Expat Magazine

Bilingual Education Models in Europe and Asia: an Interview with Prof. Andrew E. Finch

By Internationalcouples @icouples

Bilingual parents and international couples strive to choose the best models and approaches for the bilingual education of their children. Despite being in the information age, help and direction is still needed to help parents sort through the mass of available resources.

This is an interview with Professor Andrew E. Finch, Dept. of English Education at Kyungpook National University, Korea.


Dear Professor Finch, more than ever before Europe and Asia are witnessing a huge increase in population shifts, migrations and language diversity. How does it affect the way languages are taught across schools and institutions worldwide?

I agree with you that population shift is a major factor at the moment. People are moving countries for various reasons, including jobs, global warming and climate change. Language diversity is also becoming an important factor accordingly. In English Next (British Council) the author (David Graddol) provides the figures for the number of young children in Europe that speak different languages to their families because the language in the schools is different than that of their parents. Second generation immigrants in America and similar places also speak different languages to their parents, who continue to speak their home language. One of the main ways that this population shift is affecting languages taught in schools is that English is becoming what is called a ‘lingua franca’ (ELF is an acronym that stands for English as a Lingua Franca) and in the book English Next the author says that across the world everybody is learning English in elementary school. This means that by the time children get to high school they are fluent. They can then start learning other subjects in English. This is what happens in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). So you might learn history, geography, social science, or even math in English. You learn English and the other subject at the same time.

This is one way that language teaching is changing. We are going from language teaching to language as a means of teaching. I have seen this in Europe, in Finland for example, where there are lots of bilingual schools. Of course there are also the international schools around the world and they are usually multilingual. There are lots of schools in Europe where you learn three or four languages and use them to learn other subjects. In terms of how language is taught across schools and institutions worldwide, I am very hopeful about Europe because the teaching style is generally effective and when students get to high school they can be fluent, ready to exist in a multilingual world. I am a bit worried about East Asia because even though students are learning English in elementary school, teachers in general are still using the grammar translation method (GTM), so I do not believe that those students will be fluent by the time they get to high school. It is very hard to give up traditional grammar-translation, because it suits the teacher-centered methodology that has grown up in East Asia. In Korea, in particular, an enormous amount of money is spent on English education by parents but there are very few results apart from passing tests and I think this is going to impact on the economy of Korea. The government is aware of the lack of results and is introducing a new four-skills national language test. In this part of Asia, language teaching has always been test driven, which means students learn what is on the national test. Up to now the test has been all about reading and listening, so speaking and writing have not been taught in school. With the new test, teachers will have to teach all four skills. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Thanks to the technology revolution and instant information, these times represent the ‘greatest intellectual moment in history’. How can international couples and bilingual parents benefit from that?

There is a very important movement at the moment that is called Heritage Language Learning. If you imagine second, third, or fourth-generation immigrants in America, for instance Chinese, Korean or let’s say Polish students. They were born in America but their ancestry is in Poland, so they learn Polish to catch up on the history of their ancestors and their cultural identity. They might even go to visit Poland. Heritage Language Learning is getting very big at the moment. For example, I have heard of students of Portuguese ancestry who were born in Brazil, learning Portuguese as a Foreign Language (PFL) and then visiting Portugal to find out about its culture and their ancestors.

Getting back to the question, the advice I would like to give is to raise a bilingual child. My suggestion to an international couple is: “Please raise a bilingual child. It is the best gift you can give to your child.” Don’t listen to people who say that you have to learn one language first before you learn another language, or other people who say that the mother language will suffer if the target language is learned at the same time. This is simply not true and I think that this sort of attitude has damaged lots of children. I have seen this in Korea, where many parents say that they want their children to be Koreans first and to learn Korean first. What actually happens is that those children don’t learn the other language. However, if you learn two languages at the same time, both of them get better. Your learning is slower than everyone else at the beginning, but it is much more valuable and it goes for much longer. There is a lot of research on this being done in Canada where they have the bilingual movement and it shows that speaking one language at home and one language at school activates the language part in your brain and you learn both languages better. I think that it is really important for parents to realize this. If the mother speaks French and the father speaks German, you are not harming the child; you are actually helping it. Also, you are giving them a wonderful start in life, because they go to school bilingual and they already know one target language, or the lingua franca. By the way, did you know that the bilingual movement in Canada was started by parents? That’s right. This important educational change was not started by teachers or professors; it was started by parents who wanted their children to be bilingual.

As you said this, is one of the greatest intellectual moments in history. In Korea, everyone has smart phones and the society is much more techno-friendly and techno-competent than the UK, but I sometimes wonder whether we have got as much to say as we had before the communication revolution (Now everyone is connected, is this the death of conversation?)

Can you explain the main differences and benefits among bilingual teaching, immersion and Content Integrated Learning (CLIL)?

Content and Language Integrated Learning is about learning the language and the subject at the same time, so it happens inside the classroom. If you are learning Chinese the teacher teaches you a different subject (such as history) in Chinese and should put the language at your language level. They have to match the level of the language to you as a language learner while they are teaching the other subject at the same time.

Immersion, as in Spain (the Basque) or Canada, means total exposure to one language. If you are in an immersion school everything in that school happens in that language, while you might go home and speak in another language. Lots of research has been done on this and the results tell us that yes, it does work, but as with bilingual teaching the students often take longer to learn things. That is the problem. So if you have students coming into an immersion situation half way through the program, then they are going to take a longer time. But once they get into the language they catch up. So it just takes more time and effort.

Talking about bilingualism, what I have seen in Finland and the Netherlands is that schools are given permission by the government to give bilingual lessons or to be bilingual schools. This means that the students actually speak two languages in school, whereas if you were in an immersion situation you would only speak one language.

There are various bilingual methods. For example, the teacher might speak to you in the target language, German for instance, but you would speak another language amongst yourselves. When the teacher asks you a question, you answer in German. This is called code switching and I have seen it working successfully.

To give an example of another sort of bilingualism, I visited a Kindergarten on the East Coast of Finland, next to Sweden. In this school, the children spoke Swedish in the morning and Finnish in the afternoon. These were kindergarten kids, but they had no problem with the two languages at all. For them, school was a place where you spoke Swedish in the morning and Finnish in the afternoon. Apparently they were confused and sometimes frustrated in the first week, but after that they got used to it and they were very happy with it. 

How would you judge the ‘quality’ of bilingual education in the major European countries? On average, would you choose private or public education?

There are no generalizations to be made, since every school is different. Parents should really shop around and see what is available. Personally, I think international schools are the best solution. One good thing about international schools is the graduating test, because international schools use  either the International Baccalaureate or the European Baccalaureate. These exams are universally accredited, so that when your children graduate, they can go to any university in the world. This is wonderful, since they are not restricted to national examinations. Another good thing with international schools is that you can have lessons in different languages and you are taught by native speakers of those languages. I have seen international schools where you can choose which language you want to study a given subject in, which gives you much more choice. So I would recommend an international school if you can afford it. The standard of the teaching is usually very good as well, so you do not have to worry about whether the teachers are good or not. It is not just that they are good teachers but they use up-to-date teaching methods. You will find that the teachers are competitively selected, and sometimes they are invited from other countries. Another thing I would recommend for really young kids is Montessori schooling. This approach really teaches your child to be responsible and autonomous, and the education is very sound. So, I would prefer private institutions on the whole.

Bilingual teaching methods are constantly under scrutiny by governments and parents. According to your paper, parental involvement is one of the key aspects in educational institutions. What about the other factors parents should be looking for?

First of all, schools are not moral education institutions and students usually take the morals of their parents into the classroom. Parents need to remember that they are role models for their children in terms of attitudes, problem-solving, critical thinking, diligence, and all the rest. When looking for an institution that will give your child a good academic start in life (in addition to this home-education), you have to shop around. Go and have a look at the school, have a look at the teachers, and find out about the qualifications of the teachers. Did they go to good schools? Are they continually updating their teaching skills? What is the teaching philosophy of the school? What are the school rules? You have to check out as much as you can. There are lots of good schools around, but there are also lots of conditions for getting into them, so you have to do your homework. This is why I favor home schooling, but that’s another story.

What are your views on bilingual education? What is yur experience? Share your thoughts!

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