July 2011 Editorial: Blurring Subject Borders

Most of us have a tendency to compartmentalize whatever we can — slotting information, knowledge, experiences into a defined category makes it easier for us to cope with new information. However, we learn that if we over-simplify we will eventually need to reassess our classifications.

In this issue, James J. Lyons argues that multilingualism should be at the core of federal education policy as domestic demographics and international realities make a coherent and thoughtful national policy on second language learners and multilingualism more important than ever before.

This idea may seem absurd when education is divided into stand-alone subjects that traditionally have had little bearing on each other. But, if the purpose of education is to teach students about the world in which they will live — so that they will be able to make better-informed decisions rather than simply preparing them to join the workforce — we can teach in a way that shows how our world is interconnected and how language overlaps all subjects.

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) involves teaching a curricular subject through the medium of a language other than that normally used. The subject can be entirely unrelated to language learning, such as history lessons being taught in Spanish at a school in Ohio, or French at a school in Spain. CLIL is taking place and has been found to be effective in all sectors of education from primary through to adult and higher education. Its success has been growing over the past 10 years and continues to do so.

Teachers working with CLIL are usually fluent speakers of the target language, bilingual or native speakers. In many institutions, language teachers work in partnership with other departments to offer CLIL in various subjects. The key issue is that the learner is gaining new knowledge about the “non-language” subject while encountering, using and learning the foreign language. The methodologies and approaches used are often linked to the subject area with the content leading the activities.

CLIL’s multi-faceted approach can offer a variety of benefits. It builds intercultural knowledge and understanding; develops intercultural communication skills; improves language competence and oral communication skills; develops multilingual interests and attitudes; provides opportunities to study content through different perspectives; allows learners more contact with the target language; does not require extra teaching hours; complements other subjects rather than competes with them; diversifies methods and forms of classroom practice; and increases learners’ motivation and confidence in both the language and the subject being taught.

Owing to its effectiveness and ability to motivate learners, CLIL is identified as a priority in the European Union’s Action plan for Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity.

Adapting our instructional structures by blurring the lines between subjects to better suit the reality of modern society is an important step in the creation of the world-class education systems to which we aspire.