CLIL – an all-rounder? In two languages!

The success of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) is reflected both in the growing demand for bilingual education and in the results of empirical studies. Bilingual learners achieve a significantly higher level of foreign language competence while, at the same time, they acquire subject-specific concepts. In addition, they are provided with excellent opportunities for the development of a multiperspectivity informed by cultural awareness if they study subject-specific content such as the adaptation of organisms caused by climate change from various international perspectives, e.g. changes in indigenous European flora and fauna in comparison to organisms in the Arctic Circle.

The objective: a dual subject literacy

At an early stage, “the construction of scientific concepts in a foreign language ” (Hallet 2002) was identified as one of the greatest advantages of bilingual teaching and learning. A group of researchers at Bergische Universität Wuppertal (BUW, Germany) linked this asset to the issue of achieving dual literacy, i.e. the ability to participate in subject-specific discourses both in the foreign language and in German as the language of schooling.

A model of the bilingual mental lexicon

The ability of bilingually educated students to conduct discourse in a content subject in two languages is illustrated in the model of the Integrated Dynamic Model (IDM) (Diehr 2016).

Integrated Dynamic Model of the mental lexicon of bilingually educated learners (Diehr 2016: 71)

The IDM describes the relationship between conceptual and linguistic knowledge, between content-subject (classroom) discourse and everyday language (see Wolfgang Zydatiß’s contribution in this blog); it accounts for the dynamics of the learning process and emphasizes the complex relationship between various degrees of conceptual equivalence in the two languages (Diehr 2016).

Truly bilingual subject-specific discourse

For some years now, the research group at BUW has been investigating whether and how learners develop scientific concepts such as metabolism (biology), acid (chemistry) or election (politics) in two languages and how the relationship between the components of the IDM changes in the course of bilingual programmes. For instance, the respective studies point to the fact that students in the bilingual biology or chemistry class construct scientific concepts in the foreign language without compromising on content; however, they are not equally able to conduct subject-specific discourse in the language of schooling (German) if what is called a ‘bilingual class’ is actually conducted monolingually in the foreign language. Often, they then make do with everyday paraphrases which lack precision and which, in certain contexts, may even be wrong or require conceptual restructuring (link to table in download). This occurs, for example, when learners use the German phrase auf freien Fuß setzen (‘to set free’) to explain bio-chemical processes where they correctly use release in English. It follows that dual subject literacy does not develop incidentally, but requires didactically well-reflected, functional language changes.

Translanguaging in the bilingual classroom

In order to avoid misunderstandings, it must be pointed out that a plea for functional shifts of language does not mean that two languages should be used in equal shares in class or that all content should be conveyed both in the foreign language and in German. Even arbitrary codeswitching does not fall under this notion of a functional change of language. Rather, the further development of bilingual education must be based on the concept of translanguaging according to which language changes perform important functions for the conceptual processing of subject-specific content, e.g. for changing from reception to production or for changing between (symbolic) forms of representation.

Practical consequences

A questionnaire survey among 70 bilingual teachers shows that although 80% of them expect learners to acquire subject-specific terminology in both English and German, only 46% use German as a language of schooling systematically in the bilingual classroom (Diehr/Frisch 2018: 250). The following practical suggestions for the bilingual classroom should therefore be addressed in teacher education at both the university level and in in-service-training programmes:

  • the carefully planned identification of short phases in which subject-specific terms are explicitly introduced and practiced in German in the course of a bilingual teaching unit;
  • contrasting scientific concepts in the foreign language and in the language of schooling in order to develop an awareness of partial equivalence or even non-equivalence;
  • a selection of techniques of language change (translanguaging) that are pedagogically well-reflected, but used sparingly.

The demographic change in society and the linguistic heterogeneity of the student body underline the urgent need for genuinely bilingual instruction in ‘bilingual education’ which enables younger learners as well as students with a first language other than German to acquire a foreign language and German at a level that can be described as academic language proficiency (see Wolfgang Hallet’s contribution in this blog). Der Alleskönner „Bilingualer Unterricht“ kann auf diesem Weg einen bedeutenden Beitrag zu Mehrsprachigkeit und Multiperspektivität leisten.

Recommended reading

Diehr, Bärbel (2016). Doppelte Fachliteralität im bilingualen Unterricht. Theoretische Modelle für Forschung und Praxis. In: Diehr, Bärbel/Preisfeld, Angelika/Schmelter, Lars (Hg.). Bilingualen Unterricht weiterentwickeln und erforschen. Frankfurt (Main): Peter Lang. 57-84. — Diehr, Bärbel/Frisch, Stefanie (2018). Das Zusammenspiel von zwei Sprachen im bilingualen Unterricht. Theoretische Überlegungen, empirische Erkenntnisse und praktische Implikationen. In: Caruso, Celestine/Hofmann, Judith/Rohde, Andreas/Schick, Kim (Hg.). Sprache im Unterricht. Ansätze, Konzepte, Methoden. Trier: WVT. 245-259. — Hallet, Wolfgang (2002). Auf dem Weg zu einer bilingualen Sachfachdidaktik. Bilinguales Lernen als fremdsprachige Konstruktion wissenschaftlicher Begriffe. Praxis des neusprachlichen Unterrichts 49/2, 114-127. — Kultusministerkonferenz (KMK) (2013). Konzepte für den bilingualen Unterricht – Erfahrungsbericht und Vorschläge zur Weiterentwicklung. (02/08/2019).

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