Flexibility in Taiwan’s Bilingual Education

Recently, one of my students asked me about the following situation:

I’ve heard some school teachers say they just use classroom English to teach bilingual class. When it comes to the subject content, they only use Chinese to teach it. Can this arrangement be classified as a bilingual class?

To answer the question directly, no, I do not consider only using classroom English as a bilingual class.

A true bilingual class in my mind is one where students engage in learning subject content in both languages, Mandarin and English.

It’s worth emphasizing, though, that the opposite scenario of what the student asked, where a teacher teaches content only in English, and uses Chinese for classroom language, also would not be a bilingual class in my mind.

But this video isn’t actually about what is and is not bilingual education. This video is about flexibility when establishing a bilingual education program in a school.

It is very unlikely that most schools will be able to implement a bilingual class as I strictly defined it when they first begin their bilingual education program.

There are several barriers to realizing such a bilingual class such as student English proficiency, teacher readiness, among other things.

This is why my colleague Professor Tzu-Bin Lin promotes his FERTILE model for bilingual schools. The first letter of this model stands for Flexibility, encouraging schools to be flexible in how they define a bilingual class in their context.

In other words, schools must acknowledge their current circumstances and practice bilingual teaching in response to those circumstances rather than trying to force a bilingual educational model that may be incompatible with the context.

Viewed through the lens of the F in FERTILE, there is nothing wrong with a teacher simply using English for classroom language and using Mandarin for content instruction if that is what’s most appropriate for the context at that time.

Flexibility means not blindly accepting a definition, such as the one I provided, of what should or shouldn’t happen in a bilingual class. Instead, schools must be responsive to the needs of their community.

In fact, despite believing a bilingual class should be defined as teaching content in both languages, I generally do not encourage new bilingual schools to do that. Instead, I recommend the following progression when a school is new to bilingual education.

First, simply begin with everyday language, such as greetings. Then, when ready, proceed to add general classroom language such as simple directions. For example, open to page 5, and then transition toward more specific classroom language such as content-based directions or procedures, for example, in a home economics class, how to dice a tomato.

Only once the teacher and students become comfortable with this everyday and classroom English do I advise beginning some content teaching through English, beginning with simple concept checking questions and then moving toward describing or explaining academic concepts.

It’s very important that teachers and schools exercise this flexibility when implementing bilingual education so that content learning isn’t sacrificed. While I believe bilingual education has its benefits, we cannot allow it to impact student learning outcomes in Taiwan.

If we find that our bilingual education implementation is negatively affecting student learning, we must stop because that’s an indication that the teacher or students are not ready for that type of arrangement.

Returning to the students’ question, while I wouldn’t call only classroom English use a true bilingual class, it is an important stage for establishing bilingual education in a school, and, in my mind, the teacher seems to be exercising appropriate flexibility and responding to the needs of the students.

My hope is that after a period of time, when the students and teacher become comfortable with classroom language, the class will progress toward incorporating English alongside Mandarin in instruction and learning, but only when the time is right.