Education in two languages: bilingualism and CLIL

Education in two languages: bilingualism and CLILIf you’re a teacher of English, a parent of a child at a bilingual school, or even a teacher called upon to teach your subject specialism in a second language, then you’ve more than likely heard of CLIL.

But what is it? And what makes it different from traditional language teaching?

Bilingualism and CLIL

CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) is an increasingly popular approach to bilingual education. Bilingualism itself is the norm in most parts of the word, the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are well-established, and bilingual education itself goes back a long way. Aristocratic Romans considered a bilingual Greek and Latin education essential for their sons, while clay tablets unearthed in Aleppo in the 1970s indicate that instruction was being given in two languages as far back as 3000BC1. In today’s globalised world, governments and schools looking to the most effective ways to ensure they equip school-leavers with the second language skills necessary for success are increasing choosing CLIL as their preferred method.

In CLIL, content from subjects across the curriculum is taught, wholly or partly, through the medium of an additional language, which is often (but certainly not always) English. CLIL classes are content-driven, with a dual focus of teaching both the subject and the language together. The subject matter determines what language will be learned, and the language introduced serves to allow students to learn and communicate about the subject in question. This means that unlike more traditional English lessons, which tend to introduce language in a fairly standardised order of increasing grammatical complexity, CLIL lessons adopt a primarily lexical approach, with lessons becoming more challenging the deeper into the content they go.

However, CLIL is more than simply teaching a subject in another language, or including topic-based work in a language classroom, although it shares many features with integrated skills lessons in ELT. The objective of a CLIL course is to increase learners’ knowledge and understanding of a specific curriculum area, and to develop their thinking and analytical skills more generally. CLIL lessons include a wide range of teaching methodologies, many if not all of which will be familiar to the EFL practitioner, including structured group work, inductive learning, task-based learning and integrated use of educational technologies.

In CLIL, acquisition of the language of instruction becomes a means to an end rather than an end in itself. This has been shown to improve learners’ attitudes towards the language2. It also economises on lesson time in otherwise packed curricula. Many schools are under pressure from governments to ensure pupils have a certain amount of bilingual education, especially in English, before the graduate. For example, the European Council passed a resolution in 1995 stating that “…all EU citizens, by the time they leave compulsory schooling, should be able to speak two languages other than the mother tongue”. CLIL helps them to achieve this.

A typical CLIL lesson still includes elements of all four language skills. Listening and reading texts serves as key sources of input. In speaking, fluency is prioritised over accuracy, while in writing the key aim is to use topic-related vocabulary with  range of grammatical structure to consolidate and demonstrate understanding of the content of the lesson.

It can be challenging for teachers who are not necessarily language teachers, or even not fully proficient in the second language, to teach using CLIL, especially as learners may have similar levels of background knowledge as regards the content but very different levels of language ability. Fortunately, there are many excellent resources that offer the CLIL teacher structured materials for teaching everything from science to music to arts and crafts. Pearson has developed a range of courses that bring together the best in CLIL methodology with engaging classroom materials for learners and helpful support materials for teachers.

CLIL is not the same as immersion education. Some schools may only teach on subject through the second language, others may only teach certain sections of a particular subject curriculum. Others may be more wide-ranging. And of course, CLIL doesn’t mean that the learner’s first language should not be taken into account, or that learners should be penalised for using it in class. Indeed, ‘trans-languaging’ and ‘code-switching‘ – the systematic and dynamic use of two languages to achieve a variety of communicative goals – is the norm in the many parts of the world where bilingualism and multilingualism are widespread, and can easily form part of a CLIL approach. However, as with any aspect of the teaching and learning process, it needs to be incorporated into lessons in a guided, structured way.

Bilingualism and CLIL are becoming ever more important in education around the world. Why not bring some of their benefits into your own classroom? You can find out out more about CLIL here, more about bilingualism and its benefits here, and more about our CLIL resources here.

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More info at Pearson ELT Spain & Portugal

1. Ofelia Garcia, Bilingual education in the 21st century: a global perspective. 2009 ch.8

2. CLIL: An interview with Professor David Marsh International House Journal of Education and Development. 

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