Saturday, 7 August 2010

Bilingual Education

More interesting examples of Dunglish are to be found at

Two weeks from now I will meet a new group of first formers. They are eleven years old. I will start my art course with a self-portrait task. This will teach them the words for the details of their face: eyes, nose, ears and so on. Second lesson: types of hair do, curly, wavy, crew cut etc. They have to learn a lot of words for items in the classroom, for the stool they sit on, the desk they work at, the mirror in which they study their features, and the pencil to draw with. All these words cannot be taken for granted. Eleven years old and I am to teach these words? Yes, these Dutch students are taught about art in a foreign language.

Bilingual education

In June my school's curriculum with respect to language education was assessed by the European Platform. We passed muster as a TTO-Junior School. TTO is a Dutch acronym, “Tweetalig Onderwijs” means Bilingual Education. We have a stream of students who have chosen for the challenge of being taught in English in most of their subjects, or, more likely, their parents have chosen this wonderful opportunity.

The TTO-program has run now in The Netherlands for fifteen years. Hunderd and fifty-odd schools are offering bilingual education now and the number is steadily growing.

Foreign languages

It goes without saying that all Dutch students are compelled to learn foreign languages. At the age of fifteen years students in secondary education will have had lessons in French, German and English. Every student has to include at least one foreign language in the exam program, mostly English, most students will conclude their secondary education at the age of sixteen or seventeen with a basic or an advanced knowledge of two foreign languages.

On top of that the TTO-program aims at a proficiency level by immersing the students in a foreign language. Not only do they get language lessons by qualified language teachers, they are being taught in English by teachers of other subjects as well, e.g. mathematics, science, history, geography, P.E, Art. Most schools offer a curriculum in English, two schools only have chosen to do so in German. The rationale behind this choice is that English is the lingua franca of science, politics and international business affairs.

The English spoken classroom.

As a consequence I have to teach Art in an English spoken classroom. I am even supposed to correct poor English, spelling, pronunciation, grammar, the lot! As most of my fellow teachers involved in this program, I am not a native speaker of English. Of course I have passed the Cambridge Proficiency Exam, without such a certificate I would not be allowed to teach in English, however, this hardly guarantees impeccable English by the teacher. I bet you have already stumbled on some erroneous constructions while reading this post, if not being disgusted by stilted language. Teaching art in a foreign language means to convey most delicate content while feeling clumsy lacking the subtle modes available in the mother tongue. So the whole endeavour seems rather pathetic. It is.

Three strata: three languages

Nevertheless we are forced to teach in English, for better or worse. We prepare our students for partaking in the global community. I suggest that command of at least three languages is needed to be successful in life. Those languages are connected with three social strata in which we are to function:

  1. The mother tongue is needed for the family, the street and/or the region. I was raised in Low Saxon, a rural language rooted in a feudal agricultural local setting. I had to learn Dutch at school, my parents never managed to speak it properly. Though Low Saxon is endangered, it still is a must while communicating with elderly people in the region.
  2. The national language, which you need to understand the tax form. Dutch is a wonderful language, with a rich heritage of writing, however only twenty-two million people across the word speak the lingo.
  3. The international lingua franca gives access to the global community. In mediaeval times Latin enabled international correspondence, in the eighteenth century French was all the rage in Europe, now it is English that is ubiquitous, Mandarin may be the next international language.
    I guess the Dutch fluffed their chances when they traded Manhattan for Surinam in the treaty of Breda (1667). What if the United States had chosen Dutch for their national language? Dutchmen have been trading goods and services all around the globe for hundreds of years. We wish to uphold this national pride.

The Anglo-Saxon world can afford to be self-contained. For a lot of people living in England or the U.S. the three strata are served by one language only, with minor inflections. The speakers of other languages cannot be complacent, they have to wheel and deal using a foreign language.

Language is the crux

The language problem is particularly acute for immigrant students. Their native language is not fed any more by the environment outside the family, they are struggling to cope with school education in the national language which for them is their second language, on top of that they have to learn third languages within that system.

Dutch students face a peculiar problem. English and Dutch are related languages. So they tend to translate word-by-word from Dutch into English, which results in Dunglish. We can't have that, can we? This is not only about language, it is about culture as well. You have to think in English, you have to be English. So they meet a teacher who is quite formal and polite and unwilling to accept any churlish Dutch way of communication.

Grappling with teaching in a foreign language has learnt me that the language problem is the crux of education. Whatever subject you teach, it is predominantly communicated in words that may be completely incomprehensible, if the language is taken for granted. This awareness has made me a more versatile teacher, even when teaching in Dutch. Next to that, teaching in English has made me a very humble teacher. Being corrected by students is not what you wish for after a long career. I have to work my head off to compete with them.

By the way, I would be very grateful if you pointed at my Dunglish in this post. List the blatant errors in a comment, I will correct them a.s.a.p.

This post was triggered by Profiles in Greatness Ep. 4, a wonderful story by Mr. McNamar about his teacher of Spanish, Senora Mosely.


Joanne Jacobs said...

Your English is excellent.

My brother Peter lived in Amsterdam for several years. He couldn't practice his Dutch with Dutch people because they immediately heard his accent and switched to English. He used to get together with another American to speak Dutch.

Joep said...

Dear Joanne,
thank you for your complimentary comment.
We welcome exchange students to our school annually. Students from the US almost never manage to learn Dutch because our students are too eager to exercise their inchoate English. Students from other countries can become quite proficient within a couple of months, but only if they refuse to use English for intermediate language.
Albeit, I remember discovering twenty years ago after some weeks at the beginning of the school year that a girl in my art room, whom I took to be somewhat slow on the uptake, asking strange questions, always quizzical looking, in fact turned out to be a genius. I had missed out on information concerning her class, and I hadn't realised at all that I had an American girl in my classroom. Of course I apologised and inquired. She had worked her tail off on the introductory course of Youth For Understanding, her host family had helped her effectively. Before the start of the school year, within three weeks, she spoke basic Dutch without perceptible accent, and grammatically correct. She was extremely gifted, not only in languages, but in art as well, and in all other subjects she had chosen.
We had a lot of refugees some ten years ago. Young students who know they are going to live in The Netherlands, always learn the language fast. I admire especially those students who have set themselves a goal, wanting to study at a university, becoming a police officer, whatever.. They often manage to function at our highest academical level. They sometimes embarrass our indulgent complacent native students with their motivation and grit.
I guess learning a language depends on the student's mindset. Why learn a language that you are not going to use ever after having returned home?
Alas, my classroom assistant, who is from Kosovo, and whose work I very much appreciate and need, arrived too late in The Netherlands. She can't come up with any sentence in proper Dutch. She can't grasp the grammar. She has given up. She speaks an idiosyncratic pidgin. So it depends on age as well.

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