Is dual-language bilingual education a solution for India?
How can we learn and live and thrive in English AND our regional and national languages?
There’s been a recent spate of articles by Indian scientists and entrepreneurs recognising the pressing need for communicating and teaching science in languages other than English. It’s time for Hindi and Kannada and Tamil and Assamese and Konkani and Punjabi and Pahadi (you get it, right?) lexicons for all things science and, in general, all things generally spoken about in English alone. It’s time for me to be able to write at this fluency in Hindi and/or Sindhi.
A lot of work has been done on bilingual education worldwide — especially in the context of learning and spreading English. Bilingual education is an amazing solution to meeting the cultural, social, and economic needs of a population — lending both esteem to the primary regional language and thus persons and culture and efficacy and opportunity in dealing across cultures.
Bilingual education models initiate instruction in the primary language while developing second language skills — here we speak of English. Some of these models aim for full bilingualism, others aim for English proficiency only and use the primary language to develop initial literacy skills or facilitate access to academic content while English is developed. Some of the prominent models are:
- Early-exit / Late-exit transitional bilingual education
- Developmental or maintenance bilingual education
- Bilingual immersion
- Integrated (i.e., non-segregated) transitional bilingual education
- Dual-language or two-way immersion
Indian states could use a mix of different programs depending upon differences in student population and need.
To learn another language, an effective way is something called immersion education models. Here, instruction is initiated in the student’s secondary language, and academic content is largely or completely taught in this language.
This is akin to English-medium schools in India — it involves structured english immersion (SEI) by original design — which has gone unchallenged for too many years!
Immersion can be great while trying to learn a new language, but it has detrimental effects if our education is in a language that is neither regional nor national. It also greatly widens the power and privilege gap between those who go to English medium schools and those who don’t.
A case for dual-language bilingual education
Being literate in more than one language has its obvious advantages:
- Speaking, reading, writing, and understanding multiple languages are important 21st-century skills for an increasingly global society
- We can benefit from the educational, economic, cognitive, and socio-cultural advantages of knowing two or more languages
- Our worlds expand, which permits us to communicate, and even partner with, members of other cultural groups
But how should this be done? Many schools around the world offer bilingual education. For example, the International School of Monaco is bilingual in French and English. Teachers are usually proficient in both languages, with days of the week being dedicated to one or the other. At the Yew Chung International School in Shanghai, Chinese students were given specific training in English and non-Chinese students were trained in Chinese. The primary education is completely bilingual and bicultural, with two teachers in each class, one English-speaking and one-Chinese speaking, while in secondary school academic instruction is in English.
There are many examples out there! Let’s start learning, synthesising, experimenting, and improving them!
Why this approach?
The literacy goal of dual-language bilingual education is primary and secondary language proficiency for both academic instruction and general communication, distributed over grades. For example, moving from 90/10 to 50/50, depending on the demographic. ‘Sheltered instruction’ is used as students learn content subjects through the non-primary language of that student. Evaluations of this model indicate effectiveness in promoting academic achievement and high levels of language proficiency for both groups of students.
Dual-language bilingual education works with integrated classroom populations. It works well when there is substantial peer interaction to tap student’s language resources. For example, if half the students are more proficient in English, and the other half are from another language group, peer learning is enhanced. Students learn both languages and acquire positive cross-cultural attitudes from each other and teachers.
If we really want to bridge India’s ginormous class divisions, this could be something useful and important. Imagine neighbourhood public schools with a diverse class mix (of socioeconomic classes).
Elements of successful implementation
Of course, if this were so easy to implement, we’d have already cracked it. But India has a large bilingual population and thus a large potential number of teachers and educators who can speak English as well as their native language. We just have to get the cogs moving and remember these pitfalls:
- It works well with two or three languages, but not more. For example, if we have students of many regional languages coming together in the same classroom, it’s difficult to succeed in quint-lingual education.
- Peer learning works best when approximately half the students are native English speakers and half are native speakers of another language.
- Bilingual teachers need to be trained to teach learners in both languages, and a host of sheltered instructional material would need to be developed.
- Language-majority students would remain at a cultural disadvantage, needing to conform to the primary and secondary languages of the school
- Successful implementation rests on a strong commitment from the school, family, and community
There are few studies documenting the effects of programs using languages with different scripts (i.e. Hindi/English) in dual-language bilingual education, but you could be the one to start!