Bilingualism, and its close friend multilingualism are buzz words these days. Do a quick Google search and you will find a plethora of articles proclaiming the myriad benefits of speaking more than one language, some true and some exaggerated. A side effect of this increased attention is a growing interest in promoting bilingualism at younger and younger ages through schooling. Many different initiatives are popping up to cash in on the "earlier is better" publicity, from early foreign language learning to bilingual and immersion programmes. In all educational settings, it is important to recognise that not all students need a bilingual programme in order to become bilingual. In state schools all over the world, and certainly in international schools, many students will become bilingual simply by learning the language of instruction of their school, because they speak a different language (or languages) at home. For these students, a bilingual programme may actually be detrimental to their development rather than beneficial.
In the international school sector, students who are "emergent bilinguals" are in the majority in many schools. Very often, they are also learning another language as the host country language, and a world language on top of that! While they are attending to all of these language development needs, what is happening to their own language? Is anyone paying attention to the continuing development of this language? Or are these students simply paddling so hard to keep up with the linguistic demands of their school that their own language begins to weaken? Christine Hélot refers to this as 'ignored bilingualism' - where the natural bilingual potential of students is ignored or refused in the pursuit of a "better" kind of bilingualism.
This tendency is strong in bilingual schools as well. Most people will happily put their children in a bilingual programme, and many bilingual schools will have an open door policy because "bilingualism is for everyone". Indeed, bilingualism can and should be for everyone, but the pathway shouldn't be the same for every child. It is important to situate a child's home language at the heart of their bilingual potential. If the school language is different than the home language, then this child has an excellent chance of becoming comfortably bilingual. If the school is a bilingual school, and the child is expected to learn two new languages, to an academic level, without any impact on their academic progress, what will be the cost? The expected length of development for CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) is 3-7 years, in a full-time educational setting. Dividing the time in school across two languages is going to extend that time. And while the child is working immensely hard to develop two languages for learning, how much time and effort is going to be put into the continued development of their own language?
In this case, I would argue that bilingualism is certainly the right goal for this child. But it should be bilingualism in their home language and the school language, not in two school languages, at the expense of their own language. Adding two languages may seem like additive bilingualism, but if it is at the cost of the home language, it's still subtractive bilingualism.
Language profiling before school entry would allow schools to clearly understand a child's language profile, and based their continued bilingual development on the languages necessary, not on an ideal of "bilingual education is for everyone". It not that simple, or that simplistic.
Hélot C 2011 ‘Interview for NNEST of the Month’ 31 August. Available at http://nnest.blog.com/ 2011/08/31/chistine-helot/ accessed 10 October 2014.