Learning Curve: bilingual education for the IB diploma

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 4:09pm

Parents recently came to me with some interesting questions about bilingual education. Do students have to undertake all subjects in both languages to attain a bilingual International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma? Can students decide which language they will study a subject in? Is bilingual education delivered in the same way in each school?

Bilingual education loosely refers to programmes in which a native language and a second language are taught as subject matter and used as medium of instruction for academic subjects. In Hong Kong, there has always been demand for children attending local schools to be fluent in English and Cantonese. International schools have generally required students to study a second language other than English; in the past decade, there has been an increasing demand for students to attain near-native fluency in the second language as well. Mandarin, French and German are among the common languages which students have elected to be fluent in.

To answer the first question: the IB confers a bilingual diploma when a student can satisfy two specific criteria. The first one is undertaking a combination of any two Group 1 subjects in different languages and passing each with a grade of 3 or above. Language A1 subjects are now collectively referred to as "studies in language and literature" and are designed for students studying in the language they are most competent in. It presumes that students have studied, or at least been exposed to, literature prior to undertaking this course. There is, however, no formal requirement for prior learning.

Various schools will use different methodologies which emanate from different models of bilingual teaching.

The assessment criteria include a written assignment on world literature, oral commentary and two externally assessed papers. More is expected of higher level students in the areas of interpretation, literary appreciation and personal response.

The second criteria is that students will undertake a Group 3 (individuals and societies subjects such as business and environmental systems) or Group 4 (experimental sciences) subject in a language other than the candidate's native tongue, passing each with a grade of 3 or above.

To sum up, students will still undertake six subjects. However, they will be required to write literature and language papers in two languages and take one other subject in the second language. And this second subject cannot belong to Group 5 (mathematics and computer studies) or Group 6 (arts).

As for delivery systems, it's safe to say that various schools will use different methodologies which emanate from different models of bilingual teaching.

Commonly used models include transitional bilingual education, which helps students switch to mainstream, English-only classrooms as quickly as possible. The linguistic goal of such programmes is English acquisition only. Students are typically taught for two to three years in their native language, to ensure that they do not fall behind in content areas such as mathematics, science and social studies while they are learning English. Research by Jim Cummins, who is well known in the field of bilingual education, has shown that many skills learned in the native language can be transferred easily to the second language later.

Late-exit or developmental bilingual education is in the child's native language for an extended duration, accompanied by education in English. The goal is to develop literacy in the student's native language first, and transfer these skills to the second language.

Dual language immersion bilingual programmes are designed to help native and non-native English speakers become bilingual and biliterate and are based on clear curriculum separation of the two languages of instruction. The two-way bilingual immersion programme has 90 per cent of the instructions in grade K-1 in the minority language and 10 per cent in the majority language.

This proportion gradually changes until the curriculum is equally divided in both the languages. US researchers Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier note that teachers are able to strengthen concepts taught in one language across the two languages by not repeating or translating subject matter in the second language.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School