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Bilingualism: Two Language Advantage

December, 2010
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Speaking a second language has always been cool, and in case you haven’t noticed, bilingual education in the Olympic/Expo era China is hot. It is no secret that the future success of the world’s number two economy will be defined by the way its children are educated. For those with the economic means, sending a child to a bilingual school is both a status symbol and a way of securing a family’s future in a rapidly globalizing economy where knowing a second language, particularly English, is perceived as hugely advantageous. According to Weining Jiang, whose daughter is a 4th Grade pupil in a Shanghai bilingual school, “Bilingualism adds more competitive advantage to those individuals who are going to work and live in an internationalizing society.”

The story could end there, but in China’s nascent educational landscape, there is a great rift between the good bilingual schools and the also-rans. For families betting on the bilingual advantage, spotting the difference and choosing the right bilingual school for their children is crucial.

Maxine Lu
is the principal of a bilingual school in Shanghai’s Pudong District. From the school observatory on the roof of the building, one can soak up a stellar view of the Shanghai Expo’s China Pavilion, which has recently reopened to the public. Lu’s school has benefited from its location directly across the street from the Expo site. According to Lu, families that want to gain from bilingual education should be aware that many schools “claim to deliver ‘bilingual education,’ but have actually not yet fully developed the concept.”

Lu divides Chinese bilingual schools into four categories: 1) the basic bilingual school; 2) the developing bilingual school; 3) the fully bilingual school; and 4) the elite bilingual school. 

The basic bilingual schools in Lu’s paradigm facilitate English teaching as a subject. “In such schools,” she says, “learning the English language may be a target, but the teachers are not always native speakers.” Native speakers are expensive to import and retain, and a school without them is likely cutting corners.

The developing bilingual schools will teach English as a subject, but as Lu explains, “they also use English as the language of instruction in other disciplines, such as science, music, art, PE, etc. These schools are more evolved and are taking the next step.” This is usually aided by implementing imported English language textbooks in the various curricula. In such schools, however, one might still find bilingual Chinese teachers instead of foreign professionals.

The third type of school is likely to feature all of the elements of the previous category, in addition to having foreign second language teachers leading learning in multiple subjects. It is hard to deny that when it comes to learning a second language, there are few substitutes for an experienced native speaker. These schools are also working at all levels of school life to create what Lu calls a “bilingual school ethos.” This may include a school language policy, and other school documentation, such as newsletters, curriculum guides, and school handbooks that are bilingual. Though this kind of school could be called fully bilingual, the “elite bilingual school” is in another league all together.

The elite bilingual school will retain the strong points of the other varieties, but as Lu emphasizes, it also “seeks to introduce an international curriculum, and achieve overseas school accreditation in an effort to organize serious ‘international education,’ as well as making good on its bilingual promises.” Teachers and school managers in this kind of environment are seasoned international professionals who have been trained to support the developmental needs of additional language learners. These are educators whose exceptional references, and successful previous work experiences in similar environments, qualify them to serve in an elite school. “In such schools, young people learn to think openly, critically, and to solve problems in a second language. When a child can do these things, they are truly bilingual,” adds Spring Shi,
a colleague of Lu, whose 17 years of teaching and managerial experience have all been in bilingual education.

Apple Wang, a more recently qualified bilingual specialist, describes her job in a bilingual school as “ideal.” Wang passionately advocates the elite bilingual approach to education. “I don’t want to teach English in a local school. That would be experiencing the test-oriented way of education again, only this time as a teacher.” 
Wang believes that real bilingual education goes beyond “memorizing all the words.” Most saliently, a highly evolved bilingual institution will enable learners to understand the culture behind both languages. Weining Jiang entrusts his daughter to a bilingual school precisely for this reason. He lobbies that “individuals who establish different thinking processes by understanding different languages eventually understand different cultures better, which means being bilingual is more practical in the real world.”

What educationalists like Lu, Shi, and Wang, as well as parents such as Jiang seem to agree on is that the sooner you expose a child to a bilingual environment, the faster they will assimilate multiple languages. On the other hand, Stephan Krashen, an educational researcher and professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California (USC) in the United States, points out that there is “little evidence that [bilingual education] is superior to [single language] programs.” Still, parents and students in China remain passionate about bilingual schooling due to the perception – as simply articulated by 5th grade bilingual student Samuel Lee – that “bilingual schools are better than schools where you only learn one language because they help you to talk to more people.” In today’s market-driven China, being able to talk to more people means one is also able to do more business.

Though research findings on the pluses of bilingual education are inconclusive, for schools that want to do their best to ensure balanced cognitive development in two languages, USC’s Krashen proposes voluntary reading, as “it can be a source of comprehensible input in English or a means for developing knowledge and literacy through the first language, and for continuing first language development.” Indeed, the best bilingual schools will have well-resourced libraries featuring accessible literature in both target languages. Reading buddy systems, reading journals, and reading competitions can be used to further diversify a school’s reading program, and hence its bilingual dimension. Going beyond this and creating warm, comfortable places for children to read in classrooms and common areas is a feature of a school going the extra mile to promote bilingualism. 

Krashen’s research also unveils that students in exceptional bilingual schools generally read above the 50th percentile in their age groups. Such schools usually use standardized benchmark tests to measure and track student achievement over time. They make their results on such test scores available to current and prospective parents and use these results to inform subsequent educational decision-making. In short, the top bilingual schools do more than just offer instruction in two languages: they live in two worlds, constantly assessing and reassessing the bilingual playing field. Their objective is ongoing school improvement, and a variety of different tools are used to achieve this.

So, don’t be misled by a school posing as a truly bilingual institution. Likewise, expect to pay a bit more for bilingual excellence. Education, too, is a business, and staying on top means investing in quality resources and world-class professionals. This comes at a cost for parents, but the advantages may be well worth it. As Weining Jiang summarizes, “being bilingual myself has led to a more positive and healthy life-style.” Finally, for those lamenting that the international spotlight of the Olympics and the Expo has come and gone, take note: bilingual education may be China’s key to a global future.


By Richard Eaton,

Head of SUIS Shang Yin Campus 

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  1. Louise Gregory
    January 3rd, 2011 at 19:29 | #1

    This is an amazingly true, and well-written article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and will pass it on to my colleagues and administration.

  2. Sammy
    June 23rd, 2011 at 00:29 | #2

    This article blows

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