Bilingual Education/Theory and Practice

The bilingual education has swept across the language teaching context in our country. Bilingualism and bilingual education are the two straight points where schools, policy makers and teachers want to go. The design of the curriculum, application of different methodologies, and activities done in class, the objectives and goals expected to reach at the end of the academic year are elements that contribute to develop the bilingualism phenomenon among schools.

However, my experience and knowledge regarding bilingual education have awakened my critical thinking. Through my experience in bilingual and non bilingual schools I have had the opportunity to compare and contrast what happen between in these two contexts. In other words, I have analysed how theory and practice go together to facilitate or not the development of the bilingual process and observed how policy makers and teachers are involved in it as well. As an English teacher, I have various questions that have been going around my head, questions that I am still trying to answer. They are: How do policy makers and teachers are working on the same way to foster a bilingual education? What role does society play in the development of the bilingual process? That is why; I will begin by presenting some definitions regarding bilingualism.

Bilingual and Bilingualism




Baker, (1996) remarks that is important to make the distinction “between bilingualism as an individual phenomenon and bilingualism as a group or societal possession” (p.4). Taking into account this, I can define the school as the one that has the societal possession and the student as the individual phenomenon. In addition, another distinction comes up an it is the one in which the societal possession can be identified as the one that bilingual schools have, where all the students are able to use the English language to express, exchange and negotiate meanings. The student can also be identified as an individual phenomenon. Both definitions can be connected to public schools, but with a different command of the English language or competence level.

An Overview to the Bilingual Education in Colombia


As far as I know, in public schools and private schools teachers try to figure out what kind of foreign language teaching process are guiding, and if the way they teach the foreign language asserts to the development of the communicative competence “which is the main goal” in their students. Teachers ask themselves if they are teaching English as a foreign or as a second language. Allen (1965) defines” English as a foreign language……. English taught as a school subject for the purpose of giving the student a foreign – language competence which he may use in one of the several ways” (p.3) and “English as a second language is used, the reference is usually to a situation where English becomes a language of instruction in the schools” (p.4). As I am able to judge, teachers can find the answer depending on the context they work on. Up to this point, public schools are teaching English as a foreign language and private schools, those that are recognize as “bilingual” are teaching English as a second language. In effect, both groups of students do not have the same level of competence in the second language, understanding that the competence in a language involves knowledge about the language and the learner’s ability to decide when and how he can use the language as a way of communication. Savignon cited in Brown (1990) also states that “communicative competence is a relative not absolute, and depends on the cooperation of all the participants involved” (p.227).Now, giving a look to these definitions it is important to see how policy makers and teachers are guiding the bilingual education to foster a bilingualism in private and public schools.

On one hand, the Colombian government ignores the real situation that public schools have to face everyday trying to guide a “bilingual edcuation” without having the resources to do so. Teachers are not prepared for the challenge, and the resources are not enough to develop the bilingualism process as it should be. What I have experienced in public schools is that teachers have to design and make the material they need to work with, such as: posters, flash cards, and games. The books and worksheets some times are designed in both languages Spanish and English. In addition to this, teachers have to pay for thousand of photocopies that they need to give to their students, who most of the times do not have money to pay for. Taking about teachers , most of them haven’t had the chance to go abroad, in effect they do not know about the foreign culture, which is really important to provide the students the opportunity to compare and contrast the Colombian culture with the foreign one. Regarding to the teachers’ preparation you can find teachers with a very good command of the English language and teachers who just accomplish the basic requirements of it. On the other hand, in bilingual schools the issues are different from the public one. For example, in bilingual schools policy makers and teachers some times pay more attention to the foreign cultural patterns than ours, or which is worse the teachers and policy makers do not go the same path. A clear example is showed in a research carried out in bilingual school in our country, where policy makers and teachers celebrated American festivities such as: Thanksgiving and San Valentine’s Day. Policy makers believe that if they make these celebrations, including the flag raising event, they are creating a bicultural environment. In contrast the teachers did not agree with this assumption, they though that these celebrations were not important either meaningful for the students. Tala (2002) cited in her article the teachers’ comments regarding to this kind of activities. “Había un sentimiento casi unánime, de que se le daba más importancia a lo foráneo que a lo colombiano” , “No he visto una celebración Colombiana que se celebre tan en grande como las gringas” (p.165).

Another clear example of the lack of the identity was the celebration of the Colombian flag raising, and the confusion among the teachers, when a teacher expressed his confusion when he saw “ …. Una niña hacienda el juramento a la bandera colombiana en inglés porque, según de de los docente encargado de planearlo, dijo “algo hay que hacerse en el idioma” (P.165) , or to see a teacher in the same context translating the program: “ Se veía al docente haciendo la traducción simultánea” Said the teacher. The person in charge of the event’s organization supports his decision saying that it twas what he was asked to do. The policy maker asked him to do it in English not in Spanish. Both examples show how policy makers and teachers do not work on the same way, and how teachers do what they are asked to do without presenting any disagreement about what is happening in the school. Here, we clearly see how cultural patterns and identity are important aspects that must be taken into account in a bilingualism process and how it helps to develop it per se.

In addition to this, it is important to reflect upon the use of the target language ”English” and why all the subjects are taught in the second language?. From my point of view this is a matter of justification. As Cameron (2001) presents the idea “ the more languages the pupils hear, the more they will learn” (p.190) as a way o maximizing the process. I do not agree with this underlying assumption, since, in some bilingual schools the students are all the time in contact with the second language, and there are some of them with serious difficulties in the language. Another important aspect that needs to be analyzed is the role of the society in the bilingual education in our country. Society plays an important role, since, being the context in which every single person grows up, develops and acquires cultural patterns.

Taking into account what Donne says “Culture is a way of life. It is the context within which we exist, feel and relate to others.” (1624). consequently, every person has certain differences regarding thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and interests. However, the bilingual education system seems to be ignoring the individual differences and tend to stereotype learners according to their proficiency level in a second language. It seems to be a discriminatory issue.

Teachers apparently classify their students according to the progress they show throughout the bilingualism process, without analyzing their abilities, skills and interests towards the process and resources to access to a bilingual education. That is why, it is necessary to foster a bilingual education for both, majority and minority. In our context, people would say that bilingual education is a matter of prestige, where the minority, the rich have access to bilingual education because they can pay for it. While the minority has to make do with an educational system where the English language is taught as another subject and the opportunities to learn more about the language and use it in a competent way is unlikely.

On the whole, the bilingualism phenomenon in Colombia needs to be frequently evaluated by both participants, policy makers and teachers to foster a bilingual education in which socio cultural factors can be used to facilitate the process without misjudging, devaluating and stereotyping people. It is also important to work on changing the discriminatory issue in which the bilingual education seems to be just for the minority, and the majority has to make it with the poor opportunities they have to acquire a language . Regarding the great responsibility that policy makers and teachers have with the bilingualism process, it is convenient to adopt new strategies to have more policy makers play the role of inside participants and teachers as researchers. In this way, the educational context would improve and be ready for the challenge.

Finally, the way in which the bilingualism process has been carried out by public and private schools needs to be evaluated constantly in order to foster a bilingual education where teachers and learners have the opportunity to learn, discover and propose new alternative to maximize the second language acquisition process without creating discriminatory classifications; but always working hard to maximize the process and have students with a competence in that English language, and with a huge knowledge of the foreign culture and the Colombian one, identifying , comparing and contrasting them, and at the same time to value what they have in their country.


  • A. & Amato (1996). The classroom as an environment for language acquisition. Wesley Publishing Group. Longman (2nd ed.) pp.21 -35
  • Allen.(1965). Teaching English as a second Language. English as a second language and English as a foreign language. Mc. Graw Hill (Chapter 1)
  • Baker, C. (1996) Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. (Chapter 1)
  • Cameron, L. (2001). Languages to young learners. Cambridge University Press. (1st ed). U.K pp 199-212
  • Cummins, J. (200). Language, power and pedagogy. Bilingual children in the crossfire. Theory as dialogue. (part1)
  • Klein, W. (1990). Second language acquisition. The process of language acquisition. Cambridge University Press. (3rd ed. pp. 1-33)
  • Mejia, AM.(2002) Power, prestige and bilingualism. International perspectives on

elite bilingual education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. Definitions and distinctions.(Chapter 2)

  • Tala.(2002). Formación Lingüística Intercultural Integrativa: Una Propuesta para la educación bilingüe en Colombia. (p.146-1