How to avoid a nation of monoglots? Bilingual education: teaching and learning via a ‘foreign’ language!

Symbolic image for the term multilingual. Fluss Creative Commons  

A few months ago, doing my daily trawl through the headlines of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo online, I spotted among the front-page headlines: “Xavier Gisbert: “Las leyes educativas llevan años sin aportar nada a la enseñanza de idiomas. (‘For years the education laws have contributed nothing to language teaching.’) I’ve known Xavier since the mid-80s: he married Virginia, who had been the Spanish language assistant at the school where I was head of the languages faculty at the time. We have been friends ever since.

Xavier. Screenshot

Of course, friends often share common convictions and values, in our case a fervent belief in the importance of language teaching and learning. Xavier’s major interest is in bi-lingual education, that is the teaching of a school subject via the medium of a foreign language. This has been a particular strength of language education in Spain in recent years, thanks to a very large extent to Xavier, and the many colleagues he has led in this methodology as president of the Asociación Enseñanza Bilingüe (Association for Biligual Teaching). It was in 2012 that I had my first direct experience of Bilingual Education. I helped staff a course designed to help Spanish teachers who aimed to teach their subject, ranging from PE to Physics, via the medium of English. More of that later.

Back to Xavier Gisbert; his long and distinguished language teaching career culminated in his being posted to the United Kingdom as Consejero de Educación de España (Languages Adviser at the Spanish embassy) and later to Washington ‘as Consejero de Educación de España in the United States. These important posts were followed by a major government role in education, and again for the autonomous Comunidad de Madrid (Madrid Community). Now ‘retired’ (in theory!) he is able to devote more time to being President of the Asociación Enseñanza Bilingüe (Association for Biligual Teaching). Indeed, when we visited them in Madrid in May, he and his wife had literally just returned from a bilingual education conference in Portugal; Xavier may be ‘retired’, but he is still very active in the field of bilingual education.

During his time in London, his sons attended the Lycée Française. He mostly spoke to them in French, being a French specialist; as an English specialist, Virginia spoke to them mostly in English. So, even at home they maintained a multilingual environment. While Xavier was consejero in London, I was Chair of the Spanish Committee of the Association of Language Learning. Xavier was constantly pressing me about his view that Spanish should be taught more in the UK; indeed, he and his team did so much positive work to promote the teaching of Spanish that by the time he reached the end of his tenure in London, Spanish had overtaken German as number two foreign language taught in England and Wales, and was catching up with French.

Although most of my own language teaching career was in the UK, I had two spells teaching English in Spain, and regular contact over four decades with Spanish schools, students and teachers in other contexts. As described in an earlier article, ever since I saw the poster in the corridor of the Spanish school in which I was English assistant in 1969: “¡Aprende inglés, lengua universal!”, my observation has been that the Spanish are very well-motivated towards learning English. There was never any shortage of Spanish students coming to the UK to take part in the English language holiday courses in which I was involved early in my career. Of course, for many decades, everything English – ‘cool Britannia’ – was a huge motivator, but there is no doubt about how well Spanish language teachers motivated their pupils…

Whilst I could never boast the same almost missionary zeal as Xavier where bilingual language teaching is concerned, I have had some experience of it. As mentioned above, about ten years ago I helped run a course for around 30 Spanish teachers who came to the UK with groups of their own students. Our course was to provide the English language necessary to enable them to teach their own subjects via the medium of English. While with us, the teachers were able to put into practice what they were learning teaching their subjects to their own students via the medium of English.

The course itself was also an excellent example of how this sort of contact nurtures the harmony of common purpose and lasting friendships. It transpired that Miguel, one of the Spanish teachers on the course, lives and works just a few miles from where my wife and I spend as much time as we can in Spain; he teaches maths and technology and is a member of a whole department in his school devoted to bilingual teaching, the Departamento de Bilingüismo, coordinating within the school, from Infant to Secondary level, an initiative called Proyecto BEDA (Bilingual English Development and Assessment). He and his wife have since become firm friends of ours, introducing us to some of the best places to visit in their area… and the best eateries!

By chance, a year or two later I met local teacher José Manuel in ‘our’ village in Spain: an excellent speaker of English, he was responsible for a group of teachers at his Instituto in Nerja who were developing the skills in English necessary to be able to teach their subjects in English. I was invited to spend time with them on two occasions, and was happy to help in any way I could. The point about all this is that, at the time – ten years or so ago – there was a considerable drive in Spain to improve the standard of English among its young people by developing bilingual language education, providing grants and support to teachers selected to take part in the scheme. However, as Xavier suggests, governments rarely maintain such momentum, much to the frustration of those involved.

So to the El Mundo article about Xavier:

The article begins by stating that Xavier “Lleva media vida volcado en la didáctica de las lenguas extranjeras” (‘has devoted half his life to the teaching of foreign languages’). After detailing some of his key important posts at local and government level, it refers to his great influence in the promotion in Spain of bilingual language teaching. It soon becomes clear, however, that his aspirations for bilingual language teaching have largely been frustrated. Successive Spanish governments have failed to fund it adequately, and have repeatedly moved the goalposts. Familiar story…

Common threads to which Xavier refers are:

  • a lack of consistency and continuity, whereby successive administrations water down or fail to implement the language policies of their predecessors;
  • a lack of insistence on appropriate standards for language teachers;
  • a focus on numbers rather than quality;
  • a lack of appropriate evaluation of the processes; and
  • a lack of resources to fund language assistants.

Xavier’s time in the lead in the Comunidad de Madrid (the Madrid Community) has paid dividends, though: the level of competence in English there is higher than in other countries. The fact is that education policy has been produced by “gurus sin bagaje previo se han apoderado de la educación, y al sistema educativo le sobra política y le falta educación.” (‘Gurus with no previous experience have taken education over, and the education system has too much politics and not enough education’).

All of this reflects my own experience of language teaching in the UK and that of most language teachers in the UK.

Source: Statista

Sadly – notwithstanding the positive work done by the Modern Foreign Languages Working Group for the National Curriculum in 1989-1990, of which I was a member – here the issue is the dearth of foreign language skills, resulting in no small part from the absence of continuity of policy on the part of governments of all political colours over the last 30 years or more. That, allied to the negative attitudes generated for and by Brexit. In that context, I, for one, have never been aware of more than passing mention of bilingual language education, never mind any sort of national policy such as has been implemented in Spain – albeit patchily and inconsistently, and with little continuity.

And yet, bilingual education does exist in the UK… in Wales. For decades, it has been Welsh government policy to ensure that children in Welsh schools are able to communicate in Welsh: “Quite simply, all our young people, from all backgrounds, should come out of the education system ready and proud to use the language in all contexts. It is a matter of equity, and we as Ministers and as Welsh Government must set the direction and provide leadership.” Of course, that means that some subjects are taught in Welsh and some in English. Not quite the same aspiration as espoused by Xavier, but close… and in fact very similar to the situation in certain parts of Spain…

Significantly, many Spanish people refer to their language as castellano; in other Spanish-speaking parts of the world, the language is only ever referred to by this name, thus avoiding the memory of how Spain conquered and colonised their lands. In fact, castellano was just one of several manifestations of ‘Vulgar Latin’ (Latin as spoken by ordinary people, rather than Classical Latin) as it developed into its modern versions in the Iberian Peninsula; it is known as castellano because it is the one prevalent in the kingdom of Castilla. The political and military pre-eminence of Castilla caused its language to become the ‘official’ language of the whole of Spain, but most of the other languages and dialects survived in their own regions. Unfortunately, during General Franco’s dictatorship (1936-1975), his determination to impose his control over the whole of Spain meant the outlawing of the most prominent of those languages. Catalán and Basque (not a Romance language) were banned in public places, though even Franco’s iron grip could not eradicate them… Catalán in its various forms is spoken by about 10 million people in Cataluña, the Comunidad Valenciana and the Balearic Islands.

Under the terms of the new Spanish constitution of 1978, not only is catalán now an official language in Cataluña, co-equal with castellano, and actively taught in schools in the region, but it could be used as the main vehicle for teaching all school subjects. However, that in itself has led to problems, since a very large proportion of inhabitants were native speakers of castellano, many of them first or second generation ‘immigrants’ from other parts of Spain. I am reminded of conversations decades ago when I taught languages for the Royal Navy: I had occasion, from time to time, to talk to Spanish naval officers. Some, particularly those in the Spanish navy mine warfare service, (which was based in Mallorca), expressed their worries about serving there with their children being taught in local schools mostly in mallorquín, a version of catalán. When they moved on to other posts in mainland Spain, such as to the Escuela Naval Militar in Galicia (in northwest Spain), their children would be at a disadvantage at school, being taught in castellano.

Although the 1978 Spanish Constitution, and laws made by the Generalitat (Catalan government) allow both languages to be used in schools in Cataluña, the vocal minority who form the growing independence movements of the last few years have caused Castilian Spanish almost to disappear in many schools, and to be totally absent in others. Just recently, the news regarding the languages used in schools in Cataluña shows the degree of controversy… Families whose main language is castellano understandably feel discriminated against, to the extent that they staged a demonstration in Barcelona. “Miles de personas se manifiestan esta mañana por el centro de Barcelona a favor del bilingüismo en las aulas catalanas y contra lo que consideran una vulneración de los derechos de alumnos y familias.” (‘Thousands of people demonstrate in the centre of Barcelona in favour of bilingualism in Catalán classrooms, and against what they consider an abuse of the rights of pupils and families’). What they were demanding was “una educación en la que el castellano sea lengua vehicular” (‘an education in which castellano is the language in which subjects are taught’).


Bilingualism? Something any modern, outward-looking nation should aspire to and promote. Sadly, in spite of the efforts of those of us whose calling is teaching languages, the British are notoriously monolingual – a nation of monoglots. The vocation I share with language teachers in Spain, and with Xavier, Miguel, and José Manuel in particular, is ‘education’, especially in developing foreign language skills. It is interesting to analyse the word ‘education’: its Latin origins imply ‘drawing out your talents’. One might say that this is especially so in languages education: here this implies introducing you to new people, new cultures and new experiences in other countries… making you a more complete member of the human race. Whilst insularity breeds prejudice, communicating in other languages forms international friendships and fosters entente cordiale, harmony and cooperation between nations.

Entente cordiale – a Brit and a Frenchman share a joke; which is which? impossible to tell – we are all the same!’ attribution Alison Sykes

One wonders just what proportion of the Brits who voted to abandon our membership of the EU – our most important trading partners – and to sacrifice our freedom of movement – the opportunity to work, live, and love in our nearest neighbouring countries – were monoglots lacking linguistic self-esteem.