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Teaching in Spain: bilingualism

Teaching in Spain: bilingualism

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In recent years, the Spanish education system has been shaken up. With an increasing pressure from the government, bilingualism is the new educational buzzword. For some, it heralds a new era, for others it invokes fear at the thought of straddling two languages. As a native teacher of English, they are concepts familiar to me.

In literal terms, being bilingual is defined as “the capacity of a person to use, or be able to use, two languages with the same efficiency.” A globalised society has made languages a priority in order to improve communicative competence in youngsters and adults alike. The Spanish government has taken this concept to heart and, conscious of the growing necessity for linguistic aptitude has bet on the expansion and improvement of language teaching from the primary stages by creating bilingual schools. One must consider how effective such a burgeoning yet embryonic system is.

A bilingual school can mean that that instructional hours in English can consume a large proportion of a pupil’s schedule. In some cases, just the relevant native language – in this case, Spanish – associated literature and maths are taught in the mother tongue. Proportionately speaking therefore, the foreign language can dominate up to ten or twelve hours of overall teaching time, [25 hours per week]. For the doubters, language acquisition suggests a damning effect on the hitherto dominant language.

The system was first implemented in Madrid in 2004, at which time, only twenty six schools became bilingual. More recent statistics show that, of 1231 schools funded by the state, (subsidised and public), this figure now stands at 537. Despite not being half, this relatively rapid inline sends a clear message as to where the government, et al, perceive the future to be.

Dual linguistic embrace can come at a cost though. Whilst the youth of today are being given a push and, some might say, a shove, towards a recognised lingua franca, there are pitfalls that pepper the transitional period. It would therefore be curious not to mention the plight of those affected in an unrelenting and stressful fashion: the trained native teachers of Spain. They are not only expected to be proficient in an array of subjects but they are similarly expected to be proficient in the English language. The risk then, is that some excellent teachers are falling at this linguistic hurdle; they are not only left trying to wrangle with a different language but, correspondingly, are seeking employment in a field that seems determined to push them away from their vocation.

But, of course, one cannot consider bilingualism without giving airtime to the thousands and thousands who are the focus of this restructure: the students; the generations expected to reach into a global world seamlessly. These children are studying subjects such as history, natural science and even geography of their own country in a foreign tongue. The risks are implicit – the threat to Spanish terminology and the dilution of the prevalent language. Furthermore, there is a possible stress factor placed on these youths and that is before we even consider those who already are hampered by learning difficulties. The system designed to propel students into the future, may actually have the opposite effect if not managed sensitively. Coupled with this, teaching them values in other languages could result in miscommunication when it comes to sharing empathy and affection; essential skills for any young person.

The question is about how this can be managed and one suggestion is that is perhaps better not to teach core subjects solely in a foreign language. If the government wants future generations to be both bilingual and understanding of other cultures, there is a foundation required first for understanding the nuances of their own language. It could be more advantageous to increase the hours where English is taught as a foreign language as opposed to being a substitute for the mother tongue in some areas.

The road to bilingualism was never going to be easy but, with the right vehicles and a holistic approach, Spain can move towards its bilingual dream whilst maintaining the beauty and meaning of its own language.

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