Opinion: Bilingual education is a platform for cultivating a global and local society

Thomas Mulhern
Thomas Mulhern - [email protected]
Opinion: Bilingual education is a platform for cultivating a global and local society
An unrelated file photo of children at a school event in Copenhagen. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Bilingual education, broadened and implemented in the right way, can be a huge benefit to international children, families and Danish society at large, writes our guest columnist.


Institut Sankt Joseph, located across from the American embassy in the Østerbro district of Copenhagen, recently celebrated the first ever graduating class from its international bilingual programme.

In doing so, the first fully Danish-English bilingual programme in Denmark completed its final stage and a vision that was launched just over 5 years ago was brought to fruition.

That vision was to provide an educational programme that could serve as a common framework for Danish and international families who yearned for the possibility of having both a Danish and international educational experience for their children.

This vision is now a reality, as summed up by the school’s International Department Head, Tine Gregory, who said that “we have just seen our first cohort of students finish their exams at the school, and their results have shown how well they are able to perform in both the British Cambridge system as well as the Danish school system.”

But what is bilingual education?

The term bilingual education, as practiced by Institut Sankt Joseph, refers to a double immersion, where half of the curriculum is taught in Danish, by native speakers, following the Danish national curriculum and the other half is taught in English, by native speakers, following the Cambridge Assessment International Education program.

“Institut Sankt Joseph is proud to have a bilingual department where we place equal weight on both Danish and English- in terms of language and culture. We think it is a gift that children can become entirely bilingual, and that the blend of language and culture means that we are able to pick the best from both systems,” as Gregory puts it.

Over 40 years of research have documented the gift that bilingual education can be. What we can see is that students participating in bilingual education have an enhanced ability to ignore irrelevant information, improved memory function, greater awareness of the nature of language itself, the ability to identify ambiguity to a greater degree and, improved inter-cultural skills.

These skills were attested to by recent graduate Zoey Epstein who told me, “Through the diverse atmosphere of the class, I experienced different cultures, religions and traditions, that have broadened my perspective and understanding of the world. The opportunity of becoming fluent in both English and Danish, is one that I am so glad to have had.”

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If bilingual education offers these type of benefits, why hasn’t it taken on a more widespread role in Europe?

Well it actually has. Bilingual education is certainly not a new idea in the educational sector. In fact, The Netherlands alone has around 100 bilingual schools with instruction both in Dutch and English. 

It is no secret that the Dutch speak good English. And with the Netherlands’ extensive history of international trade and the UK as neighbours, it is hardly surprising.

Graphic: World Economic Forum

But Dutch secondary schools have been inspired even further to stimulate the teaching of English outside the regular English lessons and to encourage students to open their minds to other cultures.

In 1989, an international school started a bilingual stream for Dutch children. A handful of regular schools already offering international projects to their students soon followed their example, and by the early 1990s these pioneering schools were helping other schools to also set up bilingual streams. Since then the concept has flourished.

The main difference between bilingual education and international education – apart from the fact that Dutch children are welcome – is that in bilingual education almost half the curricular subjects are still taught in Dutch.

The “TTO” or Tweetalig onderwijs was the brainchild of a handful of schools that were not only interested in teaching through English but also in internationalisation. This interest in other countries and other cultures sets bilingual education in the Netherlands apart and gives it a double focus: the acquisition of a second language alongside the international context in which this acquisition takes place.

However, Scandinavia, including Denmark, has not overseen the spread of bilingual education as a viable alternative to standard monolingual education. It is quite interesting indeed that the Dutch and the Danes are both highly talented nations with regards to English language competencies, and yet have such different priorities in terms of educational choice. Unfortunately, the lack of bilingual educational choice has put many international and multicultural families in a quite difficult position of having to choose between a Danish or an international school.

Often, this choice has felt like, and has been, a choice between assimilation or segregation while living in Denmark. The choice of either becoming Danish or living separately in a bubble have created systemic barriers that make it more difficult for Danes to internationalise and global Danes and expats to integrate.

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The consequences of these policies stand in direct contrast to the ostensible strategy of attracting and retaining highly talented workers and their families from abroad.

Recently, it has come to light that it will from 2019 be more difficult for students attending international schools in Denmark and abroad to attain automatic admission to Danish upper secondary schools (gymnasier in Danish), due to stricter entry requirements.

International schools and organisations may have to rethink their curriculum strategy now, as taking the 9th grade exam in the subject Danish alone will no longer be suffice for direct admission.

The question is, then, how can Danish society break down these self-erected barriers that stand in the way of authentic integration and global mobility? The short answer is to launch a national bilingual education movement, just as the Dutch have done so successfully. Bilingual education affords a third way, a hybrid model, in which integration and internationalisation can be lived realities occurring simultaneously.

Such a program can overcome the counter-productive legislation that poses a real challenge to Denmark. This hybrid model offers a unique recipe that calls for simultaneous integration and internationalisation for the diverse groups that make up the Danish society.

To integrate fully in Denmark, one needs to cultivate Danish skills, but this does not need to be at the expense of one’s English competencies. To be international in Denmark, one needs to cultivate a global perspective, but this does not need to occur at the expense of participating actively in the Danish society.

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These statements are backed up by systemic evaluations of bilingual education worldwide which show that students attain the same levels of proficiency in reading, writing speaking and listening as students in monolingual (Danish or English only for our purposes) programmes. In addition, it has been shown that students develop the same appreciation and understanding of the host culture and community as students in monolingual programs.

Recent Institut Sankt Joseph graduate Anne Sofie Marelli Rasmussen told me she had “grown academically beyond my own expectations, as I have become used to switching freely between different languages.”

Bilingual education and its underlying core principles of simultaneous integration and internationalisation can overcome the either-or dilemma that faces many Danish, international and multicultural families. It is truly value-added education, and with over 200 students attending its 10 classes and over 100 children on the Institut Sankt Joseph waiting list, the need for such a program has been clearly demonstrated.

It is time for all stakeholders to leave their comfort zones, step into the hybrid grey area where simultaneous authentic integration and internationalisation reside, and in doing so, create programmes where all families have the flexibility to succeed both in Denmark and abroad. Most importantly, it is time to create programs where global and local families can come together, equally belong, and feel good about calling Denmark their home. 

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Thomas Knudsen Mulhern is managing director of Globally Local, a private organisation that provides integration and internationalisation solutions to companies, municipalities and schools. Thomas is the former International Department Head at Institut Sankt Joseph in Copenhagen. 


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