Educational success through bilingual education

By June 17, 2015Education
Children in a bilingual program in Hamburg (Source: AlsterKind)

Children in a bilingual program in Hamburg (Source: AlsterKind)

It is a key finding of contemporary educational research that the children of migrants experience educational disadvantage vis-à-vis their native-born peers. The educational disadvantage of bilingual children has been documented in education systems as diverse as those of Britain, Germany, Japan and the USA. The discrepancy between the home language and the language of the school has been found to play a central role in educational disadvantage: while educational institutions continue to maintain a monolingual habitus, migrant children bring to school the experience of multilingualism.

Throughout the world, schools have been extremely slow to adapt to the realities of linguistic diversity; and the obsession of educational systems with linguistic homogeneity constitutes one of the great paradoxes of our time. While the benefits of bilingual education have been documented in a substantial body of research spanning a number of decades, the implementation of bilingual programs has been relatively slow, small-scale, discontinuous and often politically controversial. That is why academic monitoring of bilingual programs and dissemination of knowledge about bilingual programs continues to be important.

Much of the research about bilingual education for migrant students has been dominated by Spanish programs in the USA, and research in other contexts continues to be relatively scarce. A 2011 article by Joana Duarte about a six-year-monitoring project of bilingual elementary schools in the Northern German port city of Hamburg offers a fascinating exception.

Since the early 2000s, Hamburg has been offering bilingual programs in Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish. These programs have been designed as dual-immersion programs and the aim is to enroll children whose stronger language is German or the target language in roughly equal numbers. Over a six-year period, the bilingual programs were monitored by researchers from the University of Hamburg, and Duarte’s article focusses particularly on the Portuguese program.

Like many dual-language immersion programs, the bilingual programs under examination have three key aims:

  • Development of high-level bilingual proficiencies in German and Portuguese, including the ability to read and write in both languages (biliteracy)
  • Achievement in content areas such as mathematics, sciences and social studies at or above grade level
  • Development of intercultural competences

In order to achieve these goals about half of the curriculum is taught bilingually: German and Portuguese language classes are taught contrastively and with a strong focus on linguistic form. Social Studies are taught through a team-teaching approach by a German- and a Portuguese-speaking teacher, and Music and parts of Mathematics are taught by a bilingual teacher who uses both languages.

Didactically, there is a strong focus on explicit and contrastive language instruction, and explicit grammar and form-focused instruction is an important feature of all instruction, including subject instruction.

So, how does this kind of program work for the students? The researchers conducted a three-way comparison of students in the program with Portuguese bilingual migrant students and native German monolingual students at a ‘regular’ German elementary school, and also with native Portuguese monolingual students studying in Portugal.

To begin with, the students in the bilingual program significantly outperformed their Portuguese-speaking peers in a ‘regular’ German elementary school on assessments of academic language proficiency and subject content. Their gains were such that, over the six years of elementary school, the initial condition of linguistic heterogeneity disappeared and their performance was equal to that of monolingual German children after controlling for socio-economic background and individual student cognitive ability.

This means that bilingual education in a dual-immersion program can completely erase the educational disadvantage of migrant students.

Comparison with Portuguese students in Portugal showed an additional bonus: Portuguese-speaking migrant children in the program in Hamburg reached proficiency levels in Portuguese that are comparable to those of monolingual Portuguese children in Portugal.

Migrant children are disadvantaged in monolingual schools because they face the double task of learning a new language and new subject content simultaneously and they do so in the presence of native-born monolingual students, for whom the educational system is designed, and who thus ‘only’ face the task of content learning. Where schools level the playing field through the provision of bilingual education, as the Hamburg programs described here do, they not only overcome language-based educational disadvantage but also enable migrants to accumulate cultural capital by institutionalizing and certifying bilingual proficiency.

ResearchBlogging.orgDuarte, J. (2011). Migrants’ educational success through innovation: The case of the Hamburg bilingual schools. International Review of Education / Internationale Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft / Revue Internationale de l’Education, 57(5/6), 631-649. doi: 10.2307/41480148 (available for download from

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Nhung Nguyen

    Dear Prof. Ingrid,

    I was really impressed with the achievements of the bilingual program examined in Duarte’s article, especially the eradication of linguistic heterogenety. There is a fact that migrant children have to struggle with language barrier at school by themselves and get used to it gradually. Unfortunately, it is not easy to apply the solution like bilingual program because of several requirements such as appropriate syllabus, teaching materials, proficient teachers. in Hamburg’s bilingual programs, it’s worth noting that explicit instruction is considered as the key feature of teaching methodology. Admittedly, this adaptation is reasonable and necessary when the students are expected to interpret subject content knowledge in a non-native language. Moreover, the explicit language may help reduce the interlanguage errors since the interlanguage has been proved to consist primarily of implicit knowledge.

    Another thing that comes to my mind is the age of the students. The school where those bilingual programs were offered is an elementary school and I think this is one of the most important factors leading to the programs’ success. According to critical period hypothesis, these young children are at the best age to master language related problems and consequently, achieve outstanding results in these programs.

    Ngoc Thao Nhung Nguyen

  • Yeongju Lee

    As the world became globalised, it has been considered important to have an ability of speaking one or two other languages other than mother tongue language. It helps people to have better jobs and have more possibilities in the future than people who don’t speak another language. That is why, parents seek to encourage their children to learn languages and there are many courses at school that teach other languages to students such as bilingual education program. As mentioned above in the article, people will improve a lot under the circumstance of bilingual education system. Those also would get culture experiences followed by the system since they will be encountered various cultures under bilingual teaching.

  • Flora Launay

    Thank you for this wonderful article. It made me think of this family with whom I lived for two months when I first came to Australia. I was an au-pair for them, but more than that, they wanted me to be their private “tutor”. They were French and had been living in Australia for 5 years. The parents first put their three children in a French school. However, after three years, they decided that it was high time to put them in an Australian school in order for them to integrate with their environment. They also thought that it would be very beneficial for them to be bilingual. Furthermore, they had in mind the future career of their kids and thought that it was better to have an Australian “certificate” than a French one in order to find a job in Australia. They never regretted their choice. However, they found that their kids were not very good at French. Although they could speak proper French and English, their knowledge of the French language was very low. A bilingual program would have been the perfect solution for them at that time. I strongly believe that bilingual programs and schools are needed for certain people and that we should encourage them. School is also a place of social experiences and in order for migrants to integrate their new culture without losing their own identity, it is important that they can express both. I believe that bilingual schools allow them to do so.


    Being at least bilingual has many individual benefits and also serves the broader community and the economy of a nation. This study showed the success of a bilingual program at elementary school. However, more study would need to be undertaken in many global contexts and across all socioeconomic levels examining the effects of such a program particularly in secondary schools. I believe such a program is warranted in high schools but I am not confident of its effect since younger children in my opinion absorb language learning better than older students.

  • Hanne Houbracken

    Last semester in Ghent I had the privilege of following classes on sociolinguistics, taught by professor Slembrouck. He explained the concept of ‘functional multilingual learning’, the exploitation of available interactional resources as didactic capital, which he put into practice during the “Home Language In Education” project (2008-2012). During the project, the use of both the home and dominant language in elementary schools was implemented on a limited scale but they noted that parallel literacy/numeracy in the home language did not result in significantly higher scores for the acquisition of the dominant language; nor did it lead to lower scores. It did however significantly increase the emotional wellbeing of the students.

  • Binisha Sharma

    The article made me think about the scenario in Nepal. Nepal is a multilingual and multi ethnic country. Students from different background and mother tongue study in private or government school. Especially in private school students learn all other subject in English; they have only one compulsory subject Nepali (the national language); and they don’t get any opportunity to receive formal education in their mother tongue. Moreover, teaching other foreign language at school in Nepal is not compulsory and is very rare. Students barely take up the language learning classes. As mentioned in the article if “half of the curriculum is taught bilingually” in the schools of Nepal too children would get different language skills and learn in better way.


    Hi Laily,
    I also have a friend who is doing his Phd degree in Sydney and he is currently having the same concern. At first, his daughter did struggle with the new learning environment in Australia due to the language barrier but she gradually overcame all the initial difficulties. Teachers, and fortunately, students, at the new school were very supportive. She also received help from a Vietnamese-speaking teacher who was invited from another school to carry a one-on-one session with her every week. However, my friend will finish his study next year so a real problem is for his kid to readapt to the Vietnamese-speaking context. He and his wife have been trying to talk to her in Vietnamese at home and arrange playdates with other Vietnamese kids. Hopefully it may help but only time will time whether she will be really able to fit in when coming back home.


    This wonderful article about bilingual education got me to think Japanese situation of compulsory education from elementary to secondary high schools, where the school systems for migrant children is still developing. I strongly agree that educational disadvantages migrant children may have in the classroom need to be reduced. In the case of Japanese schools, most students are monolingual, may feel that migrant students are rare. Migrant students are also likely to feel anxiety about school tests, the amount of homework, future academic life, establishing friendship and so on due to a lack of support specific to them.