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Bilingual education and academic achievements

The spectrum of bilingual options portrayed reveals that different, often conflicting, objectives are pursued in bilingual education, whereby the linguistic aim (promotion of bilingualism) is often superseded by educational objectives (academic achievements) and socio-political expectations (full competence in the majority language, linguistic homogeneity).

Because language is so intimately intertwined with knowledge attainment and general development, expectations on educational outcomes are often confounded in evaluations of bilingual education. As Baker (2001: 231) succinctly remarks “bilingual education, whatever type or model, is no guarantee of effective schooling.” Put differently, there is more to education than the choice of language only. Today, there is a consensus that bilingualism per se is not a problem. Quite to the contrary, the available research indicates that early bilingual education “ ... does not impose excessive demands, neither on children with, nor on children without a migratory background. This holds true regardless of whether the two languages are being acquired simultaneously or successively” (Siebert-Ott 2001: 201, our transl.) This observation is in line with the findings obtained in the area of developmental linguistics about bilingual language acquisition (cf. chapter 2). At the same time, it must be noted that because of the role of language in the teaching/learning of content matter we need to look more closely at how it is used in the school context and whether or not students’ metalinguistic awareness is promoted so that they become competent users of the language for academic purposes.

The importance of the development of academic language for academic success cannot be overemphasised in this context, for it is through this specific type of communication that students learn to plan and realise investigations, identify categories, express their assumptions and conclusions, etc. (Siebert-Ott 2001: 171). The relevance of conceptual literacy becomes apparent in the course of primary education. Language problems of students with a migration background have been found to become more pronounced in the transition from conceptual oracy to conceptual literacy (in Germany, for example, usually around the 3rd grade). This transition towards conceptual literacy is reflected in a change toward the use of the written language register by the teacher and in school materials. For all those students with or without a migration background who have not been raised in literacy oriented families the lack of alignment between their spoken everyday language skills and the academic language used at school might negatively affect their academic achievements (Gogolin 2007: 29). Bilingualism, it seems, makes such a lack of alignment more apparent. However, that measures need to be taken so that every student becomes a fully competent user of the lan?guage is a requirement that holds irrespective of the number of languages used by the students in their everyday lives.

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