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Why not bilingual?

Mary Hayden presented in depth on the changing nature of international education at the 2019 ECIS MLIE conference. As the number of schools with an 'international' designation increases, the profile of such schools is changing significantly. Originally created to provide an education for globally mobile families, these schools are now an increasingly in the minority. The new growth in 'international' schools is in the domestic market. These schools differ in one significant way; the language profile. Whilst traditional international schools were composed of students from many places, speaking many languages, the new breed of international schools are home to local students, who mainly share one language. This leads to a new set of challenges in international education, relating to the home language of the students.

In the majority of international schools, the language of teaching is English (not all, of course). When educating a linguistically diverse student body, this seems a logical choice to make, on the part of schools, and by parents. In the increasingly domestic international school market, the choice is also mainly for English as a medium of instruction (EMI). In most of these schools the home/host country language is also taught, but to different levels, in terms of time and prestige in the curriculum.

My question to these schools, and the question they should be asking themselves is: Why not bilingual? There are many reasons why a school with this profile should consider a bilingual programme instead of a traditional EMI programme. Here are a few:

The research clearly points to the overall superiority of bilingual over monolingual approaches:

a. Children in bilingual programmes develop better in their own language, achieving full academic fluency.

b. Children in bilingual programmes have stronger academic progress.

c. Children in bilingual programmes develop English at least as well, if not better than, children in English-only programmes.

More information on all of these statements can be found here: The Role of the First Language in English Medium Instruction.

Those who would like a summary version can read the blog post I wrote for the OUP about the report here: The use of L1 in EMI; Moving from why to how

Aside from these compelling reasons, there are other important reasons why bilingual is better than English-only for these schools. These are related to the duty of care that schools have to nurture what students come to them with: a language and an identity. Going to school in English when you don't live in a place that makes this necessary is an unusual construct for children. We know that all bilingual children tap into contextual messages about their languages in terms of value and status. What message does it send children when their language, the language they live in, takes a back seat to English? A bilingual programme helps them embrace a new aspect of their identity, while remaining strongly rooted in their own language and culture.

A second, but not secondary, reason is related to language development. It is very hard for children to develop full academic proficiency in their own language without having some of their schooling experiences in that language. This is especially true when the language has a different writing system from English. Some parents (and schools) don't think this is an issue, because their aspirations for their children are outside their own country. While it is fine for parents to have hopes for their children, it is also the responsibility of parents (and schools) to prepare a child for any eventuality. This means that the first language should be a priority, as it is the language that will allow a child to grow into an adult who can function fully in their own place in the world. Being a fluent user of the local language and having fairly strong skills in English will open doors. Being a fluent user of English but not the local language will close doors.

Given the state of current research on language in education, there is no reason to not provide children in local international schools with a bilingual curriculum, to keep all doors open to them.


Even more, I would argue that all children have a right to their own language first and foremost, and to English (or other languages) in addition to, but not in the place of their own language.

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