Bilingual Education in Schools Can do More Harm Than Good
Spain’s drive towards bilingual education to increase their global competitiveness may be doing more harm than good.
English language proficiency rates in Spain have lagged behind those of other European Union members for decades, and Spanish politicians have only recently begun to make English language education a priority. According to the EF English proficiency index, which measures English language proficiency rates, Spain lags far behind Scandinavian powerhouses like Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
Many may find it surprising that countries such as Serbia and Bulgaria, which only recently emerged from years of political and economic turmoil boast higher rates of English proficiency than Spain, but these countries have been far more proactive in their push to make English language education a priority.
For better or for worse, English language skills are becoming essential for students entering the modern job market, and as a result there has been a huge push in Spain toward English classes in public schools, preparation for English language proficiency exams and bilingual classrooms. Spain is now home to a quickly rising number of bilingual institutions with the majority concentrated in the regions of Madrid and Andalucía. Enrollment in these institutions has skyrocketed, growing 360 percent between 2011 and 2017, according to data from the Ministerio de Educacion (Ministry of Education).
Schools that use both English and Spanish in the classroom must be a positive thing, right? What better way to learn a language than intense exposure at school through projects and instruction? That was the mentality behind the decision to implement the massive bilingual program throughout the country, but the approach does have some vocal opponents, and many experts have warned about the potential negative consequences of education in bilingual institutions.
According to a 2015 study conducted by University College London, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, and the Foundation of Applied Economic Studies (Fundación de Estudios de Economia Aplicada), all their efforts “to identify the effect of the bilingual program on different learning outcomes… lead to the same conclusion: There is a clear negative effect, which is quantitatively substantial, on learning the subject taught in English.”
Bilingual Education May Be Sabotaging Students
Due to the recent introduction of the bilingual program, most of the students in these institutions were not exposed to English language instruction during their primary school years, and if they were, it was almost certainly not in the multi-disciplinary manner employed by contemporary institutos bilingues, as bilingual high schools are known in Spain. As a result, many of these students do not have a very firm grasp on the English language, which can become quite the handicap when difficult and complex subjects such as modern European history or chemistry are being taught in English.
Making matters worse, many teachers in bilingual schools may speak English in everyday contexts but might not necessarily have the mastery needed to properly explain the nuances and details of complicated topics. This is especially a problem in areas such as Andalucía, which have experienced a massive demand for bilingual schools without the corresponding supply of English-proficient teachers.
According to Spanish newspaper El Pais, after the region of Andalucía launched its bilingual program in 2004 it faced a huge shortage of qualified teachers. Authorities allowed teachers who had only demonstrated a low-intermediate level of English to teach in bilingual classrooms. Further, the ideas behind the bilingual method are not really based on any concrete statistics or accepted pedagogy. Essentially the students in these institutions are being used as guinea pigs for a massive educational experiment.
It is possible that this new generation of Spanish students will outperform their older peers and excel in all fields as a result of the focus on English language education that has birthed the tendency toward bilingual institutions, but it is also very likely that this experiment will produce a generation lacking knowledge in certain areas as a result of their bilingual education.
There would also seem to be an unfair economic bias at play in terms of the bilingual program, with students from more privileged backgrounds having the resources and opportunities available to capitalize on the gains from the bilingual system while their less affluent peers do not. Students from wealthy families have the means to hire expensive private tutors and may also have the benefit of a parent who is proficient in English.
Students from underprivileged backgrounds whose parents lack higher education and the financial resources to pay for after-school instruction in English are left behind and find it very difficult to navigate the bilingual system they are in.
Bilingual Education Murky Results
Spanish teachers and educational experts have voiced concern and skepticism about the positive benefits of the bilingual system, but if current trends are any indication, the number of students enrolled in these schools will continue to skyrocket, as will the number of educators needed to teach them. No one will know the true ramifications of this policy until more students have graduated from these institutions and joined the workforce, but one can only hope that the final effects of this plan are positive.
One thing is for certain, Spain needs to drastically increase its levels of English proficiency soon, either with bilingual schools or some other course of action to compete in a global market.