Number one for English language teachers

Bilingual schools in Argentina: Has CLIL always been around?

Type: Article

Laura Renart, a teacher and teacher trainer, shares her insights into bilingual education in Argentina.

A European view on content and language

"The ability to frame their thoughts in more than one language can give advantages to a youngster in terms of thinking and studying" (Marsh, 1999)

CLIL (or AICLE or EMILE) is a way of understanding education that looks at languages as instruments to acquire content. Students of all ages, in David Marsh’s words, ‘learn by construction rather than instruction’, whose main difference with previous language teaching methodology is that CLIL doesn’t regard language as little verbs, words and adjectives that combine with each other but as a philosophy that allows learners to integrate the content they are discovering with the language they are learning.

In this last decade, European schools have begun to adopt new ways of integrating additional languages into every day lessons: in this light, CLIL is thought to be an appropriate way to put together content and language to ‘promote tolerance, teach languages naturally and widen students' horizons’.

Bilingualism and CLIL: do they mean the same?

CLIL classrooms consider different kinds of learners in relation to the languages they speak: monolingual, bilingual or multilingual. Some countries may take bilingual education and CLIL as synonyms because teaching is carried out in two languages.

Definitions of bilingualism have systematically failed to provide a clear picture of what a person with two languages can achieve. What is now clear is that a bilingual person cannot be described only within a single dimension. Valdez and Figueroa (1994), in Baker 2001, agree that bilinguals should be defined according to age, ability, balance of the two languages, development (ascendant if the second language is developing and recessive if one of the languages is decreasing) and the context where each language was acquired. In Argentina we must say that the status of English is extremely valued above the rest, and on occasions, some immigrant languages may be felt to be ‘subtractive’.

Bilingual schools in Argentina: a history of traditions and language learning

In the same way as bilingualism is a multi-faceted term, so is bilingual education. Genesee 2004, in Banfi and Rettaroli 2008: 141, says that it’s an "education that aims to promote bilingual (or multilingual) competence by using both languages as media of instruction for significant portions of the academic curriculum". In Argentina, these bilingual programmes used to be called 'English schools' because the British community had set them up as early as 1820 to keep their traditions and above all, their language. Back in 1825, a Treaty of Friendship, Trade and Navigation between las Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata (not yet Argentina as a country) and the British Crown originally promoted the arrival of Scottish settlers promising them 'same freedom as residents, no military service and freedom of religion'. 'As the century progressed, and once the churches were firmly established, community efforts concentrated on starting schools – often consisting of no more than one mud and straw classroom and an outhouse – all over the country, wherever Britons gathered' (Graham-Yool 1999: 119).

These community schools became more and more sophisticated. They were originally modeled on existing public schools in the UK; they even applied the same evaluation systems, included sports in the curricula as an innovative aspect, were organized in 'houses' after British historic figures, there was a system of prefects, monitors and head pupils, gathered in general assemblies, prayed in English and held British-style general knowledge competitions. Many of these traditions are still kept in these English-Spanish bilingual schools in what can be called a 'bicultural approach'. But not only did the English, Scots and Irish set up their own schools in their new country, so did the Germans (1897), the French (1945), the Italians (1937) and the Koreans (1991) to name a few (Banfi and Day 2001 (in de Mejía 2002: 168)).

The bilingual school curriculum

At present English-Spanish bilingual schools are grouped under ESSARP (English Speaking Association of the River Plate www.essarp.org.ar), about 80 % of them in the City of Buenos Aires and Gran Buenos Aires area. They represent a totally additive model of bilingual education which, in Cummins' words, shows "a form of bilingualism that results when students add a second language to their intellectual tool-kit while continuing to develop conceptually and academically in their first language" (Cummins 2000:37).

Students are taught towards the Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE http://www.cie.org.uk/qualifications/academic/uppersec/aice), a group school leaving certificate examined by the CIE. Admission to selected AICE subjects is gained after careful evaluation of IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) examinations. Regarding ESOL international exams, also issued by the University of Cambridge, students can sit main suite exams (http://www.cambridgeesol.org/exams/index.html). In some cases, as students covered content in both English and Spanish, topics sometimes overlapped. It then became a translating process rather than the teaching of a subject through the medium of English. The stress was placed on the language used to teach content rather that on what was being taught itself. If you take any of these bilingual schools you may find the following subjects in their curriculum: English Language and Literature, Spanish Language and Literature, French, Mathematics, Science, Information Technology, Philosophy for Children, Bible Studies, Art, Music and Physical Education. Do they meet CLIL standards?

Teachers, mother tongue and certifications

"Just as an infant can have extraordinary powers of communication with only a few words, so our ability to communicate in a language can be reasonably successful, even if our grammar is faulty, knowledge of words is weak, or pronunciation poor" (Marsh 1999).

This highly positive quotation may not necessarily represent what an elite bilingual school teacher in Argentina looks for in their classes – grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are fundamental pillars in local bilingual schools. Students as early as kindergarten or their first year of primary education are introduced to their everyday reality (home, school, animals, body, food, among others) by means of songs, games, discovery activities, artwork and physical activity (a healthy amount of 'learning by doing' and TPR observed), though accuracy and grammatical appropriateness are always present, age permitting. Sounds are carefully trained from the very beginning to avoid a 'Spanish-like' pronunciation and, as long as language development allows for it, Spanish is not allowed in the English class at all. 'The English-Spanish bilingual schools have adopted an overtly separation approach to language use according to time of day and officially do not approve of code-switching. Some schools adopt a points system and use these to discourage students from speaking Spanish during an English activity' (de Mejía 2002:171).

CLIL, on the other hand, allows for the use of the mother tongue in the target language class, especially on the part of the students. In general, CLIL teachers stick to the target language because they represent the only model in that language for the students. CLIL favours language awareness and the comparison of both languages may also be brought into the class, especially to describe how, for example, a scientific process is described in English and Spanish. In terms of the discourse type used, or rather the type of communication found in the learning environment, both programmes use  'interactional' (main emphasis on social communication) and 'transactional' discourse (main emphasis on giving and receiving information).

How much target language in the CLIL class?

The amount of TL will also depend on how proficient in the TL the teacher may be. In Argentina, bilingual school teachers are generally proficient speakers of English (C1 and C2) who may have been graduates of the same school because they have an 'inside knowledge' of what the school needs, for example, and some graduate EFL teachers. Teaching content has always been a thorny issue: you may find the expert without too much English, or the proficient speaker with little knowledge of the subject. This seems to be a permanent problem in both CLIL and local bilingual education since neither CLIL nor purely bilingual education issues are incorporated in local teacher training programmes. Regarding exposure to TL, local bilingual schools promote an approximately 50% tuition programme in each language. CLIL, however, may scale the proportion of CLIL teaching: low – about 5-15% of teaching time, medium – about 15-50% of teaching time, high – over 50% of teaching time. CLIL is beginning to be added in the school curricula to already existing educational programmes. According to its success, schools may open more teaching space as the programme develops.

What seems to bring together CLIL and Argentinean bilingual education again is 'certifications': officially-recognized documentation used as assessment. As discussed above, bilingual schools promote international certifications to enhance their school profile. For continuous assessment they have incorporated language portfolios which have a correspondence with the European Language Portfolios suggested for assessment in CLIL. CLIL students too may need those certifications to prove how much language they can use in their everyday activities in their frequent country, job or school mobility reality in Europe. In this light too, CLIL is meant to promote intercultural knowledge and understanding; locally, bilingual schools were founded to keep the traditions of their country of origin though gradually, and thanks to the need to prepare students to face a more globalized world, a more multicultural approach is starting to be favoured.

The advantage of speaking one or more additional languages is a widely-recognized concept that admits practically no discussion. The road you take to get to that aim will have to suit your own world, your students' and your school's. Learning is an activity that is best carried out in pleasant conditions – and responsible teachers always know what is best.

References

  1. Banfi, C. & S. Rettaroli (2008) Staff Profiles in Minority and Prestigious Bilingual Education Contexts in Argentina. In: Mejía, A. M. de and C. Hélot (eds) Bridging the Gap between Prestigious Bilingualism and the Bilingualism of Minorities. Clevendon: Multilingual Matters, p. 143
  2. Baker, C. (2001)
  3. Cummins, J. (2000) Language, Power and Pedagogy, London: Multilingual Matters.
  4. De Mejía, A. (2001) Power, Prestige and Bilingualism, London: Multilingual Matters.
  5. Genessee F. (1988) Learning Through Two Languages, New York: Harper & Row.
  6. Graham-Yooll, A. (1999) The Forgotten Colony, Buenos Aires: L.O.L.A.
  7. Marsh, D. (1999) http://www.europa-bilingual.net/part1_spa/Marsh-s.pdf (accessed February 2008)
  8. Renart, L (1988) Los Colegios Bilingües en Argentina, unpublished paper in completion of Magister en Ciencias del Lenguaje, ISP Joaquín V. González.

Laura Renart holds and MA in Education and Professional Development from the University of East Anglia. She is Head of the Senior School at St Michael’s College in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is also a teacher trainer at ISP Dr Sáenz and a tutor at Universidad Virtual de Quilmes. Laura is a NILE representative in Argentina and a Cambridge ESOL Oral examiner. Her main research interest has to do with bilingualism in the local context.

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