In School In Germany: Bilingual Education- overview

Teaching History in the English Language: Teacher’s Task


If you were to go back to the days of  high school- be it 20 or 30 years back- what are some things you wish the school system should have offered and why?

Growing up in rural Minnesota, there were not many options available for elective classes, apart from the ones that are bare essential and are necessary. Many high schools offered two foreign languages (in my case, German and Spanish, although I had spent my freshman year at another high school that had offered French and Spanish). Many offer graphic arts and anything related to the highschool yearbook and newspaper, while almost everyone offers courses related to agriculture. You cannot be a farmer without having knowledge about growing crops,  the stockyards and the value of livestock. 😉

But seriously, if there had been a chance to change something 20 years back, it would be to introduce bilingual classes. The reasons are two-fold: 1. The increase of immigrants from Mexico and South America and 2. The chance to learn a foreign language other than English so that one can get by in a foreign country.  While bilingual education was introduced at that time in the southern part of the US, including New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California, the top half of the country was (and sadly, still is) monolingual, being dependent solely on English for survival and showing no interest in other foreign languages.

Here in Europe, many people pride themselves on foreign languages, which explains the reason for learning multiple languages, including English, Russian, Spanish, Dutch and even Latin, just to name a few. Schools offer these classes as a way to immerse the pupils into the language and get them prepared for the real world. But some schools are taking it one step further, by introducing bilingual classes.

This includes those in Germany, which requires pupils to learn foreign languages beginning in the 3rd grade.

Since 2009, schools are required to include a foreign language module into the curriculum, so that classes can be taught in a foreign language other than German. This includes classes dealing with humanities, social and behavioral sciences and natural sciences. And while the target language is mainly English or French, it serves as a form of shock therapy to force the students to learn other subjects while immersed in another language.

Already as I prepare to teach history in my native tongue, I have been collecting some benefits and drawbacks, some of which will be tested to determine whether the arguments are justified, and if so how.  A big plus for pupils is that if they have a sufficient background in a foreign language, then they will take advantage of learning new vocabulary in a topic they are required to learn before completing their Abitur (graduate exam). If a native is teaching the class, or someone with enough language knowledge , it could also serve as an advantage for pupils to listen to the person and pick up listening skills.  And to kill two flies with a swatter, pupils can improve their skills in the areas of reading, writing and oral skills, pending on how the teacher prepares his curriculum and carries it out in class.

The drawbacks however are just as big. The largest problem schools have in Germany- and in particular, the states of the former East Germany- is that there are fewer teachers with sufficient knowledge of the foreign language to carry out the task. That means if non-native teachers present the course in a language where improvements are necessary, then there is a danger of making grave errors in pronunciation and grammar, which would carry over onto the pupils. Another problem mentioned is the priority of foreign languages in the schools. That means some schools offer more bilingual classes in one language which is to many students the second foreign language than they do in a language that is considered the first. This creates a danger where pupils will have problems processing the information if taking a class  in the second foreign language, instead of the first, unless they excel in both. And lastly, as seen in many foreign language classes, the language level of the pupil is the biggest unknown factor. One can have a group with good enough English to spurn a conversation, but if there is a group that lacks the skills or even confidence, the teacher is forced to revert to the native language.

In order for the bilingual class to be a success, it must be conducted in bite sizes, using the foreign language 75% of the time and the native language 25%. Yet the experiment is doable as it has been done before, and if conducted the right way, both the teacher and the class will benefit. While there will be some follow-ups on this part of the series on bilingual education, as I embark on this mission teaching history in English in the classroom at the Gymnasium, I would like to encourage everyone to post their experiences of teaching a bilingual class in the Comment section, as well as some advice on how to make bilingual classes a success.

How successful is bilingual education in the school, how important is it and how can we benefit from this? Would love to hear your comments about it! 🙂

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