Bilingual Education in Poland and the Challenges it Brings

Bilingual Education in Poland and the Challenges it Brings

By Christopher Walker

1. Introduction

The market for a bilingual education continues to grow in Poland. According to Pawlak (2015) there are 95 state schools in Poland offering a bilingual education (in Poland, bilingual state schools must offer at least two core curriculum subjects in the minority language). 13 of these are in Silesia, where I live; but as well as state schools, there are also many private bilingual schools.

In this article I want to explore this emerging market, first considering what bilingualism is and what is involved in bilingual education, before looking at the nature of the bilingual education market in Poland - the hope being that readers in similar markets will gain a deeper appreciation of the nature of and challenges brought about by bilingual education in what we might consider unnatural environments for bilingualism. The motivating force for bilingual education in territories like Poland is very different in terms of ethos and approach to what is found in more naturally bilingual territories, such as with Welsh in Wales, or for Turkish immigrants in Germany. I will also delineate some of the challenges faced by the school, along with potential solutions using the 90/10 model and CLIL.

2. Bilingualism and Bilingual Education

2.1 The Problem of Defining Bilingualism

At its most basic, bilingualism is the ability to use two languages – hence ‘bi’ meaning two, and ‘lingual’, relating to the idea of tongue and hence language. But to what precisely does it apply? Can a person with some level of proficiency in a second language claim to be bilingual – and then what level of proficiency would count? – or should we refer to the ‘tongue’ aspect of the word and say that you need two ‘mother tongues’ to be bilingual?

Grosjean (2008) takes issue with the traditional definitions of bilingualism; he suggests that it is wrong to take the view that bilinguals should be considered as “two monolinguals in one person” (p10). But the exclusive definition of what a bilingual is as opposed to what a monolingual is proves elusive for Grosjean, as it does for others: Baker (2001), Hamers and Blanc (2000), and Pienemann and Keßler (2008) all criticise the various definitions of bilingualism, but cannot offer a single-sentence replacement. Perhaps this is the point: bilingualism is a more complex phenomenon than it would at first appear, and it is wiser to concentrate on the forms bilingualism can take.

2.2 Dominance or Balance

Are the two languages of a bilingual speaker equal, or is one likely to be stronger than the other? According to Hamers and Blanc (2000), the picture is complicated: “Dominance or balance is not equally distributed for all domains and functions of language; each individual has his own dominance configuration” (p27). Bilinguals might see one language as a better fit for a given context: the novelist Joseph Conrad, born in Polish Ukraine and educated in French, made a conscious choice to write in English, perhaps because his English knowledge of naval terms dominated and so many of his stories have a naval element. He opted against his mother tongue because he “had not studied the fine art of literary Polish” (Pousada, 1994, p340). There is a danger in assuming that a bilingual is equally strong in all areas of languages, and across all contexts.

2.3 Simultaneous and Consecutive Bilinguality

Simultaneous bilinguality occurs “when the child develops two mother tongues from the onset of language” (Hamers and Blanc, 2000, p28), whereas consecutive bilinguality occurs when a child is introduced to a second language following acquisition of the first. In the first case, learning is generally informal – the child acquires their language from their parents or the wider community and is immersed in both languages. But when such a bilingual is stripped of that wider community before the language can be considered fully acquired, how might the transition be made to a consecutive bilingual state? Is this in fact possible? There is research that looks at the issue from the converse perspective (Silva-Corvalán, 2016), but the situation is less clear for those whose L1 development is curtailed and L2 prioritised – possibly because of the rarity of conditions that might lead to such a situation.

2.4 Compound and Coordinate Bilinguality

Bilingualism can be thought to sit on a spectrum with compound bilinguality at one end and coordinate at the other (Hamers and Blanc, 2000, pp27-8). At the compound end, words in L1 and L2 link directly to a single concept; at the coordinate end, that link is broken, meaning that an L1 word would link to an L1 concept and an L2 word to an L2 concept. Hamers and Blanc suggest that the later the acquisition of the second language, the further along the spectrum towards the coordinate end the bilingual moves. Whether a bilingual student is more compound or co-ordinate will have an impact on how well they learn in a bilingual context, and how well they will manage code-switching.

2.5 Common Methods for Delivering a Bilingual Education

There is no single phenomenon as ‘bilingual education.’ Baker (2001) talks of the “difference between a classroom where formal instruction is to foster bilingualism and a classroom where bilingual children are present, but bilingualism is not fostered in the curriculum” (p192). From that simple division, Ferguson (1997, in Baker, 2001), lists ten variants of the bilingual educational model and why they might be used in schools. Of these, only two clearly apply to the Polish situation: English is taught in Polish bilingual schools to enable communication with the outside world; and it is taught because English is a skill that can lead to better future employability.

Baker (2001) also delineates ten styles of bilingual education, dividing these between ‘Weak’ forms that have the objective of L1 monolingualism (so for instance a Polish student entering a bilingual school in England with the aim of integrating into English society might find that a ‘Transitional’ programme is in place), and ‘Strong’ forms that have as their objective full L1 and L2 bilingualism.

I will return to Baker and his typology in Section 4; but first attention must be drawn to the situation of bilingual education in Poland.

3. Bilingual Education in Poland – a Background

3.1 There and Back Again: Why the Market for a Bilingual Education Exists

Poland achieved independence in 1989 and in 2004 it became a full member of the European Union. Between 1989 and 2004, and 2004 and the present day, the trend has been towards the migration of workers to other states in Europe; in the former case, Engbersen et al (2010) put the figure at about 667,000 (p10), and in the latter, “[I]t is estimated that as many as half a million Polish citizens had moved to the UK, alone, by 2007” (p10).

However, two issues have resulted in a negative shift in net migration to the UK following the Brexit referendum, and exacerbated by the events around the Covid-19 pandemic. The first is the so-called ‘de-skilling’ that affected Polish workers moving to the UK. Many migrants found themselves working outside of their profession (Currie, 2007, and Kaczmarczyk as found in Engbersen et al, 2010). Kaczmarczyk’s data “suggests that the human capital of the post-accession migration in the most important destination country [the UK] is not being ‘employed’ in an efficient way” (p181). This has led to some workers returning to Poland to pursue their careers.

The second, more notable issue, is that of Brexit itself. Since the 2016 referendum, in which the decision was made to leave the EU, net migration to the UK has remained positive according to the Office for National Statistics, but in the case of the EU, there has been a marked shift. Net migration from the EU into the UK fell after the referendum, but has stabilised since 2018 (ONI, 2020). Among Poles in the UK, Mogilnicka (2022) suggests that over 100,000 left the UK between 2019 and the end of 2020.

The Polish find themselves in a strange situation. Since independence in 1989, English has been adopted as the priority second language (replacing Russian - overnight, in many institutions), and carries with it a social and academic cachet, as evidenced by the large number of private language institutes devoted to improving on the curriculum teaching in school. There are also those who have returned from the UK for the reasons given above, and whose children might speak English to a high level.

The combination of these forces - the inclination to view English as an essential language, and the desire to maintain the English proficiency acquired during a stay in the UK - has created much of the market for bilingual education that we currently see in Poland.

3.2 Poland Compared: Bilingual Education Around Europe

In general, bilingual schools serve two languages: the majority language of the school context (for instance Polish in Poland), and one other language. Extra (2008) divides bilingual schools into two groups. In the first, he places regional minority (RM) languages such as Welsh in Wales, or Basque in the Basque region in Spain, and in the other he places immigrant minority (IM) languages, such as Turkish in Germany.

As Extra (2008) states, “Processes of internationalization and globalization have brought European nation-states to the world, but they have also brought the world to European nation-states. This bipolar pattern of change has led to both convergence and divergence of multilingualism across Europe” (p199). I agree with most of what Extra says, but I think that ‘bipolar’ is no longer the appropriate word. The Polish took their language to England, and they certainly brought English back with them. But English is not a regional minority language in that a community of speakers exists that uses this language outside of the academic context. Nor is it an immigrant minority language, because the number of native speakers of English entering the system is relatively small compared to the number of Polish students, and furthermore the bilingual students entering the school system are mostly the children of returning migrants. This contrasts with the common perception of IM languages: “IM groups are often referred to as foreigners and as being in need of integration” (Extra, 2008, p179). The perceived need for integration might still be present, but far less markedly; we are here talking about a mostly homogenous group of Polish citizens, not immigrants to the country from a wide variety of backgrounds.

3.3 Working at a Bilingual Primary School in Silesia

A few years ago I worked at a bilingual primary school once a week – I taught an ‘Intensive English’ course that aimed at bringing lower-level students (pre-A1 in most cases) up to what the school terms a “native-like” proficiency. There were approximately 85 students at the school, of whom about 20 could be classed as ‘native speaker’ students; the rest were categorised as ‘Polish.’ The two languages of instruction at the school are Polish (L1) and English (L2), though it must be pointed out that, were this a state school, it would not classify as a bilingual school: none of the core curriculum subjects are presented in English. The extracurricular STEM programme is in English, but besides the Intensive English and Curriculum English lessons, everything is taught in Polish.

What challenges then does a school such as this face?

4. Challenges in Bilingual Education

4.1 A Problem of Typology

What kind of bilingual school is the one I worked at? The school offers a bilingual education, and the promotional literature assures parents that their children will soon reach a high level of proficiency in English regardless of starting point or background. Therefore, one would expect an Immersion programme to be followed (Baker, 2001, p194), since most of the student intake would be majority language speakers with little to no knowledge of English, and the goal would be to improve their minority language. But other students are already fluent in the minority language, so for them the programme should be one of Maintenance, with improvement in Polish the aim. For yet others, including those who went to one of the city’s bilingual kindergartens and who now possess strong (yet likely unbalanced) L1 and L2, the programme should be Dual Language.

But the school cannot offer all three programmes at the same time, to students who are mixed together in the same classes. In fact, the approach taken by the school seems more in line with one of the ‘Weak’ forms of bilingual education. English native speakers are expected to learn Polish very quickly on arrival at the school, and for them the programme seems one of Submersion, since the curriculum subjects are all presented in Polish, often with a teacher unable to communicate in English and so unable to translate.

4.1 Student and Teacher Recruitment

In Section 3 I wrote about the growing market for bilingual education. But while it is true that the number of Poles returning from England is growing, so too is the number of schools offering a bilingual education. In short, there seem not to be enough ‘native speaker’ students to go around. Therefore, the school has adopted a policy of recruiting students with very little experience of L2, with the same promise made as before – that they will soon become proficient in English. This might be too big a promise to make, especially considering the limited exposure to L2 that the students will receive. The only difference between a mainstream school and ours in terms of exposure to English is that the students here have Intensive English lessons and STEM, but this amounts to about three hours per week, and is no guarantor of success in language acquisition. It is not a marked increase over what monolingual state schools offer.

The ideal solution would be to recruit teachers for the curriculum subjects who are themselves bilingual, or have strong L2 abilities. Unfortunately, it is very rare in small Polish cities to find a teacher capable of speaking English who is not in any case an English teacher. Finding highly proficient English speakers who can also teach the History curriculum, for example, is an almost insuperable challenge - even qualified History teachers from the UK would struggle here, as the curricula are so different between the two countries.

The school employs many curriculum teachers who are only able to speak Polish, and this situation is unlikely to change as the competition grows in-line with demand for bilingual education.

4.2 The Backlash: Negative Attitudes to English

Students whose parents see the word ‘bilingual’ as a goal, not an initial condition, struggle academically – not just in their ‘Intensive English’ lessons, but also in STEM, where the teacher is a monolingual speaker of English. The students’ underdeveloped English abilities have hindered their progress. Wright (2012) explains this in simple terms: “[S]tudents learn best in the language they understand the most” (p598). Those students weakest in English struggle to understand the teacher (and the teacher cannot explain any of the concepts to them in Polish) and so either ignore the lesson content entirely, or wait for one of the more linguistically-proficient students to translate – if they can. As well as the discipline problems that arise, this also puts compound bilinguals at a disadvantage – if new lexis only appears in one language, the concept will only be linked to that language, and students will have problems using the new information when they switch between L1 and L2.

A similar though opposite process has also occurred with fresh arrivals from the UK. In a process reminiscent of the ‘de-skilling’ detailed earlier, children with a background in the British education system have found themselves being placed in remedial classes as a result of lacking Polish. Baker (2008) explains this negative outcome as being a result of the fact “that the child’s cognitive and scholastic ability that has been gained through the home language tends to be denied when they are made to operate through the majority language in the classroom” (p133). The long-term effects of this are unclear, but I doubt they are positive.

4.3 Motivation to Speak

Outside of the classroom, students at the school have little to no need for English. The ‘native speakers’ adjust to Polish being the majority language, and, as Smith-Christmas (2016) has reported in the Gaelic context, the minority language is now seen as something that is used in some classrooms, some of the time. It appears that for many of the students, it is unclear why the choice has been made to attend a bilingual primary school and not a monolingual one with English offered as a ‘foreign’ language option.

4.4 The Polish Matura

The ultimate goal of the Polish education system is for students to sit the Matura examinations at the end of secondary school. However, as Czura et al (2009) point out, the Matura is not yet offered in any language other than Polish, and so a student who has been taught the STEM subjects, to take one example, exclusively in English will find themselves distinctly disadvantaged.

And so it may be that, in the greater context of education in Poland, bilingual schools will either need to convince the government to change, or will need to move more towards a comprehensive English-Polish system, where all subjects are taught in both languages interchangeably and simultaneously. I have heard of the International Baccalaureate being offered as a substitute, but where there is a lack of alignment between the language of presentation of curriculum subjects and the language of state assessment, there are likely to be problems.

5. Recommendations

5.1 The 90/10 Model

Wright (2012) talks about one approach to balancing the language demands in a bilingual school. He calls it the 90/10 model:

“In the 90/10 model, 90% of instruction is in the minority language for the first year and 10% is in the dominant majority language. As students move up in grade level, the amount of instruction in each language balances out to 50/50” (p609).

Restructuring the school so that such a model could be followed would be difficult, but for any school committed to fulfilling its promise of a bilingual education, it might be necessary to move more in this direction for fear of losing students to the competition.

5.2 The Inverted CLIL Approach

At present, the Intensive English lessons at school are essentially the same as the Curriculum English lessons, with a communicative element added in-line with EFL expectations. An alternative use of the students’ time would be to replace Intensive English with CLIL – Content and Language Integrated Learning. CLIL is positively evaluated and seems to mark a way forward if appropriately implemented (Lancaster, 2018); it also has a history in Poland (Romanowski, 2018), and therefore the issue of teacher recruitment can be ameliorated.

While CLIL is already used to an extent in the STEM classes, the inverted CLIL approach recommended by Finardi (2015) might be even more useful in the present context. Using this approach, much of the preparatory work for lessons can be carried out at home, or in the IT lessons delivered in Polish. This way the students can learn about the topic in their preferred language, and would likely be better prepared for the subsequent STEM lesson in English. This would side-step the problems detailed above and underlined by Baker (2001): “Listening to a new language demands high concentration, it is tiring, with a constant pressure to think about the form of the language and less time to think about curriculum content” (p197). Moving some of the language demands out of the lesson would hopefully reduce the strain on the students, and increase their opportunities for success.

6. Conclusion

The issue of bilingual education in Poland is a curious one. The market is driven by business interests, rather than by a desire to integrate immigrants to the country or to maintain a minority community language. Much of the research into bilingual education looks at these two areas, and little if any is devoted to the idea of this less natural kind of bilingualism.

As for my own primary school, the future is unclear. The school has done a magnificent job with teacher recruitment in recent years, and some aspects of their approach is clearly working - the school ranks among the best not only in the voivodeship but also at a national level. But relying on the great teachers of today to smooth over any issues in the very nature of bilingual education would be a mistake - and I would say it makes more sense to pause, reflect, and return to the fundamentals of bilingual education – to consider the typology presented by Baker (2001), for a start, and to decide afresh precisely which programme should be followed. The most noticeable issue at the school is simply that it knows not what it is, or what it could be: before answering any of the questions that follow, it must surely start there.


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Author Biography

Christopher Walker is the editor of the International House Journal, and is also the Director of Studies at IH Bielsko-Biała in Poland. He has been teaching for about fifteen years, and still finds something new and interesting to explore every term. His current interests are the nature of English grammar, and teacher training and development.