Monday, October 14, 2013

Newspaper Article about Bilingual Programs in Spain

On September 30th, 2013 the article "Bilingües a la Carrera, ("Bilingual schools boom") was published in the Spanish newspaper El País. In the article we learn about the plans of two Spanish Autonomous Communities, Murcia and Castilla-La Mancha to offer bilingual programs in all the K-12 schools in both provinces. Most schools will likely select English as their second language of instruction in various subject areas. According to the article, 70% of the schools in Castilla La Mancha don't offer bilingual programs yet. In the case of Murcia 30% of secondary schools and 70% of elementary schools still need to start offering the program. The task ahead is very ambitious considering they are to complete this in just 5 years.

I find it very positive that the educational authorities try to offer the same educational opportunities to all students no matter where they live. It also seems that even though students have studied a second language from K-12, many are failing to demonstrate sufficient fluency in these target languages - something needs to be done. Parents expect their children at least to finish high school with a high command of more than one language. In addition, today's society demands citizens to have deep multicultural understanding. Needless to say that it is the educational authorities' duty to meet these demands and promote good educational programs for students.
Having said that, reading the article doesn't give you a very clear plan ahead for the expansion of the bilingual programs. University professors, experts and teachers unions in the article warn about the negative effects of implementing bilingual programs too quickly while sacrificing quality and without sufficient resources. I would like to point out four elements that appear in the article that need to be clarified to offer quality bilingual programs in most settings.
  • Resources. Spain has been suffering a severe economic crisis in the last 6 years of which we have not seen the end.. According to the article, Murcia has reduced the number of teachers in 7% and Castilla-La Mancha 15% in the last 2 years. To develop an ambitious bilingual program like this with overworked teachers in large classes is probably not ideal. On the other hand, the article is not specific about funding and plans for program sustainability. The provisions made do not seem very realistic. This is a long distance race that will require a permanent influx of money for teacher training. 
  • Linguistic capacity. The different provinces in Spain should reach an agreement about the level of proficiency that teachers who are working in bilingual programs should have. On the other hand, teachers will need to continuously work to improve their command in the target language.
  • According to the article, there is not a consistent bilingual program model in Spain and the differences among programs in the 17 Spanish provinces can be enormous. Bilingual programs should have a consistent framework all through the country. Students should have similar amount of time exposure for the subjects taught in the target language. The expectations for the students of reaching a level of achievement at the end of the program should also be similar. All students should be assessed using a same set of benchmarks created by the government or from a unified source.
  • Change in pedagogical principles. This is a key element that it is not considered very often in Spain. Pilar Garcés, a professor at the University of Valladolid, mentions it in the article: "we cannot teach a subject area in the target language the same way we used to in Spanish". Lecture style classes will not give students the skills they need for a globalized world. Unless meaningful changes are made in the bilingual programs, our students will fail. Students have to use the language in context, learn to do research and collaborate with peers using the target language.
I would also suggest a discussion about the expansion of bilingual programs in Spain. A bilingual program needs to emphasize the development of students' cultural awareness. Bilingual programs can be the trigger to encourage students to participate in international programs, work with other schools and take advantage the ICT in a globalized world. Students are more likely to continue in the bilingual programs, if they are able to make meaningful connections between the language they are learning and the culture from which it was derived.

It is encouraging that educational authorities in Spain are trying to expand bilingual programs so every student has the chance of enrolling in a bilingual program. Unfortunately, without a long time plan we won't offer quality programs and students won't acquire the command in the target language, nor the cultural awareness necessary in our globalized world. To rush the implementation of these programs can be counterproductive in the long run.