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CLIL, or Deep Level ESP?
by Neil McBeath
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CLIL Theory

All of this would lead me to suggest that CLIL is neither so new nor so radical as many of its advocates would have us believe. More to the point, for a term that was coined in 1994, it is supported by a fairly slim literature.

Alexander (2008; 6) refers to the term, but points out that, like Sustained-Content Language Teaching (Murphey and Stoller 2001) “these approaches have tended to develop in primary and secondary schools, where the content is at a lower level, and is therefore more accessible for language teachers.” This is an interesting point, as Mehisto et al also limit their study to the primary, secondary and vocational sectors. Nothing in their book refers to tertiary education, despite the fact that, as Alexander demonstrates, language is frequently taught through content in EAP.

A second problem with CLIL, moreover, is the Eurocentric nature of much of the evidence. Arnold and Rixon (2008; 43) refer to this, mentioning, specifically, “Hungary, Switzerland and Italy” Smit (2007; 3) makes a broader claim; “CLIL is a truly European topic, spanning the continent from the North (Sweden) to the South (Spain)” The extent to which such a European project can be successfully transplanted to other regions of the world, however, may be open to question. Like the Common European Framework of Languages (Morrow 2004) CLIL might become no more than “a brilliant business idea” (Smith 2005; 70), allowing publishers to churn out new titles, all of which claim to be in line with CLIL theories.

One worrying thing in this regard, however, is Mehisto et al’s (2008; 9) statement that “In Europe, in recent centuries, many people have understood the value of multilingualism.” This is a statement that cries out for a citation, as most evidence points to the very opposite conclusion.

Within living memory, monolingual Welsh and Scottish Gaelic speakers were beaten at school if they did not speak English. Until the death of Franco in 1975, it was illegal to publish in Basque, Catalan or Gallician in Spain. Following the French Revolution, the “language wars” led to the execution of people who persisted in speaking Flemish, German, Italian, Provencal, Basque or Breton. Under the Third Reich, it was illegal to speak Polish in Gau Danzig-West Preussen and Gau Wartheland, and after the Second World War it became illegal to speak German in Breslau – renamed Wroclaw.

In the last 25 years, perhaps, there has been a change of perception, but supporters of Phillipson’s (1992) theory of Linguistic Imperialism might argue that Europe’s new-found understanding of the value of multilingualism is code for appreciation of the importance of English.

A third weakness in CLIL theory, of course, is its self-referential character. The Vienna English Working Papers have published two special issues entitled Current Research on CLIL (Dalton-Puffer and Nikula 2007; Smit and Dalton-Puffer 2007b), but the second collection makes frequent reference to the first, while papers in both issues cite the same two “core” collections – Dalton-Puffer and Smit (2007a); Marsh and Wolff (2007).

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach, of course. Mackenzie (2008) may be correct in his enthusiasm “Anyone who is anyone in the EFL world these days is talking about CLIL. The general consensus is that it is the way forward…” but I wish I could be as sanguine.

To start with, CLIL appears to lack definition. Ruiz de Zarobe (2007; 47)  claims that “within the framework of European multilingualism, CLIL can apply to different levels of educational systems and programs, which can be pictured as a continuum…..Based on Met (1998) we can visualize the continuum as follows:-

Content Driven     
Language Driven

but this is so comprehensive a definition that it leaves nothing out.

At one extreme we have the total immersion approach that was developed by Gardner and Lambert (1972). This approach was intended to transform English speaking Canadian children into fully-functioning, fluent English-French bilinguals. It also had the wider aim of offering a way out of the political and linguistic tensions that were threatening to tear Canada apart.

At the other end of the continuum we have the ”Spanish for your Holidays” classes that are offered by Adult Education Centres in Britain, and the new phenomenon of “French play groups” to which the British middle classes are beginning to send their children on Saturday mornings. This is not, incidentally, an unfair gibe. Mehisto et al (2008; 13) endorse what they call “language showers” – “primarily intended for students between four and ten years old, who receive between 30 minutes and one hour of exposure per day. This includes the use of games, songs, many visuals, realia, handling of objects and movement. Teachers usually speak almost entirely in the CLIL language. Routines are developed and considerable repetition is used so that students know what to expect. This creates a sense of security, lowers anxiety and boosts learning.”

But what is described here is not, in fact, CLIL. It is simply good practice in primary level teaching – what one would expect in any well organized course teaching EFL to Young Learners.

Most telling of all, however, is the fact that the Mehisto et al book “Uncovering CLIL; Content and Language Integrated Learning” boasts an impressive title, but lacks a bibliography. Writers and publications are cited in the text, but the reader has no way of checking the references. I would suggest that this is a major weakness, which undermines the book’s academic credibility, and which would be penalized if the writers were even foundation level undergraduates on an EAP course.

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