Unlike traditional bilingual programs, the dual language program at ISB fully immerses students in two languages for long periods of time.
A school’s dual language program is more than teaching content in two languages. It’s about seeing cultural and linguistic differences as points of connection, rather than challenges.
“The students strengthen their ability to be global citizens,” says Jose Medina, director of global language and cultural education at the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL).
“They really see the similarities and differences between cultures but see these differences as opportunities to connect rather than obstacles to overcome. That’s rare. It’s not something offered in any other educational program besides a dual language program.”
The author of Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education, Medina recently put his research into practice when he returned to the International School of Beijing (ISB) at the end of January for a visit to speak with teachers. He offered additional support to the school’s relatively new dual language program he had helped implement more than three years ago.
Unlike traditional bilingual programs, a dual language program fully immerses students in two languages for longer periods of time where they learn the same subjects in both languages.
For instance, in Kindergarten at ISB, students are taught subjects in English for three days. Those same subjects are then taught in Chinese for three days, building on what was learned in English. These six-day cycles form the dual language program.
Benefiting from two languages
A successful program is guided by three overarching goals or pillars, according to Medina. It aims for students to be fully bilingual and bi-literate; high achieving academically; and socially and culturally competent.
“Kids are engaging with content in math, science, social science, the arts in both languages,” says Medina. “They’re able to read, write, and translate, which is not what happens in traditional bilingual programs. They really get to maneuver their academics in both languages equally—that’s very different.”
But it’s the socio-cultural competence pillar that Medina believes to be the most important, particularly today. As dual language programs generally include students with different native languages, this third pillar bridges the gap between their linguistic and cultural differences.
Students are exposed to a new language or culture, and form a deeper understanding of it, connecting with their peers. They are peer models for each other, adding that additional layer of support.
“We now have decades of longitudinal research regarding dual language programs to show their benefits,” says Medina. “There’s everything from keeping the brain healthy to higher academically achieving students.
“For me, the huge edge with the dual language program is really about that third pillar—without that focus on global citizenry, the first two are difficult to achieve. Any school that doesn’t have that third pillar won’t achieve those long-term effects.”
Seeing growth in the classroom
The three pillars are put to practice every day at ISB, facilitated by two of the school’s dual language teachers, Elizabeth Nunan and Lin Li. Nunan and Li teach Kindergarten, which this year is currently the highest grade level offered in the dual language program at ISB.
Each year, the school adds another grade level in dual language, as the original group of students (who began at PreK3) advance through the school, which runs to Grade 12.
The two teachers have watched how their students have developed and progressed over the past year, becoming more comfortable with each other and with both languages.
“We listen and observe where the children are going,” says Li. “As we developed deeper relationships with the students, signage in the classroom changed, resources were added, our systems became more integrated, and we as a team have continued to become tighter. It’s been a positive evolution.”
A favourite story of the teachers demonstrates the type of active collaboration and support unique to a dual language program. During a lesson on different professions, Nunan and Li realized there was no Chinese equivalent to the term fishmonger.
It became an interactive lesson where, together, both English and Chinese students came up with their own word for fishmonger in Chinese.
“It was so interesting to see this discussion among the kids, saying, ‘Well, what are we going to call this person with the fish?’” says Nunan. “They were pulling from one language to help them communicate in the other.”
In this instance, the Chinese-speaking students were learning a different language, and their brains were fired up about their native language, as they worked to come up with a Chinese word for fishmonger.
They formed a deeper understanding of Chinese while trying to express an English concept.
“It’s a big difference between dual language and mono language,” says Nunan. “They’re active in reasoning through and understanding language.”
Throughout the year, Nunan and Li have watched the students grow and support each other in the classroom.
A little apprehensive at first, the kids eventually began to settle in and understand the context of the nonnative language (and the language itself) within the first two or three weeks.
“The biggest change now is that they understand the instruction and language well,” says Li. “They feel comfortable knowing that it’s okay if they don’t understand everything immediately. Now readily approach me for help when they need it.”
“They’ll even jump in and help out their peers if they’re struggling,” says Nunan. “It’s really quite lovely.”
The ISB advantage
ISB is particularly unique in offering what’s known as a two-way dual language program. It’s not just English-speaking students learning Chinese half the time and English the other half. Rather, it’s both English-speaking and Chinese-speaking students together in the same lesson.
“We do programs all around the world, but I can tell you, specifically here in Beijing, the only program that is truly aligning with the three pillars of dual language and all of the latest research is the International School of Beijing,” says Medina. “It’s fantastic because everything we’ve done here aligns with the most recent research.”
Medina often comes across parents who are concerned that if they don’t speak the language at home, it will disadvantage their children if they’re enrolled in a dual language program.
Contrarily, research shows that parents who speak one native language at home strengthen that support for their child, while the child can seamlessly add the second language at school due to the structure of the program.
In fact, even if the students home language is neither of the two languages, due to the structure and additive nature of the program allows students to thrive regardless, according to Medina, who says some students’ native languages are Spanish or Arabic.
“Really, if the kids are willing and the program is well-structured, any student is going to thrive,” says Medina.