The British Council in France has a dynamic Bilingual Section with hundreds of students ranging from 4 to 18 years of age. Head of the section, George Wilson, explains our bilingual philosophy and how this is reflected in our courses.
What does bilingualism mean for us?
Although it’s a catchy buzzword in education, the term ‘bilingual’ rarely reflects the reality on the ground. Many of our learners are not bilingual in the purest sense of the term but actually speak three, four or even five languages. Some, on the other hand, have just arrived in France and only speak English.
When we describe a learner as ‘bilingual’, we mean that they have the ability to speak English in a spontaneous and instinctive manner more akin to a first language than to a second language they have acquired at school.
Do all our bilingual students have the same level?
No two learners have the same bilingual profile and so comparing them is often a fruitless endeavour. There is a spectrum of bilingual ability and, in the end, it is worth remembering that researchers are sceptical about the existence of what they call the ‘balanced bilingual’, who would be equally proficient in two languages in all areas of life.
Learners may be great at English in the home but utterly incapable of expressing themselves in a DIY shop for instance. Our bilingual students are all on a journey to develop their language abilities and our teachers are experts in recognising their strengths and supporting them in the areas they find more challenging.
How have our bilingual learners acquired their English?
Each student in our bilingual section has a different story but many have a parent or relative with whom they communicate in English. Some attended a bilingual pre-school or had a bilingual nanny from an early age, while others have lived in English-speaking countries or contexts.
The variety of backgrounds of our learners is one of the true strengths of our Bilingual Section and allows for a fascinating sharing of cultures and worldviews.
What about literacy skills?
Speaking a language does not necessarily mean you can read or write it. All our courses therefore have literacy at their heart.
Our younger levels focus on learning how to read and write in English and our later IGCSE and University Preparation courses push learners to develop the advanced literacy skills required at university or in the workplace.
What exactly do learners study at the British Council?
Our classes are mapped onto the UK National Curriculum. Learners read extensively from a wide range of fiction and non-fiction texts during their studies. In this way, we are able to go on exciting journeys to different cultures and moments of history, and these adventures become a springboard for collaborative projects, debates and special events.
Grammar and spelling also figure prominently in our courses, since research shows that first-language speakers of English benefit enormously from activities that focus on accuracy in this way.
At the centre of our curriculum are the British Council’s core skills: digital literacy, communication and collaboration, creativity and imagination, personal development, citizenship, and critical thinking.
In our view, these are the essential tools learners will need in order to flourish as well-rounded twenty-first century citizens.
What language do we use in the classroom?
Our classes are conducted almost entirely in English. However, that is not to say that we ignore the learners’ other languages.
Increasingly, research shows that bilingual learners do not have two separate languages working in isolation but that these overlap and support one another as the child chooses the best term to represent an idea.
For example, English has far more words to express different ways of walking than French (amble, stride, pace, shuffle) but that classic French word ‘flaner’ can convey so many more nuances of meaning than its banal English equivalent ‘stroll’.
We consider bilingualism to be a resource and we help learners communicate effectively in English whilst, at the same time, helping them embrace their bilingualism as an asset in an increasingly interconnected world.
How are the parents of our students involved?
It is important to us that parents and guardians are involved in their children’s studies. Throughout the year, we offer a range of parent workshops including talks about the literature the children are studying, about how best to support their language development or about applying to universities.
It is essential to remember that a single class a week will not be enough to maintain a child’s proficiency in English and so we strongly encourage parents to talk to their children in English, to read with them and to look for every opportunity to get them using the language.
Where do our learners go when they graduate?
Many of our learners stay with us throughout their schooling. They learn to read and write in the early years of the programme, discover Shakespeare in the secondary section, take their IGCSE at the age of sixteen and prepare for university with us in Première and Terminale.
Leaving at the very end is often an emotional experience for all concerned and we take pride in seeing many of them go off to continue their studies in universities in France, the UK, the USA and beyond.
How to register?
In order to register to one of our bilingual courses, your child will need to do an English level placement test that will take place either online or face to face in our centre.
You can book the appointment online. Once we have determined your child's level, we can recommend the best course for them and our Customer Services team will instruct you on how to register.