help to the field is an internationally recognised form of accreditation for bilingual education programmes, or programmes purporting to be bilingual. This would provide schools with an impetus to build true bilingual programmes, and it would also bring clarity to a very muddy field where parents a stndudents are not always sure what they will be getting when they sign up for a bilingual programme. Another excellent support would be a platform where accredited bilingual schools can share their process and their programmes, to provide real-life examples of a wide variety of successful bilingual programmes. This would give new schools a view into how programmes similar in local context have been successfully developed and help build a network that showcases how successful bilingual education can be in many (I hesitate to say all!) contexts.


Abello-Contesse, C., Chandler, P., Lopez-Jimenez, M., & Chacon-Beltran, R. (Eds.). (2013). Bilingual and Multilingual Education in the 21st Century. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Baker, C., & Wright, W. (2017). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (6 ed.). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Mehisto, P., & Genesee, F. (2015). Building Bilingual Education Systems: Forces, Mechanisms and Counterweights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page