Learn the language, learn through the language and learn about the language


Language isn’t knowledge. It’s what we use to move knowledge around. This is not a new idea. Back in the 1990’s language luminaries such as MAK Halliday were advocating the deep integration of language with real content.  It was in 1994 when  David Marsh (University of Jyväskylä, Finland) coined the term  ‘Content and Language Integrated Learning’ as an umbrella term to describe this approach. When people talk about bilingualism in Spanish schools, they are talking about CLIL. 

Although CLIL is not new, it does seem to stir up debate. There are people who think that CLIL is just changing the language of instruction in the classroom. It categorically is not. Others think that bilingual students are at a disadvantage when compared to monolingual students. There is scientific evidence that this is, quite simply, not true.  

In April 2018 I had the opportunity to speak with David Marsh for Bilingual Express and I asked him what, if any, are the benefits of integrating English with other subjects. 

The problem, he said, was that we have not gone far enough in understanding that language teaching, such as English in Spanish schools, needs to be linked across the curriculum, with, for example, Natural Science, in order for students to learn in the most successful way.  

“It isn’t just about English,” said David, “because these students will also be reflecting on and thinking in Spanish. If you integrate English with Natural Science in the curriculum, it is more than one plus one – English plus Natural Science. It is a language learning experience, which is clearly effective when done well, but which is also very much part of modern-day thinking about how we should be teaching students different subjects including languages. I think it is a win-win situation, and it has to be done well. Yes, it involves quite a big jump from traditional modes of thought, but it is not a jump into the unknown, it is a jump into the 21st Century.” 

I also asked David what he thought about the  decision,by some publishers, to divide their Natural and Social Science courses into term projects. For example, to have an entire term devoted to one context such as the human body or living things. 

“By aligning the learning of English with the learning of content in English, over a term,” he said, “you can have a better systemic approach where both language teaching and content teaching complement each other. A close alignment between the English language curriculum in a Spanish school and the topics being learnt in Biology and Chemistry is ideal. That is quite hard to achieve if it is concentrated in shorter periods of time.” 

24 years after creating the term ‘CLIL’, David Marsh is still convinced that the integration of language and content  – learning the language, learning through the language, and learning about the language – is the best way to prepare our children for their global, bilingual future. Indeed, he mentioned a possible next step in CLIL called ‘Phenomenon Based Learning’ currently being tested in schools in Finland. 

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