Argentina: Bilingualism and the National Education Act

Argentina: Bilingualism and the National Education Act:

By Crisitina Banfi
For the Herald Education News

February-March 2007

Most people who have read the draft of the now passed National Education Act agree that it outlines principles that we cannot but agree with, even if there are varying degrees of uncertainty as to how they will be implemented. Its aspirations to provide opportunities to the whole of the Argentine population without distinction of socio-economic background are among the most laudable. However, certain elements of the law may prove too restrictive and ultimately become limitations in capitalising on the the richness of the system as it stands, thus creating an atmosphere that is not conducive ti ‘stimulating education innovation and experimentation processes’ (Section 85, subsection. e). This is the case with the use of the term ‘bilingual eduction’ as it is used in the text of the Act.

The broadest definition of bilingual education available to us is that provided by Ofelia García in 1997, who considers that ‘bilingual education involves using two languages in instruction.’ The casual reader may think that, if this definition is applied to the Argentine national education system, a large number of institutions and programmes would fall under the label of ‘bilingual education’. This is not the case according to the new Act. In fact, the definition applied in the drafting of the law is far more restricted. Bilingual education is, surprisingly, only mentioned in the context of intercultural bilingual education for indigenous communities (Chapter XI). While these undoubtedly deserve overdue attention to develop fully as an education modality and truly serve their communities by training truly bicultural and bilingual teachers for these contexts, for example, this pointed emphasis does suggest that other forms of bilingual education are not considered such. Indeed, the definition of bilingual education applied is unclear.

It seems to be the case that this opportunity of recognising, as part of its education system, significant sectors that have undoubltedly produced bilingual speakers over time and fit the definition provided by García. This is the case of what are popularly known as bilingual shcools in Spanish-English, -German, and ‘Italian. Another related issue is that presented by schools that teach ancestral languages such as Armenian and Hebrew as a means to access the cultures involved. Both these types of programmes and schools have, at their root, the efforts of a community to maintain and recreate elements of a multicultural Argentina, and this effort should be recognised. Even though this sector is often perceived as representing an elite, it is far more extended than this term would have us believe. However, by adopting the view that bilingual education can only refer to Spanish plus indigenous language we run the risk of allowing inverse snobbery to get in the way of embracing as a public good (Section 2) this unique form of education, and capitalising on the knowledge yielded by it. In fact, we can take this a step further and remember that something that is not mentioned, does not really exist and, as such, cannot be studied, regulated or evaluated. Furthermore, this invisibility may be perceived as a form of discrimination against a certain cultural and even ethnic, tradition, something that, according to Section 79, should be avoided. The lawupholds the importance of ‘valuing and understanding cultural diversity as a positive attribute of our society’, in context of indigenous cultures and languages. Surely, as a nation made up of the descendants of immigrants, we are all aware of the value and importance of many cultures as contributing to the cultural wealth of Argentina.

Above all, this seems a wasted opportunity to include the centennial bilingual education tradition in this country as part of the cultural capital of the Nation. Many countries have studied and learnt important lessons from the bilingual programmes instituted in their midst; the prime example of this is Canada, which is also a bilingual country. However, studies into bilingual education are also plentiful in countries as diverse as the US, France, Spain, Singapore, and even in Latin American countries such as Colombia or Mexico.

In the text of the new education law, the teaching of foreign languages seems to be restricted to the option whereby a language is taught a few hours a week (Section 87), thus ignoring the models which uphold the teaching of content through the medium of a foreign language, which are increasingly recognised internationally as a very effective means of integrating the learning of a language and the development of students as a whole. This applies not only to the teaching of global languages such as the ones listed above, but also to the bilingual education of deaf children in Argentina Sign language and Spanish, as is stated explicitly in the document produced by the City of Buenos Aires on the subject of the law, a modality presumably included in the realm of special education in the national law. Another programme that would be included under a broader label of bilingual education is the Programa Bilingüe de Frontera, sponsored by the national government, based in the provinces of Corrientes and Misiones, in cooperation with the government of Brazil.

It is a pity that the new Act does not include a broader, more encompassing conception of bilingualism and bilingual education in tune with the latest developments in this field of study worldwide. Furthermore, it perpetuates a situation whereby whole sectors of the system that have much in common and could well benefit from the cooperation and collaboration are kept apart. The law is undoubtly an ‘opportunity to learn from the virtues and mistakes of the past’, a necessity if our education system is to ‘prepare us to face the challenges of the 21c’.
(Introduction to the Act)


García, Ofelia (1977) ‘Bilingual Education’ In: Florian Coulmans (ed.) The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.


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