Inspiring students through bilingual learning

As Marketing Communications Manager for Europe, I had the pleasure of welcoming over 200 people to Bologna earlier this month for a day-long event dedicated to CLIL (Content Integrated Language Learning) and bilingual education. Delegates included principals, teachers and education specialists. It was really exciting to be a part of this event – the first of its kind that we’ve held in Italy.

The Italian government has recently made it compulsory for schools to teach at least one subject in a second or foreign language in the final year of high school. A number of Italian state schools have been using Cambridge IGCSEs alongside elements of the national curriculum to great success, and the new legislation means that other schools want to follow this model.

The first state school to adopt Cambridge, back in 1997, was the Liceo Galvani in Bologna.

It was the support of Liceo Galvani which brought us to Bologna. We had use of their classrooms and their teachers contributed to the programme. To my immense gratitude, they also offered to release a number of their students to help run the event on the day.

These students stayed behind after morning classes on the Saturday and, ‘fresh’ off my flight, I went to explain what I needed them to do. They seemed genuinely excited by what lay in store.

The day of the conference came, and with it, the challenge to welcome and look after 200+ guests arriving from across the country in a short space of time. The students were bright and early, dressed smartly and ready for instruction. I doubt any of them had done anything like this before but they simply figured it out as they went along. They worked together and shared ideas and information, enabling all of them to answer questions from our guests.

All of the helpers were Cambridge IGCSE students and I enjoyed talking to them about their experiences as bilingual learners. I was told that while learning in English was challenging at the beginning, it got easier as more of the vocabulary and its usage fell into place through context. ‘Context’ is essentially what’s at the heart of CLIL, and it’s this that allowed my student helpers to problem-solve so effectively in their second language.

You can plan an event to the smallest detail and it will still throw you a curve ball.

Once the opening speeches had begun, we received news that one of the leaders from the afternoon session had been detained in an airport 6000 km away. We had to think fast, combine sessions, inform all of the delegates and change the rooms to accommodate larger numbers. One of the students asked me if she should go back to the school to change all of the signs on the room doors. I was hugely impressed that not only had she identified a potential  problem, she was using her initiative to find a solution.

The positive impact of CLIL.

During the conference there was a lot of lively discussion around the latest pedagogical thinking behind CLIL in addition to recommended classroom strategies and development plans for teachers.

What I personally took away from the event was the impact of this teaching approach on the young people that I’d met. They were comfortable working in English, collaborated well, and problem-solved quickly.

For all the challenges that new teaching strategies can bring, the rewards can be numerous. 

In the run up to the conference, I had the pleasure of meeting two former Cambridge IGCSE students from Italy, now settled at university in the UK. We made short films about their experiences (featured above) transitioning up to higher education and each gave warm video messages to their former teachers.

Both were highly enthusiastic about their subjects and confident about their future place in the world. They had every reason to be and I was delighted to see the same confidence in their younger peers in Bologna.

The conference was a huge success but the main thing I’ve taken away from it is seeing Cambridge in action. To see students applying all the great skills that our programmes develop and  that these skills set them up so well for the future is a real pleasure.


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4 thoughts on “Inspiring students through bilingual learning

  1. The conference was an excellent showcase for a Cambridge secondary education with the youngsters demonstrating by their behavior their higher level learning skills. That the Italian Government has apparently legislated that all pupils must take at least one course in a second language in Year 12 is significant in that it appears to be in line with the European Commission’s relatively loose foreign language learning objectives. The long term goal being realization of the MT+2 formula (mother tongue (L1) + L2 and L3)
    The Community’s overarching objective being multilingual citizens are “better able to take advantage of the freedom to work or study in another Member State.” CLIL’s benefits are many, enabling citizens to be at home in Member countries. Necessary in such a democratic union there is no time limit for learning. Some countries in Europe begin CLIL training in pre-kindergarten and I assume this example of the Italian action, some as late as the final year in high school!
    Plurilingual education for the European Union is an important long term building block for building stronger connections within an entity that is neither a federation or a confederation.
    Regrettably such a model is not suited for CIE’s world in China. We do not have the luxury of time. The majority of Chinese children make the decision to seek higher education in English speaking countries in year 10. It is a momentous decision. Making the decision to take CIE’s A level program they are essentially cutting themselves off from writing the Chinese university entrance examination, the “Gaokao”. The work load preparing for two very different examination suites would be too much. I do know a couple of young women who did complete both – I do not know if either slept a wink during their A2 year.
    In China when Spring/Summer end of term examinations for Year 10 pupils are over their English level vocabularies are often below 2000 words. They are about to engage in what I see as a major feat. In two academic years they must be ready to compete with intellectually superior English native speakers, all with 8500 word vocabularies or more for places in the best western universities. That many do succeed is certainly to the credit of the children, their parents and of course to their CIC teachers! Finally to use Zoe’s words “… seeing Cambridge in action. To see students applying all the great skills that our programmes develop and that these skills set them up so well for the future is a real pleasure.”
    “I’ll second that!
    Iain Wyder

  2. Thanks for your comment Iain – from my relatively limited exposure to CLIL it does indeed seem that approaches are extremely diverse across the world. I am always humbled by how quickly the students seem to adapt to being taught in English – having witnessed a Spanish school teaching French (as a foreign language) in English, I can only conclude that CLIL can function as agility training for the mind! The issue of workload is an important one and a good point. The students in Italy compared themselves to friends or relatives being taught in Italian, saying that native-language instruction peers ‘had it easier’. It brought to mind the old saying that ‘nothing worth doing is ever easy’. However the situation for students in China is definitely an extreme example, you have to feel for the students and admire their commitment. I’d love to hear other people’s experiences and views.

  3. The research supports your conclusion Zoe! Not necessarily the “CLIL” model. I am most interested in the students comment regarding friends being taught only in Italian. I have always assumed that a foreign language for secondary education passage to higher education was compulsory in EU members – is there any chance you can confirm that for me? If possible I would appreciate knowing. If possible please email me the answer iainwyderatshawdotca Thank you!

  4. Quite apart from the importance of bilingual education, I think this blog highlights another important aspect. Students can, and will, rise to a challenge and use their initiative in amazing ways when they are allowed to do so. More education should encourage this!

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Zoe Neville-Smith
By Zoe Neville-Smith

Zoe is the Senior Marketing Manager, Europe for Cambridge Assessment International Education.

View all posts by Zoe Neville-Smith