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What is a Bilingual Education?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Bilingual education is a form of education in which a student learns in two languages, typically a native or home language the person already speaks and a secondary language that is considered a common or official language. This type of education is quite prevalent and popular in some countries, while in other countries it is frowned upon or has been completely abandoned in favor of unilingual programs. A bilingual program will typically divide different classes into one language or another, providing certain materials in each language. Bilingual education is quite common and popular in areas with several different common languages or countries with a large immigrant population.

In general, bilingual education is the practice of incorporating two languages into a student’s education. For example, in Spain there is an official national language, Castilian Spanish, and four equal regional languages within the country. In order to effectively facilitate education in a way that establishes national usage of Castilian without destroying regional language variations, many students learn in both languages. Some classes may be presented in one language, while other classes will use the other language.

Vocabulary cards for learning English.
Vocabulary cards for learning English.

Bilingual education is used in much of the Middle East, for example, as is trilingual education. It is common for subjects such as language and history to be taught in local, native languages such as Arabic. Science and math, however, are often taught in English, and in some regions French or Kurdish is also used in classrooms. This type of bilingual education allows students to learn in their home language, the language the students and their parents speak at home, and a secondary language in which they become fluent. It is also typical for concepts learned regarding a native language to be easily transferred by a student to a better understanding of the secondary language.

A street sign in English and Chinese.
A street sign in English and Chinese.

In other countries, bilingual education is a source of controversy or debate among educators and political leaders. The United States (US) for example has a number of different policies regarding language and education, with a great deal of effort being used to support English-only learning. In some states, new students may have one to three years of learning in their native language while also learning English, before moving into predominantly English classrooms.

Other states within the US, such as Arizona, do not allow for any adjustment time and immediately place students into classrooms where English is predominantly or exclusively spoken. The effectiveness of such programs is under debate, and the No Child Left Behind program set national requirements for all students, regardless of English proficiency, to take yearly tests in English. There are many proponents of various types of bilingual education in the US, however, and some secondary language classes are often required of all American students before completing public education.

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      Vocabulary cards for learning English.
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