Author’s Note: This article is the throwback to one that was produced in connection with the series on schooling in Germany. This time, we look back at and re-stress the importance of bilingual education in German schools, based on the experience of teachers having done this, as mentioned here in this interview dated 23 July, 2014.
In the last entry on bilingual teaching in Germany, the author discussed the benefits and drawbacks of teaching a subject in a foreign language from his own experience, as well as tips for teachers willing to and planning on teaching a bilingual class in the future. To summarize briefly, bilingual teaching can be beneficial if teachers are willing to devote the extra time needed to prepare the materials and teaching methods for each session and if students are able and willing to communicate and learn the vocabulary in a foreign language. It does not mean that it is not doable, for a subject in a foreign language has its advantages, which includes looking at aspects from another point of view and implementing the language in other fields to encourage learning through Context Language and Integrated Learning (CLIL). It just means that one needs to be creative with lesson-planning, working with the restrictions of time per session (each one has 45 minutes unless it is a block session as mentioned here), and the language competence on the part of the students.
But what about from the view of the other teachers who taught the bilingual module: what do they think of bilingual teaching in the school? This question was one of two that I and two other colleagues at the Gymnasium (where I’m doing my Praxissemester), and one from another Gymnasium 25 kilometers away, pursued in a project we did for the university on bilingual teaching in the English language. This consisted of observing the bilingual classes in English, such as History, Geography and Music, both as a teacher (like I did in history), as well as an observer. Then the interview was conducted with the teachers to gain an insight on what they think of teaching a subject in a different language- namely in English instead of their native German language.
The interview comprised of ten questions, featuring three closed (multiple choice), one hybrid and six open-ended questions. The open-ended questions were categorized and ranked based on how often the answers came about in one way or another. Seven teachers from the two Gymnasien participated in the interview- five from my Gymnasium and two from the other Gymnasium where my colleague did hers. Of which, four teachers were interviewed directly, whereas the remaining three completed the interview questions in writing for time and logistic reasons. None of the participants were native speakers of English, but came from the fields of history(1), sports(1), geography (1), foreign languages(1) natural science (1) and music (2).
After tallying the data and categorizing the answers, we came to the following results, which will be summarized briefly here.
1. College Degree, Further Qualifications and Interest
While bilingual education in the English language is best suited for those whose Lehramt degree includes the lingua franca, only five of those asked actually received a degree in English; the other two did not but took additional classes to improve their English skills for the class. As a supplemental question, despite bilingual modules being obligatory, all but two of those asked volunteered to teach the class in English with most viewing bilingual teaching as either for the purpose of interest in learning the language and the culture of Anglo-Saxon countries or a chance to improve on their career chances, or both.
2. Preparation and Teaching Bilingual Classes
As a general rule, one spends twice as much time learning a subject in a foreign language than it is in his native tongue. There was no exception to the rule with regards to preparing for a bilingual class in the English language. When asked how much time it took to prepare the module in comparison to the regular classes, all seven respondants mentioned that it took much longer than normal to prepare for a class in the foreign language. Factors influencing this included what had been mentioned in the previous article: lack of education materials already published, resulting in finding alternatives to teaching the subject to the students. This included using audio/visual aid in the form of films, YouTube videos and the internet to enhance listening skills and foster discussion, as well as creating self-made materials, such as worksheets and other activities to enhance vocabulary and reading skills. Two of the respondants even required students to do presentations in English. This promoted the variance of the teaching styles used in class- namely frontal teaching, individual and group work and demonstrations, which encouraged students to learn more on their own than having the teachers present their topic in frontal form, which is the most traditional, but sometimes one of the most boring, if students are not encouraged to participate in the discussions.
This question requires some clarity in itself. Both schools offer foreign language classes that students are required to take in order to graduate. Prior to the introduction of the module by the state in 2009, they were the only two that offered bilingual classes in English and other languages, a tradition that has been around for almost 50 years and is still strong to this day. Like on the university level, students focus on skills pertaining to reading, listening, writing, grammar, oral communication, presentation and real-life situations, all of whom are tested regularily. An article on the different tests and their degree of difficulties students face will be presented in the Files soon. These skills are implemented in the different subjects through the bilingual module with another one being developed- the ability to acquire specific vocabulary from certain subjects- a process known as Content Language and Integrated Learning (CLIL).
The question about the results for the teachers to answer featured an overall ranking of whether and how students improved their skills through the bilingual module and the grading scale in terms of the above-mentioned skills, minus presentations and real-life situations. On the scale of one to six (one being outstanding and six being worse), the overall grade average for both schools was between 2,9 and 3- equivalent to the grade of C in American standards. While grammar skills were rarely covered in the bilingual module, according to the interviews, the reading and listening skills were the strongest, while the writing skills were the weakest. Communication in English varied from group to group, making it difficult to determine how well the speaking skills were in comparision with the rest. In either case, despite having several outlyers on each end, the performance of the students in the bilingual module is the same as in a foreign language class, according to the accounts stated by the interviewees. This leads to the question of how to improve the curriculum in terms of quality so that the students and teachers can benefit more from it than what has been practiced so far after the first year of initiating the modules.
4. Suggestions for Improvement
The final observations of the English bilingual modules can be found in the question of whether it makes sense to continue with the scheme and if so, what improvements could be made. While it is clear that the module program was introduced in Thuringia, and many schools are introducing them into their curriculum, if imagined that the program is not compulsory but only optional, all but one of the six respondents replied with yes, with one being omitted for technical reasons. Reasons for continuing with the bilingual educational module in the classroom include the opportunity to improve communication in English, learn new vocabulary, be flexible with teaching methods and materials, and combine the English language and the subject into one.
Yet in its current shape and form, vast improvements need to be made, according to all seven respondents. The majority (five) of the seven respondents would like to see some more English classes being offered to them so they can improve their language and communication skills before entering the classroom to teach the subject in the English language. This coincides with the observations made by the author while sitting in the classroom on several occasions and helping them improve on some aspects of the language outside of class. While some classes are available through external institutions, like the Volkshochschule (Institute of Continuing Education), more funding for programs to encourage teachers to enhance their language skills are needed in order for the bilingual module to work. The same applies to CLIL training to determine how the subject matter should be taught in the foreign language and what teaching methods are suitable for use in the classroom. Not far behind in the suggestions include more materials that coincide with the curriculum, including worksheets and books, something that was observed from the author himself after teaching history in the English language. While teachers have the ability to be creative and produce their own worksheets, many are of the opinion that in the foreign language, more preparation time is needed for that, something that was mentioned in the interview by a couple respondents.
After a year of teaching the module, the teachers of both schools find the bilingual classes in the English language to be worth the time and investment, for despite the fact that their handicap is not being a native speaker of English and having some difficulties in communicating in the language, thus causing some misunderstanding between the teacher and the students at times, they see the module as a win-win situation. Students in their opinion can obtain the vocabulary and other skills needed from their respective fields and implement them in future classes, or even for the exams they need to take in the 10th grade year. For them, they see the bilingual module as an opportunity for them to gather some experience and confidence in the communication in English. Yet, more support is needed in order for them to become even more successful and the students to profit from their teaching in a foreign language. This is something that was observed from my personal experience teaching the module, communicating as a native speaker of English. This leads to the question of whether the students have the same opinion about this as the teachers do. This will be presented in the next installment. However……
6. Suggestion and support needed….
Thuringia is not the only state that offers the bilingual modules in a foreign language. Many states in Germany have already introduced bilingual education in their school curriculum, either as a whole (like in North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria) or through individual schools- both private or public. How are the subjects taught bilingually? Do you have any modules or are the classes offered in English for the whole school year? What teachers do you have for bilingual education in the school: are they native speakers, Lehramt students, etc.? And what suggestions do you have for improving the bilingual curriculum if your school has tried the bilingual curriculum for the first time, as was the case in Thuringia?
Leave your comments here or on the pages entitled The Flensburg Files or Germany! You can also contact the author of the Files, using the contact details under About the Files. Your opinions do matter for the teachers who are planning on teaching bilingual classes in a foreign language in the future.
The author would like to thank the participants for your useful input in the interview, as well as three assistants for helping out in the interview and questionnaires. You have been a great help.