Evaluating a Bilingual Education Program in Spain: The Impact beyond Foreign Language Learning

By Anghel, Brindusa; Cabrales, Antonio et al. | Economic Inquiry, April 2016 | Go to article overview

Evaluating a Bilingual Education Program in Spain: The Impact beyond Foreign Language Learning


Anghel, Brindusa, Cabrales, Antonio, Carro, Jesus M., Economic Inquiry


I. INTRODUCTION

Knowledge of a second language is widely believed to be essential for workers to succeed in an increasingly interconnected business world, and researchers tend to agree. Ginsburgh and Prieto-Rodriguez (2011), for example, found large estimates of the effects of foreign language knowledge on wages in Mincerian regressions: the increases in wages ranged between 11% in Austria and 39% in Spain for knowledge of the English language and even higher effects for knowledge of other languages. (1,2) The returns to learning English do not only flow to individuals, the country as a whole may also benefit: Fidrmuc and Fidrmuc (2009) show, for example, that widespread knowledge of languages is an important determinant for foreign trade, with English playing an especially important role.

The private initiative has taken notice of these benefits of second-language acquisition. Many schools in Spanish-speaking countries, especially those that cater to the elites, offer bilingual education for their pupils; Banfi and Day (2004) document this for Argentina and Ordonez (2004) for Colombia. The high returns for foreign language capabilities, and probably also the association with elite schools, have prompted several Spanish administrations to offer bilingual education in schools across the country. The ministry of education sponsors an agreement with the British Council that selects 80 schools all over Spain where instruction in English occupies a large percentage of the curriculum. Much more ambitious in scale is a program in the autonomous region of Madrid which in the academic year 2013-2014 has 406 public schools (316 primary schools and 90 high schools, around 40% of the total) where around 40% of the instruction, including all the science curriculum, is taught in English. (3) These programs have been so successful with voters that both major parties included in their 2011 general election platforms the promise of extending the program to the whole nation. (4)

This expansion of bilingual programs where at least part of the instruction is in a foreign language (i.e., different from the mother tongue of students) is certainly not a Spanish phenomenon. Other important examples are the English schools in India (Munshi and Rosenzweig 2006) and the one-way foreign language immersion programs for native English speakers in the United States (Center for Applied Linguistics 2011).

It is thus clear, both to researchers and the general public, that learning a foreign language is important for economic reasons. But it also has some costs. The more obvious are the financial ones: the teachers may need to be hired, trained, or retrained, and given the market value of English knowledge they will be more costly than other teachers; some extra conversation assistants may need to be hired; if successful, demand will grow and the program may need to be expanded. But in addition to these costs time is finite, and there is hardly ever a free lunch in educational issues; so there may be other negative effects from the policy that have received much less attention. The aim of this study is precisely to test whether bilingual educational programs have a cost in terms of slower learning rates in other subjects.

To test this idea, we look at data from the bilingual education program in the region of Madrid. Although we will describe it in more detail later, the program (for primary schools) basically consists of using English to teach the subject called "Knowledge of the Environment," that includes all teaching of Science, History, and Geography. English is also used as the educational medium for Art and sometimes Physical Education, and of course the English language classes. Overall, teaching in English comprises between 10 and 12 of the 25 weekly hours of instruction.

To find out the effects of the program, we use a standardized exam that has been administered each year in all primary schools from the Spanish region of Madrid to sixth grade students (12-13 years of age), starting with the school year 2004/2005. …

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