Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Raising Expectations: Trilingual education in Mallorca

When I attended school in Germany at the age of fourteen, the English lesson was conducted mainly in English. Sensible, you would think. It was, except for one problem; the teacher made mistakes in her English. A few years ago, also in Germany, the bilingual son of an American friend (who happened to be a teacher of English to German adults) was upset because an assignment had been marked down because of the wrong use of an English tense. He hadn't used it incorrectly. He was right, the teacher was wrong, and his mother let the teacher know, in no uncertain terms, that she was wrong.

These are just two anecdotal examples about the teaching of a foreign language in schools. Both are from a country where English teaching, from an early age, has been standard for decades. Even in efficient Germany, teachers don't always get things right. In Mallorca, not only does the regional government want to establish trilingualism (as in the learning of a third language, i.e. English) as standard, it wants this third language to be used as a language for the teaching of certain subjects as well. Mallorca isn't Germany. Nor is it Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands or even the Basque Country.

There are plenty of examples of trilingual education elsewhere, but not all actually use the third language as a teaching language. In the Basque Country they do. Its model of trilingualism is held up as something of a panacea for education in other regions of Spain, but it hasn't been entirely the success that has been made out. It also hasn't just happened overnight; the Basques have experimented with the application of multilingual education for a couple of decades. Note the word "experimented". Even they would admit they haven't got the system right, and one reason why they haven't is that the region still suffers from having teachers who are not sufficiently proficient in the third language.

Rafael Bosch, for now still the regional government's spokesperson and education minister, has said that trilingualism does not represent some form of educational Armageddon, as opposition parties and others have been trying to make out that it will do. These opponents do have a point, though, when they argue that parents may be given the impression that trilingualism will raise expectations as to what it can actually achieve. The parents themselves, via the parents association in Mallorca, have rejected the plan for trilingualism, highlighting its experimental nature and so the potential harm that might be caused to education as a whole.

A report into trilingual education a few years ago established that there was little evidence of fluency in a third language either being attained or aspired to (and it didn't matter if the third language was used as a teaching language or not). It also established that there were certain unknowns about trilingual education and a number of elements that had to be in place in order to make it effective, one of these being the language proficiency of the teacher. Not even teachers who are supposedly proficient in a foreign language and whose job it is to teach that language are always totally proficient, as the two German anecdotes highlight.

Take this one step further and have a teacher whose grasp of the foreign language isn't total giving a class in that language on a complex subject. Potentially, it is a recipe for disaster. Not only should the teacher be perfect in his or her subject, he or she should be perfect in the foreign language and be capable of pitching the teaching at a level where the pupils will understand. Using a third language as a teaching language is really only viable for certain instruction: sport or art perhaps.

In Luxembourg, where there is a trilingual population (Luxembourgish, French and German), school hours are skewed in favour of language teaching. But the result has been that pupils are less well educated in certain core subjects, such as maths, than they might otherwise be. The case of Luxembourg suggests that obtaining a teaching balance is nigh on impossible; there has to be a trade-off. And Luxembourg is something of an exceptional case, given its geography and so the constant exposure to the three languages. It is this which facilitates trilingualism as much as the school system.

The Balearic Government isn't wrong in trying to establish trilingualism, but whether it truly understands what it means is another matter. It requires an enormous investment in teachers, teacher training and teaching materials. It is investing some money, but it has to be for all time, not just a one-off. It is raising expectations that I don't believe it can deliver.

Any comments to please.

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