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What is ethical bilingual education?

Bilingual education is a hot topic these days, in both state and international education. On the whole, I support (obviously!) most bilingual education efforts, and increasing provisions for such. There is a danger, however, in trying to apply a one-size fits all mentality when it comes to bilingual education that can lead to potential detrimental effects for some students. As is any other area of education, I think that it is critical to look at the ethical issues involved for both individual students and cohorts of students, to ensure that the programmes are designed to be of benefit to the students, and not only to a school's reputation or marketing.


Ethical Bilingual Education from a Group Perspective

The first area to consider is the group or groups of students being served by the programme. In many cases, bilingual education is transitional in nature; its goal is to support learners through their own language until they learn the school language only. This type is bilingual education is therefore actually designed to foster eventual monolingualism. Ethical bilingual education is founded on providing support for students in the languages they need in their environment, and providing support for eventual academic proficiency in both languages. A welcome addition to the field would be more bilingual education programmes that focus on immigrant languages, providing groups of immigrants with the possibility to have their children educated in both their language and the language of their new community. These programmes are few and far between, as immigrant languages are generally considered to be low status and an impediment to learning the community language, rather than an asset. There are a small number of programmes in Germany that focus on dual-language models, with the two languages being German and a local immigrant language (Duarte, 2011). These trials produced positive results for the studied groups, and are an interesting point of departure for re-aligning the goals of bilingual education. The common perception is that bilingual education exists to help children become bilingual when they otherwise would not be; this is the case with the Canadian immersion programmes that take otherwise monolingual English speakers and educate them in French to provide them with the opportunity to become bilingual. In the immigrant and international schools context, many students will become bilingual by default already - they speak one (or more) languages at home, and will learn another through schooling. I would argue that the ethical choice for programming for these children is a bilingual programme that will help them become successfully bilingual in those languages, not in two additional languages. Thus, bilingual education rooted in the community's needs provides an impetus to consider more carefully which languages should be supported through bilingual education.


Ethical Bilingual Education from an Individual Perspective

Considering group needs is an ethical approach when designing bilingual education for a static group of learners within a static community. On an individual level, a programme that is ethical for one child may not be for another. There has been an upswing in bilingual primary school programmes in many European countries, focused mainly on providing instruction in the national language and English. What is presumed in these schools is the children already speak the national language and will learn English and thus become bilingual. What is often ignored is that some children come into these programmes as speakers of neither the national language nor English, but with one or even two other languages. These children will become bilingual even if they go to a monolingual school - they don't need to be in a bilingual programme for that to happen. The basic question then is: do they really need to be in a bilingual programme? And the ethical question is: will this programme support their language learning and academic needs? Very often, these programmes do not offer additional support for learning either language, as it is presumed that students should speak the national language already, and are all learning English together. If the expectation is that students who are learning *both* languages do so only with the regular classroom input they may not be able to develop well in either language. We know from Cummins' work that students in full-immersion style programmes can take from 3-9 years to reach full academic proficiency in the school language. If teaching time is divided across two languages there is the potential for significant effects for language development in both languages, leading to academic consequences for the student. Here in the Netherlands this is currently an issue, as the new bilingual primary schools cannot refuse students, as they are not allowed to be "elitist". I would argue that this issue is about ethics and not elitism. If we agree to acknowledge and use as the starting point the natural bilingualism of the students, and not from the often over-emphasised need to start English earlier, we could provide support for both groups to be successfully bilingual, under different circumstances and through different means.


In short, ethical bilingual education addresses two main issues. The first is what the language needs of a group are and how the programme can provide for this bilingual development. The second is what the language needs of each individual child are, and how a programme may support the language development needs on an individual level. There is often a tension when discussing languages in education between what is best for the child in the short-term, and what will benefit the child most in adulthood. I would argue that if we don't start with what is best for the child in the short-term we many never see the long-term benefits anyway.


Further Reading

Benson, C. (2014). School Access for Children from Non-dominant Ethnic and Linguistic Communities. UNESCO Institute for Global Statistics. Paper commissioned for Fixing the Broken Promise of Education for All: Findings from the Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children (UIS/UNICEF, 2015).

Bismilla, V., Cummins, J., Chow, P., Cohen, S., Giampapa, F., Leoni, L., . . . Sastri, P. (2005). Affirming identity in multilingual classrooms. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 38-43.

Cummins, J. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and Theoretical Status of the Distinction. In B. Street, & N. Hornberger (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education (Vol. Volume 2: LIteracy, pp. 71-83). Springer Science and Business Media.

Duarte, J. (2011). Migrants’ educational success through innovation: The case of the Hamburg bilingual schools. International Review of Education, 57(5-6), 631-649.

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

Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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