In this age of connectivity and globalisation the ability to speak more than one language has undeniable benefits. There are numerous studies confirming that bi- or multi-lingual competencies make individuals more confident, sociable, culturally aware, tolerant and open-minded, thus improving their relationships with others. They also have employment advantages as they are known to be more flexible, able to deal with conflicting demands for attention, competent problem solvers, keen to develop professionally and useful travelling ambassadors adept at establishing contacts in different markets worldwide.
For these reasons, the provision of a bilingual education promoting two working languages within and beyond the classroom has many proponents, both in national (USA, Canada, Belgium) and international schools. Whilst the common language for many expatriate children is English, learning the host-country language as well allows them easier integration into the local community and facilitates friendships outside the school environment.
From a school’s point of view, offering a bilingual curriculum with each of the languages in question having equal status represents a number of challenges – the teaching of all subjects by native speakers of both languages requires more staff, more learning materials, more student support lessons, and, by extension, a bigger budget. The curriculum must be well-balanced and provide a broad exposure to a variety of situations within each language. It is not just a question of teaching ‘the same thing’ in another language, but of providing an insight into the differences between cultures and appreciating the wealth of experiences to be discovered.
It tends to be parents who have concerns, particularly those whose mother-tongue does not coincide with either of the languages of the school. They worry that their children (depending on their age) will find it difficult to cope with two additional languages, that the different languages will ‘interfere’ with each other, that their mother-tongue skills will be diminished, and that their further education opportunities could be compromised because of specialist knowledge acquired in a language other than that of their future university or college.
However, the advantages of being capable of communicating with people of different languages, and the transferability of underlying linguistic knowledge, are undisputed. Children educated in more than one language have been shown to outperform their monolingual peers in linguistic, cognitive and social skills. With some foresight, fluency in the native language can be promoted in the home, and reinforced through a co-curricular mother-tongue programme at the school.
Nevertheless, it is recognised that the propensity for learning is not unaffected by individual traits and receptiveness, and that true mastery of two or more languages in all its aspects (listening, speaking, reading, writing and, ultimately, thinking) is not necessarily achievable even after years of practice.
A well-delivered bilingual curriculum promotes language acquisition at the same time as subject learning takes place, and gives each student the opportunity to develop both according to his/her potential. Whilst not all will achieve the same level of proficiency in one or more additional languages, they will become more versatile and confident. Most importantly, they will gain an awareness and understanding of other cultures and come to realise that effective communication is the key to progress and understanding.