Teaching English in Spain’s Bilingual Schools—My Experience

[Warning: this is a pictureless post.]

Bilingual education sounds sweet, doesn’t it? Madrid certainly seems to think so—the program, which began with 26 primary schools in 2004, included 379 primary and secondary schools during the 2012–2013 school year. Next year, there will be even more: 403 (313 primary schools and 90 high schools). (Source)

I worked this past year in a “bilingual” primary school.

But what is a bilingual school anyway?

When I hear the word bilingual, I think of someone who is completely capable of expressing himself/herself in two languages. (I, ahem, think of my future children). Thus, when I heard the term colegio bilingüe, I assumed the children attending these schools would be bilingual in English and Spanish.

Not so fast.

The children I worked with last year were in sixth grade, 10 and 11 years old, and their English level was quite impressive. We could have simple conversations, they could understand some jokes, and they generally knew a lot of grammar. The best ones, anyway. The worst ones couldn’t understand most of the things I said, and there was always someone translating. (Usually the little smart aleck child in the back, tinier than most second graders!)

These children were taking English, and they were also taking science in English. Their other courses included math (in Spanish), lengua (like our English class), art, choir, P.E., etc. There were other optional courses as well. So they did indeed have more hours of English and thus more exposure to English than a child not attending a bilingual school. I definitely believe that these extra hours aided them—if it’s English we’re speaking of.

Can you imagine learning science in another language?

This boggled my mind at first. I believed the children knew a lot of science—and in English, to boot! They were learning about magnetism, energy, light, and even the reproductive system! Some of them understood and processed the information. Most of them memorized. Perhaps it would have been the same had they been learning it in Spanish, but somehow I doubt that. A lot of the concepts were in fact quite interesting, especially for curious 11 year-olds. I feel like those whose English was not quite as good had their enthusiasm dampened a bit by the language barrier.

Switching from English to Spanish

The Spanish education system is a bit different than ours in the US.

  1. Educación infantil—This is from ages 3–5, and while not mandatory, does not require a lot of money.
  2. Educación primaria—Primary school, from first grade (age 6) to sixth grade (age 11).
  3. Educación secundaria—Secondary school, from seventh grade (age 12) to 10th grade (age 15).
  4. Bachillerato—The last two years of high school. They are not obligatory.

In bachillerato, a Spanish student most choose a “track,” crazy as it sounds to us Americans. We don’t generally make up our minds until our junior year of college, but Spaniards are already deciding in the junior year of high school. There is a humanities track, an arts track, a social-sciences track, and a science and technology track.

Now, imagine if you will: a student who has always been in bilingual education and has always taken science in English. What happens when said student must then study science (in college especially) in Spanish?

Are the teachers natives?

No, the teachers are generally not native speakers. The native speakers are called Conversation and Language Assistants, and that’s what I was. I helped out as needed, did what I was told, and generally tried to fly under the radar. (Read: I worked with a crazy person.)

The teachers are supposed to have a high level of English. Do they? Sometimes. I have worked with teachers who have had excellent accents, vocabulary, and readily expressed themselves in English; I have also worked with teachers who pronounced “blind” as “bleend” and told students that a shooting star was a firework. (Said teacher had only recently started teaching English, having taught mathematics and the Spanish language for most of her storied career.)

So, do bilingual schools work? Are they worth it?

It depends on what you mean by “work.”

Do the children have a higher level of English? I think so. I have worked as a language assistant at a non-bilingual high school, and the children’s English was way worse than third graders at the bilingual school. (It could have something to do with location as well, as the non-bilingual school was in Zamora, and the bilingual school was in Madrid.)

Are they really bilingual? No. They are not. Most children need extra work and classes to reach a truly “bilingual” level, and of course they’ll never be as bilingual as, say, Erik’s children.

Does the bilingual education hurt or help? I think it helps for the most part, although it may be difficult to make the switch from learning science in English to learning it in Spanish. However, perhaps I am underestimating these children’s capacities. After all, they were constantly surprising me.

Have you worked in a bilingual school? What are your opinions?

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32 comments

  1. Great post Kaley! A lot of the schools is Basque Country are bilingual Spanish/Basque, but I don’t know of any public schools that were bilingual with English. My school wasn’t bilingual at all, but the kids still had to take separate English and Basque classes-I really felt bad for the immigrant kids, some of who were still trying to learn Spanish.

    Another interesting fact my friend in Bilbao told me is that at the all-Basque schools they had to stop teaching math(s) in Basque because once the kids went to college, they had a really hard time doing it in Castellano!

    It’s definitely an interesting experience. I do know that my private lesson students that went to the American school definitely had the best English!

    1. Haha yes, well—the American schools kids probably were closer to bilingual. Do you think?

      I imagine life as an immigrant in the Basque country or in Cataluña must be hard, because learning Spanish is difficult enough! Plus the Basque language is notorious for being crazy hard to learn.

      1. Absolutely, the kids that I knew that went to what I would call “immersion” schools had a great grip on the language. However, all of those were private, and you had to take a test and do an oral interview to get in.

        I always had a couple Chinese kids in each class that literally had no clue what was going on in any language but Chinese-it was a bit sad when the teachers would just tell me to ignore them. However, I did have one girl from the country of Georgia who was amazing. She started in 2nd ESO and spoke amazing Spanish, her English was pretty good, and she was coming along in Basque. Definitely depends on the kid!

  2. I almost turned away after I saw the warning, but I’m glad I didn’t.

    I have been curious about just what was meant by colegio bilingüe, myself, and you’ve cleared some things up.

    While it must damage the knowledge acquisition of the class taught in the foreign language, I can’t help but think that it’s worth it to stuff more foreign language into those early years before the brain “hardens” and makes learning a foreign language so difficult.

    Although I haven’t surveyed them all, I’m pretty sure that most of the bilingual and polyglot people I’ve met, no matter how well they speak the other language, always do math in their native tongue. Cincuenta y cuatro más doce, go! Impossible. I am really looking forward to seeing if I can teach my kids to do math equally well in both, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they tell me, “No, let Mom help with the math homework.”

    1. I’ve read something about this, that one’s most “dominant” language is the one in which they do math, particularly “complex” calculations.

    2. Did you seriously almost turn away? I can’t note sarcasm, but this is the Internet.

      I totally agree about the math thing. I watch Saber y Ganar with Mario’s parents when we visit, and they do a math thing, which—while still rather basic—leaves my head spinning because it’s in Spanish. I’m sure if it were in English, I would have no problems.

      I am also interested in seeing what your kids want as they grow up. I always fear that ours will prefer one language/culture to another (not that math is SUCH a thing).

  3. I taught 4th grade for two years at a (very expensive) “immersion” school in Seoul. I had 24 students– 12 in the morning and the other 12 in the afternoon. The students had a Korean teacher and studied the Korean National Curriculum when not with me. As in your experience, they spoke better English than the students I taught in the public school system, but not enough better to justify the tuition, IMHO. Also, since the parents were paying large sums of money to the school, they felt their word was law, and were prone to some amazing tantrums. I enjoyed teaching there, and would recommend the school to teachers, but not to parents.

  4. Oh boy, I have some very strong opinions about this stuff, but that’s because I lived through bilingual education as a child so sorry for the book haha!

    I worked in a “bilingual” school in Madrid and the set up was similar to the school you worked in. I was the English science teacher and was also supposed to teach a theater workshop (the direccion finally realized I was in over my head with that one and gave me two Spanish teachers who actually knew how to put on a play, because I certainly didn’t). Some classes had higher levels of English than others. The older students did not know as much because the program is very new in that school, so naturally the younger students had an easier time with it since they soaked it all up like sponges.

    Interestingly enough, I actually went to a real bilingual school in the United States. And when I say real, I mean the school was accredited by the French Ministry of Education, meaning the school was considered just like a real French school back in France. I studied the same curriculum the students were learning in France. You could not attend the school if you not could speak French, period. Extra support was given to students from primarily English speaking homes (ESL basically for French) but I didn’t need the classes. (In fact, the teachers praised my American mother for doing such a great job teaching my sister and me French since they were surprised we did not need the extra support coming from a household with an American parent.) So whenever I see the label “colegio bilingue” thrown around, it makes me raise my hackles because I know what a true bilingual school is like and these programs aren’t it.

    1. As someone says later, I suppose the whole bilingual thing may refer to having subjects in both languages, but to me it was a misleading term!

      I’ve heard of such schools in the US, and I know they have all native teachers and the kids are totally bilingual, so I suppose that’s what I’m comparing …

    2. amelie88,

      If you are speaking about a Lycée Français, it’s not a biligual school: it’s a french monolingual school.

      Pupils become “truly” bilingual because the environment (family, friends, TV…) is in the other language.

      I think sending your children to a schoool in another language is a good idea, but since it’s not always possible I find the Masrid program a second best for my daughters :)

  5. I was placed in a school that had a bilingual department. The students’ grasp of the language was so-so in my opinion..there were a couple of students who had at least one American parent so naturally they had a better grasp-American accent and all. Even though the science courses, p. e. courses, ethics and history courses were supposedly “bilingual,” for the most part, the classes weren’t taught in English unless I showed up. Since I showed up at different times according to my schedule, some of the students wouldn’t have their English books so they’d leave to go get them or share with others…or if they didn’t buy the books at all, the teacher would go and make copies before the lesson began…obviously that program needed work. I wasn’t in Madrid though….so maybe that’s why.

    1. Gosh, I would be SO interested in hearing about those one-American-parent students. I hope they had more than just a “better” grasp …! Mario and I plan to raise our kids bilingual so we want to have a fully-fluent grasp, ya know what I’m sayin’? ;)

      The program needs work everywhere, including Madrid.

  6. Hi Kaley. Interesting post. I have quite a different interpretation of what the Spanish mean by “bilingual” in this context. I think they simply mean that there are two teaching languages, so the teaching system is bilingual, not that the students are bilingual.
    In saying that, according to what I have been taught during my studies of linguistics, those kids would be classes as bilingual because they are using two languages on a regular basis (ie at school everyday). Bilingualism is, I understand, not to do with your level of proficiency AS MUCH as it is to do with usage. I am not perfect at Spanish because my vocab (for lack of immersion, that’s about to change though) still falls a little bit short, but I am, in an official sense, considered bilingual, as I was even when I’d only been using the language for about a year. That’s what my education has to say about it anyway.

    1. Good perspective, and perhaps you are right! I don’t mean to disparage the program in any way, but I do want to point out that it’s not perfect. A lot of my friends (Spanish) who are teachers have issues with the program because they believe its eventually harms students when they have to switch languages and didn’t have a really firm grasp on the concept to start with (due to language barriers!).

  7. The two schools I worked at this past year weren’t fully bilingual. The only things they had in English was class with me, and then sometimes they had “English class” with their teacher, who was Spanish and 9/10 couldn’t speak really well in English (at least.. well enough to be an English teacher, in my opinion). Some of the kids at these schools were actually pretty good at expressing themselves in English; once in a while, one would really impress me, but not that often. I did substitute at another primary school once, and they actually WERE teaching the kids science in English. I thought that was crazy – wasn’t expecting that one. Some of the kids were really good, and the teachers were actually decent, but it wasn’t that great of a system. This upcoming year, I’m supposed to work at an actually bilingual school… so we’ll see how this goes, and if it really is bilingual!

    It’s funny you mention learning science in another language, though. I learned science in French and having to relearn it in high school (in English) was strange and really difficult. I learned EVERYTHING in school in French until the 11th grade, which is when I started taking the vitals – math and science – in English to prep for university (where I wanted to study in English). I think it’s smarter to learn those subjects in English – since it’s so universal – so in that sense it works out in their favour. Doing school in a different language makes it really hard to lose fluency, in my opinion. I don’t speak French every day anymore, but it will ALWAYS be there unless I really slip up and stop speaking it for 50 years or something insane like that.

    Anyway, as English isn’t an official language in Spain, things will have to keep being the way they are over there. The English development over there is highly flawed, but it’s hard to expect anything else. The teachers barely know the language, so I don’t blame the kids for struggling. I always felt bad for thinking this, but it’s true to say that the kids currently in high school in Spain are pretty much done – they need to really put in the effort to learn on their own. The kids in kindergarten and maybe primary schools are better off and will benefit more… and the kids that aren’t even in school yet will experience something entirely different.

    1. Thank you, I really appreciate your perspective on this, especially as a person who has actually switched from one language to another! How difficult it must be. I actually think it’s best that they just do it all in Spanish, honestly … but perhaps I’m wrong.

  8. I worked in a private school that aims to be bilingual. I was the one of two English teachers for preschool and primary and in addition to regular English classes I also was assigned Science, Art, and Music in English. I did not agree completely about teaching these other subjects in English because there was no way I could get deep into the subjects like the Spanish (or Galician) speaking teacher could even though I was so eager to do it. As I was trying to only use English in the classroom we could not get into concepts very much and that was a real loss for the students.

    I think instead of trying to be “bilingual” schools should focus on helping their English teachers to speak well (summer review courses, for example) and concentrate on which foreign language teaching methods work best. I’d also change the English selectividad (and thus the focus of bachillerato) – there must be a better way to test student’s English that doesn’t focus so much on obscure grammar and vocabulary.

    1. Exactly! I believe that “depth” is totally an issue here. You can’t delve into things as much as you would like, even if the students’ English is quite good! It’s not the same as the native language.

      I have little-to-not knowledge of the selección exam, so I would support your claims, as I believe you know quite a bit.

  9. I think this is a great exposé of state-run bilingual education in Spain. I was similarly surprised when I came in for my first year and was assisting science classes 80% of my time. But, I mean, what else can they do to get as much English instruction/immersion as possible? Especially since the kids definitely aren’t getting much, if anything, at home, like they would in the Basque Country, Galicia, or Cataluña for the minority languages.

    Anyway, thank you for finally making it clear to me the levels of Spanish education. I could never figure out the difference/stages between ESO and Bachillerato. It makes so much more sense now!

    1. Ha! It’s a bit confusing. After my brother-in-law graduated (or perhaps while he was still in HS), they changed it, so whenever they talk about the previous system (EGB), I am lost!

  10. I used to work in a bilingual primary school in the south suburb of Madrid. English, Science, Music, Citizenship, and Arts and Crafts are all taught in English. A lot of my kids can talk to me in English with no problems, but of course there are those who can’t. At the end of the day though, I think the bilingual education helps. I love hearing stories from my kids where they travel to English-speaking countries and get to talk to native English speakers. Some of them even still e-mail me to practice their English.

    The thing I’m more concerned about the Spanish education system is the hiring of teachers. I have so many Spanish friends who are teachers but can’t get a job. And they speak really good English. I know several teachers who should be teaching English but speak Spanish a lot of times. So what’s the criteria for hiring them and making sure kids get the bilingual education they need/want?

    1. I agree—a lot of the teachers can’t speak English, and a lot of those who can can’t get hired because of the hiring practices in Spanish public schools. For me, it’s insane! And frustrating because I do believe the kids benefit when the teacher has at least a C1 English level.

  11. Good post.I taught (well assisted) at a bilingual school in Malaga, I was very lucky to have a school that was really dedicated. I say half of the teachers were very fluent in English. When ever I taught a science lesson (or any lesson), it was first given in Spanish and then in English. One day the lesson is in Spanish and the next day the same lesson is in English this would repeat until we finished the chapter. I know of similar models used here in NYC and the children do quite well. I think Spain is on the right track, there are some kinks in the armor but over time it will improve. I will say that the schools in and around Madrid seems to have a better handle on it then those in Andalucía.

    1. Definitely, Madrid’s children speak better English than those I encountered in Castilla y Len. I knew third graders with higher levels than those in 4 de la ESO!

  12. Ooh, boy. Where do I begin on this one? Here are some thoughts after 5 years of working in various bilingual schools in Madrid …

    The term “bilingual school” is more political than factual in Madrid, especially with regards to the state system. The most important thing is putting up a pretty, colorful sign visible to everyone in the street that says “This is a bilingual school provided by your taxes. See? We don’t just send them straight to our Swiss bank accounts after all! Keep voting PPSOE!”

    I do think the program generally *works* in terms of exposing the kids to the English language early on and especially helping them lose fear of speaking English later as adults, despite the fact that even the teachers themselves wouldn’t be classed as anything close to bilingual in most cases objectively speaking and they are probably contaminating their students with quite a few linguistic errors. I kind of feel sorry for the teachers who have had the whole bilingual program forced on them all of a sudden in the last few years and who have to maintain the pretence of being competent English speakers when really they’re not and probably never will be, even if they’re good teachers otherwise. However, I just think the Spanish education system is a bit backwards anyway. I remember the kids at my first school were memorizing the layers of the atmosphere and the chemical composition of air in science class at 9 years old. But just learning and regurgitating “air is 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen and 2% other gases” or “the layers of the atmosphere are the troposphere, the stratosphere, the blahblahblah” or whatever means DIDDLY SQUAT to a kid. Spain seems to be obsessed with memorizing stuff at school. Wouldn’t it be a better idea to do just a few practical experiments? They don’t even have to be expensive.

    This guy gave an interesting talk a couple of years back where he pretty much nails the whole “bilingual” deal for what it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIYQB1zePBA. The relevant part is from about minute 31:00 onwards.

    1. Hey Mike! Thanks for your comment, I agree with pretty much everything you said, especially about the teachers having this program thrust upon them and then perhaps resenting it. (And perhaps thus taking it out on C&LAs?)

  13. Thank you for the very interesting post. It reminds me of the various discussions we (foreigners), living in the south of Spain, frequently have. This whole bilingual thing is definitely a step in the right direction, but as said by many, the problem lies much deeper, mainly in the way things are taught in the classrooms ( i don’t think English should be taught by translating words from Spanish to English and vice versa ) and equally in the teachers’ competence. Having had a proper bilingual education myself, it can be very frustrating at times, but one can only hope for things to get better with time, hopefully sooner rather than later :)

  14. Dear Kaley,

    I’ve just come across your blog looking for a bilingual school for my son in Madrid. I am myself Spaniard, I’ve been living abroad for the past 12 years, but now, as life goes, I’m about to return to Spain with my 3 y/o.

    Even though we are not going to continue our expat experience any longer, I would very much like my son to get a taste of it in his own country. My son has been so far raised bilingual (Danish/Spanish) and he’s been surrounded by English on many occasions. Also, he only watched cartoons in English, in an attempt to introduce the language to him in an early stage.

    I am so convinced of the benefits of being bi/trilingual, how the brain develops and shapes differently and how much more open minded these kids are… That’s why I don’t want my son to miss all these when we come back to Spain.

    I have read your post and it makes me sad to hear bilingual schools do not employ English native speakers; that’s an absolute nonsense to me.

    Also, as we are most likely going to settle in Madrid for good, I am looking for a bilingual school which has a good balance of locals and expats, I have seen many kids in international schools ‘losing’ friends every other year, and I wouldn’t like to put my son through that.

    Would you be so kind to advise me on a good bilingual school for us?

    Thanks a lot in advance for your help and well done with your blog!

  15. I’m Spanish and I have never worked in a bilingual school. I teach children between 3 to 5 and I’m trying to improve my English. Therefore, I would like to work in England as a helper. I would teach Spanish while I would learn English.
    If someone knows an English school where they need teachers, I’m willing to do it.
    thanks.

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