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Chris Dixon


[14/12/04. I made some minor spelling and grammatical corrections and have added a few short notes enclosed in square brackets as explanation. I have converted the original OHTs (overhead transparencies) into images and placed links to them in the relevant parts of the text, also enclosed in square brackets.

Please note that some of the OHTs are deliberately provocative and are intended to stimulate discussion (it is a seminar after all). That is, their content does not necessarily reflect my own views.]


Bilingual teaching.


[OHT objectives of the seminar]

What does it mean to be bilingual?

Although it sounds straightforward, this is not an easy question to answer. If we may say that it simply means being competent in two languages but that really begs the question, how do we define competent? Do we have to be equally good in each language? What about if we can understand another language but not speak it, does that mean we are bilingual? Or speak a second language but not write it? Or write it but not speak it? And can we be very bilingual, or a bit bilingual or is it just a yes or no that applies?


A dictionary definition.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives a very clear and simple answer;

1. adjective: having, speaking (fluently), spoken or written in, two languages.

2. noun: Person able to speak two languages, especially fluently.

[OHT definitions]

In the situation that we find ourselves, it will be tempting for us to think of bilingualism only in terms of Welsh and English but I will keep broadening this out to include other languages, for reasons that I will emphasise later.

Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to be bilingual? Surely it would be better just to speak one language very well rather than two languages perhaps not so well? Yet our education system places great emphasis on learning another language or even two and there are many claims that this is beneficial for our development.


Why teach bilingually?

So it may be clear that it is an advantage to know two languages and in our situation in Wales, many Welsh speaking Welsh people will have a grasp of three (or more) languages by the time they finish their secondary education. But why should we teach bilingually? That is, why should we teach the same thing to the same group in two different languages?

[OHT English is the international language]

There are a number of points we could make here but they in turn raise further questions. We might argue that it is a person's right to be educated in their first language yet if we travel to another country, where a different language is spoken, does that right extend to there? There are people who have lived in this area most of their lives, who came here in the late sixties and early seventies as eleven or twelve year olds, who received absolutely no concessions to their first language and as a consequence were not only put off the idea of learning Welsh but actually failed to get an education. They did not receive a bilingual education, achieved no qualifications and were in fact excluded from further and higher education.

So we could be more precise and argue that it is a person's right to be educated in the language of the country they are born in. Yet we hear many times that Britain is a multicultural society, with a variety of languages. If I go back to Yorkshire, say Bradford, I may find schools where a number of Asian languages and dialects are employed in order to teach pupils English. My mother, when she worked in London for the Camden Race Relations Board, had a contact list of over forty Asian languages and dialects for schools in the area.

There are a number of administrative and organisational benefits in bilingual education. Bilingual education is more cost effective in that we can teach just one group not two, which in theory halves the teaching time and thus the staffing levels. It can also increase the group size so two small groups that may not be financially viable become one viable group. In Wales additional funding is available for assessing bilingually. We could be cynical about this.

Some courses will demand or require bilingual teaching, such as a Welsh secretarial course.

Another set of reasons relates to preserving national and cultural identity. Are these alone good enough reasons for bilingual education? I want to mention distress here. I am using distress as a very general term. When we talk about language in Wales we find strong feelings are stirred up. It is an inevitable consequence of past injustices. The problem with distress is that it can make it difficult to think clearly and rationally.

[OHT culture]

A further reason for bilingual teaching is that it may be law or policy. This College [Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor], for example, has a bilingual policy; it is one of only a few bilingual tertiary colleges. This in turn can cause difficulties. For example, in theory you have to be bilingual to teach here. This limits the number of applicants for a job that in turn means that we may not get the best performing arts lecturer, we may only get the best bilingual performing arts lecturer.

However, there are a number of what I think are very good reasons for teaching bilingually in our situation in Wales. It is most definitely a big advantage to be bilingual in Wales. My students recently worked on an international video project promoting bilingualism in minority languages in the EEC. In Wales it aids employment and professional development (I could get a job here for example). So there is an advantage to develop (teach) bilingual skills. I hope to be able to show that teaching bilingually can encourage and help students who are monolingual to develop bilingual skills.

But first, does it actually work? Is a bilingual lesson as effective as a monolingual lesson or less? Or perhaps it can be better than a monolingual lesson, because it also develops bilingual skills. But does it work?

[OHT fact or fiction]


Problems associated with bilingual teaching.

What are the problems associated with bilingual teaching? We will find different language patterns from group to group, place to place, year to year. This has certainly been true for me on the performing arts course. Last year’s first year intake were 80% bilingual but of those 80% only 10% were Welsh first language. They represent a great change from the incomers of the sixties and seventies who were turned off Welsh. This crew think nothing about being bilingual, it is perfectly natural for them to be able to use either or both languages which I feel is a really good sign. This coming year’s intake looks like being almost the other way around; about 80% bilingual again but the majority are Welsh first language. What differences will that make for me?

There may be problems with technical terms or specialist jargon. Remember the lighting lessons? Dimmer racks, racs plygu ac yn y blaen. As someone whose first language was English I was certainly apprehensive about teaching bilingually. It took me some time to gain any real confidence that my students could understand what I was saying and even now I will get someone (ideally the translator) to check anything I write in Cymraeg.

Speaking from experience, preparing a bilingual lesson takes more time (a lot) and if I have to use the services of the College translator, I may well have to prepare my lessons at least a week or a fortnight in advance. Certainly in my own field there are far fewer resources available to me. There are a huge number of English translations of international plays available but far fewer in Welsh. In some situations there may be a lack of support services available; we are very fortunate to have now two translators on this site.

A more serious criticism is the idea that students are actually switching on and off during lessons depending on which language is being used and I would like to look at that in more detail when we go on to methods of delivering bilingual teaching.



There is no single, clear, recommended or accepted method of teaching bilingually. The method varies from group to group and teacher to teacher, even lesson to lesson with the same teacher (I am well aware that by four o'clock after a busy day my fluency in Welsh can plummet). However, a number of strategies can be identified.

[OHT methods]

A straightforward translation is simplest to begin with. Here, the delivery is shared equally with something being said in one language and then exactly the same thing in the second. The translation can be in short units, sudden changes, back and forth, sentence to sentence. Or we can use larger units, perhaps the equivalent of a paragraph. Does this encourage more switching on and off?

The second strategy is more selective with a fluid movement from one to the other that might not appear to follow any pattern or plan. When delivered well, this can sound very natural and easy but it can be difficult to be equal or fair about each language. The important points are delivered in both languages to try to ensure comprehension.

Another strategy which can be even easier (in comparison) to deliver will use one language, usually English, for the bulk of the presentation and then answer questions in whichever language they're asked.

We could choose an oral presentation in one language followed up by discussion in the other.

Finally, across a course, we may find variety between modules with some delivered through just one language, say Welsh, and others in English (at present, on the performing arts course, movement studies is the only module that is delivered solely in English).

Returning to what I was saying about the advantages of developing bilingualism in our student groups, which of these do you think would be most effective? In general, the last two will be better at developing bilingual skills. Which would mean most work for us as teachers?

[OHT flow chart]

There are some good examples of more developed strategies for splinter group tasks. We might begin with a short bilingual introduction and then split the class into language groups ensuring one group can get started on something without help. We then work with the other group in one language. When we are sure that the group we are working with are proceeding along the right track then we can go to the other and use their language. When the task, or a stage in the task, is completed we can hold a joint questions and answer session in whatever language comes up. From here we can go back to the independent tasks. We might go around this loop several times and finish off with a bilingual review or feedback to conclude. An advantage of this is that it requires less bilingual presentation and hence less time.

In general we could try to plan sessions to reduce the bilingual presentations (like this seminar). Written resources should be provided in both languages and we can promote more active learning; this will save us preparation time but, more importantly, will also free up more time in the lessons. In this scenario the students must accept more responsibility so we may well be limited by the maturity and motivation of the group.


Resources for bilingual teaching.

A translation service is extremely useful and establishing a good relationship with the translator is very important. This is the chance to discuss things such as terms and grammar and if you do your own translations they can be checked or enhanced. There is therefore the opportunity for you to develop your own bilingual skills through the use of the service. In the College here, work can be exchanged on disk so that documents can be corrected on a computer prior to printing the final version. This can save a considerable amount of time in your preparation but as the translation service is often very busy you might have to wait, therefore you may need to prepare materials well in advance of the lessons.


Bilingual teaching aids.

We can divide these roughly into types.

[OHT each language on separate sheet: Welsh only, English only]

Welsh and English aids such as handouts, transparencies etc can be produced on separate pages. This allows for a clear and uncluttered layout but there can be difficulties handling the extra information, particularly on an OHP. However, this method does least to develop bilingual skills and it is more difficult for students to compare terms. In a subject involving specific jargon, a Welsh speaker, for example, may already know the English term but may not know the equivalent Welsh word. Being able to see both is therefore an advantage.

[OHT both languages divided on the same page]

It is possible to divide the page with Welsh on one side and English on the other. Again, this allows for a clear and relatively uncluttered layout. The students can see both languages and so check and compare terms.

[OHT both languages alternate on the same page]

Both languages can be presented together, alternating on the same page. The use of a different font or style can help distinguish them. This can be cluttered and is more difficult to make attractive but it's probably the best for developing bilingual skills because the sentences or keywords and their translations are so close on the page; the comparison is automatic.


Analysing the linguistic group.

If we are to teach bilingually we need to know and understand the composition of the group from a linguistic point of view. This requires some research and a student questionnaire can be given out. The main points to draw out are;

There will be other ways of pulling in the information, some of which can be found in existing documents such as;

It is important that, as a teacher delivering lessons bilingually, we understand the strengths and weaknesses of each one of our students. We are then in a position to provide individual support during a session without even making it obvious, as I will describe later.


Some conclusions and speculations.

It was interesting to hear Keith [one of the PGCE course tutors] talk about saying things twice in the class, the second time explaining the terminology he used the first time around. When I thought about it, I found I was using my Welsh and English delivery in a similar manner. The repetition in the second language would always have some additional element in it, some slightly deeper meaning or some appropriate translation of terminology. This would often require me to go back into the first language to express the additional meaning and then from there, back to the second because something else had come up.

So I would speculate that repetition in the two languages can reinforce learning, deepen the point and explain terminology. So, far from seeing bilingual delivery as being not as good as monolingual, I would suggest that it can be better as a way of deepening our understanding of a subject, even for students who only have fluent use of one language.

Another concern relating to bilingual teaching is the possibility that students switch on and off during the lesson, depending on which language they use. In my early days at the college where I first began to teach bilingually I was very aware of this. It was much more noticeable when I tried to simply reproduce the same content in each language, the basic translation approach. I find now that by using strategies such as those outlined above, I can often hold the attention of the group more effectively with the two languages than with just one.

Bilingual delivery provides another layer of variety to a session. As long as I am conscious of who in the group is weak in which language, I can tailor my delivery very specifically to provide individual help where it is needed without this being obvious to the group as a whole (or to the individual, come to that). I would suggest that we can make a bilingual lesson more interesting and more effective than one in just a single language.

Further, my English only students will often pick up good conversational Welsh just through doing the course and hanging around with Welsh speaking members of the group. Those who tend to switch off during the Welsh parts of a lesson can be pulled in by asking them what a Welsh word means (that they know) and get a kick out of knowing the answer. They are also surprised and pleased at the respect and enthusiasm they receive from Welsh speakers in the class. This can be enough to draw them into the Welsh element of my lessons and they will listen carefully, trying to find words they recognise. I have observed this change often.

To conclude, I feel that, especially in Wales, being bilingual is a real advantage and that through bilingual delivery of lessons we are in a position to help all our students develop their bilingual skills. Secondly, I would describe bilingual education as a multi-tasking teaching tool. That is to say, we are able to do several things at once without causing confusion. So repetition in the two languages can be used to reinforce learning and deepen meaning. Similarly, unfamiliar terminology can be linked across languages to words that have been heard already. And lastly, bilingual delivery adds variety, can help build self esteem among learners and can be very effective as a means of class room control; a student with only limited understanding of Welsh will often respond much more to "Paid a geg!" than "please keep the noise down".

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