Trilingual education: experience, models and possibilities

Nowadays there are between 5,000 and 7,000 languages in the world. It is difficult to know the exact number of languages because the distinction between a language and a dialect is not always clear. In fact languages are not isolated entities and in many cases there are no clear boundaries between them, it is rather a continuum that extends along a geographical area [3].

Both the whole society and individuals are influenced by the variety of languages in the world. Taking into account that are between 5,000 and 7,000 languages in the world and there are just about 200 countries, multilingualism is quite an ordinary observable fact. The countries where more than one language is spoken are the following: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nigeria, India and Mexico [3]. The governments of many countries give official recognition to only one or some of the languages spoken in the country and this creates the impression that multilingualism is not a common phenomenon.

Most of the world’s population speaks more than one language but most of the population in western cultures are monolingual in one of the ‘big’ languages in spite of being exposed to other languages mainly in the school context. Therefore we can say that multilingualism at the sociolinguistic level is more spread than multilingualism at the individual level but even in this case it is extremely common. The spread of multilingualism justifies its importance in research [3].

The goal of the research is describing the possibilities for developing multilingual education in secondary schools of Kazakhstan through comparing multilingual education in other countries, contrasting and comparing them.

The goal that we set determines the following objectives of the research:

  1. Describe the phenomenon of multilingualism;
  2. Describe the systems of multilingual education existing in different countries;
  3. Analyzing these multilingual education models, single out similarities and differences in their organization;
  4. Describe possibilities for implementing some features of existing multilingual education models in the institutions of secondary education in Kazakhstan.

The topic which we try to develop is not sufficiently studied by the linguists and educators. A lot of attention has been devoted to the phenomenon of bilingualism, which, being similar to multilingualism, still possesses some peculiarities. Multilingualism still needs attention of the researchers.

Methods of the research that we use are the following: literature analysis, information generalization, observation.

Multilingual Education as a Social and Psychological Phenomenon

Dictionaries define multilingualism as the act of using multiple languages, either by an individual speaker or by a community of speakers. Multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world's population. Multilingualism is becoming a social phenomenon governed by the needs of globalization and cultural openness.

The generic term used to denote a multilingual person is polyglot. Polyglot is a person who can communicate in more than one language, be it actively (through speaking, writing, or signing) or passively (through listening, reading, or perceiving). More specifically, the terms bilingual and trilingual are used to describe comparable situations in which two or three languages are involved [1].

Multilingual speakers have acquired and maintained at least one language during childhood; this language is called their first language. The first language or mother tongue is acquired without formal education. Children acquiring two languages in this way are called simultaneous bilinguals. Even in the case of simultaneous bilinguals one language usually dominates over the other [1]. This kind of bilingualism is most likely to occur when a child is raised by bilingual parents in a predominantly monolingual environment. It can also occur when the parents are monolingual but have raised their child or children in two different countries or when the parents are monolingual and raise their child in a society which speaks a language different from their own, which is common in immigrant populations of Western European countries.

A basic distinction when discussing bilingualism and multilingualism is between the individual and societal level. At the individual level, bilingualism and multilingualism refer to the speaker’s competence to use two or more languages. At the societal level the terms bilingualism and multilingualism refer to the use of two or more languages in a speech community and it does not necessary imply that all the speakers in that community are competent in more than one language [3].

Multilingualism can be the result of different factors. Some of them are the following:

  • Historical or political movements such as imperialism or colonialism. In this case the spread of some languages, such as Spanish to Latin America, it results in the coexistence of different languages.
  • Economic movements in the case of migration. The weak economics of some areas and countries results in movement of the population to other countries and to the development of multilingual and multicultural communities in the host countries.
  • Increasing communications among different parts of the world and the need to be competent in languages of wider communication. This is the case with the development of new technologies and also with science. English is the main language of wider communication but it is used by millions of people who use other languages as well.
  • Social and cultural identity and the interest for maintenance and revival of minority languages. This interest creates situations in which two or more languages co-exist and are necessary in everyday communication.
  • Education. Second and foreign languages are part of the curriculum in many countries.
  • Religion movements that result in people moving to a new country [3].

Multilingual Education in European Countries. Description of a trilingual school in Finland

The current 48 states in Europe have 38 different official state languages. In total there are about 240 spoken local languages. The five languages spoken by most people in Europe are, by number of mother tongue speakers, Russian, German, English, French, Italian. But most European countries operate routinely with several languages. States such as Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, France, Spain, Romania, and Ukraine have many indigenous minority or regional languages.

Some of the minority languages in Europe have obtained official status. For example, Basque, Catalan and Galician have official status in Spain. Welsh has protective language rights in the United Kingdom, as does Irish in Ireland, Frisian in the Netherlands and the Sámi languages in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

When Finland declared its independence in 1917, it had been a part of Sweden for more than 600 years (until 1809) and a part of Russia from 1809 to 1917. The influence of Swedish remained strong even during the Russian period. As the Swedish-speaking population amounted to only 14.3 per cent of the total population of Finland in 1880, the Swedish language obviously functioned as a language indicating higher social status. Swedish was considered an important part of Finnish society and in the constitution of 1919 Finnish and Swedish are decreed as the two official / national languages of Finland [2].

Depending on how trilingual primary education is defined, trilingual primary education can be said to be found in all parts of Finland, since the national language program encourages early introduction of several languages. Traditionally, the languages have been introduced during specific language lessons and have thus been kept separate from other content lessons. A growing interest for integrating language and content has, however, lead to new experimental programs during the last decade in Finland. In these programs, a second language is used as the language of instruction for content learning and the same teaching principle is gradually penetrating languages, which are introduced as a third or a fourth language.

In accordance with the stipulation for the national language curriculum it was obvious that another language than Swedish (the immersion language) had to be a compulsory part of the Swedish immersion program. Since almost all interest was focused on Swedish as the language of instruction for monolingual sixyear-old Finnish-speaking children, the other languages of the program were not discussed very much during the first years. English was not introduced as the third language to the first immersion students until grade 5 and those who liked yet another language could choose German as an option in grade 8 [2].

As for the typology of the languages of the program, the first language of the immersion students (Finnish) belongs to the FinnoUgric language family and is characterized by an entirely different language structure than the other languages of the program. The other languages of the program (Swedish, English, German / French) are all related.

Within the new language programs in Finland, the interest in experimenting with a foreign language as the language of instruction in subject or content teaching has led to a variety of different strategies in schools in Finland. Immersion teaching has been kept separate from teaching in a foreign language, since immersion is by definition a very intensive language program where at least 50 per cent of the time is spent with a foreign / second language as a language of instruction. It is an extensive program often started in kindergarten and lasting to the end of the obligatory education period. It is also defined by certain linguistic and didactic criteria [2].

The time spent teaching in a foreign language in Finland is usually considerably more moderate than in immersion teaching (ranging from 4.4 % to 23 % in grades 1 till 6). There is an estimate that three to eight per cent of schools offer teaching in a foreign language for grades 1 till 6, whereas a little more than 14 per cent of schools offer teaching in a foreign language for grades 7 till 9 [2].

Both in teaching in a foreign language and in immersion teaching there may be differences in how language and content are integrated or kept apart. In immersion programs content is primarily or exclusively taught through a second / foreign language and it is equally important for the students to master both content and language. At the other end of the continuum of content-based programs are language-driven content programs, where students typically learn language during separate language lessons and language serves as an effective vehicle for communicative language experiences. Language is developed by using content or concepts already taught in the students' first or second language. The teaching of the third and the fourth language however must be defined as much more pronouncedly language-driven programs and are at the other end of the continuum. The teaching of English as the third language follows the same principles as the teaching of the second language and a communicative approach forms the basis of the teaching of the third language, but there are no subjects even partially taught in the third language. Instead, content is conveyed by efforts of coordinating the thematic units between the teachers of the first, the second and the third language. In this way the content of the third language lessons can build upon content and concepts which have already been or are currently dealt with during lessons, where the first or second language is used as the medium of instruction.

In the whole planning of the curriculum the time spent in the first and the second language in different grades is outlined in accordance with a Canadian early total immersion program. However, the first language is already introduced in grade 1, whereas in Canada the introduction of the first language is mostly delayed until grade 2 or 3. The intention is not to learn literacy skills (since these are learnt in the second language) but to concentrate on communicative skills and cultural activities (literature, songs, and rhymes) and giving the students sufficient opportunities to express themselves in their first language. In grades 1 and 2, the first language (Finnish) is used two hours / week, while English is used one hour / week. The rest of the time (17 hours / week) is spent with Swedish as the language of instruction including all subjects which are offered during grades 1 and 2 (handicrafts, mathematics, physical education, arts, music, religion, environmental studies).

In grades 3 and 4 the first language of the students is used during seven hours / week (language, handicrafts and physical education), the rest (except English) is in the second language (Swedish). In grades 3 and 4 a week includes altogether 23-24 hours of teaching.

The time spent in English has increased from one hour / week to two hours / week in grades 3 and 4, and the same time is allotted to

English in grades 5 and 6, where also the fourth language (German or French) is introduced for two hours / week. Instruction in the first language is now given for 7-11 hours / week (for grades 5 and 6 a week includes altogether 27 hours of teaching) and includes subjects such as language, history, physical education, arts, and mathematics.

The instruction time in the first language increases in the higher grades, but there are some variations, which are mostly due to the varying linguistic competence of the teaching staff.

Trilingual Education in the Basque Country

Several projects on trilingual education are being carried out in a large number of schools in the Basque Country. The Basque Autonomous Community is the most populated area of the Basque Country with 2,104,041 inhabitants, that is, 73 per cent of the total population of the Basque Country [4]. The languages involved in the trilingual education projects are Basque, Spanish and English. Basque is a non-Indo-European language of unknown origin with a very rich inflectional morphology. Both Spanish and English are Indo-European languages but Spanish is a Romance language and English belongs to the Germanic branch. The status of Basque as a minority language within its own territory has some sociolinguistic and linguistic implications. Speakers of Basque in the Basque Autonomous Community are approximately 27 per cent of the population and they are bilingual because they are also highly proficient in Spanish. Monolingual speakers of Basque account for less than 1 per cent of the population and the majority of the population is monolingual in Spanish.

Specific projects to develop trilingual education in Basque schools have been developed in the 90's and they can be regarded as an extension of the bilingual educational system established in the Basque Autonomous Community in 1982. In this year, three models of language schooling were developed: models A, B and D. These models differ with respect to the language or languages of instruction used, their linguistic aims, and their intended student population.

Model A schools are intended for native speakers of Spanish who choose to be instructed in Spanish. Basque is taught as a second language for three to five hours a week.

Model B schools are intended for native speakers of Spanish who want to be bilingual in Basque and Spanish. Both Basque and Spanish are used as languages of instruction for approximately 50 per cent of school time, although there is considerable variation from school to school

In Model D schools, Basque is the language of instruction and Spanish is taught as a subject for three to five hours a week. Model D schools can be regarded as both total immersion programs for native Spanish-speaking students and first language maintenance programs for native Basque speakers [4].

The goals of trilingual education differ depending on the bilingual educational model. The D model schools reinforce the use of the minority language at school so that children become fully competent in Basque and Spanish. At the same time they try to improve the level of English proficiency so that schoolchildren acquire basic communicative skills in this language. The program can be regarded as a maintenance program in the case of native speakers of Basque and an enrichment program in the case of native speakers of Spanish. The focus of the program is set on Basque, which can be the first of the second language so as to balance for its weak position in the sociolinguistic context. At the same time, they try to improve the level of proficiency in English.

In model B, English is taught for approximately three hours a week and the rest of the time is divided between Basque and Spanish and the distribution varies according to the school.

In model D, Basque is the language of instruction and Spanish is taught three or four hours a week, English is taught three hours a week.

Comparison of the Described Cases

The comparison is done so that differences and similarities between the cases become clearer.

When it comes to the use of the state language, the minority language and the foreign language in education, differences can be found between the two cases.

In Finland, the Finnish language is usually the first language to be used as a medium of instruction and English or Swedish is the second school language. Thus English can also be the third language and in a few schools German or French can be the third language. However, some schools start with Swedish immersion for children with Finnish as their mother tongue and then introduce Finnish and English.

In primary education in the Basque Country there are three models with respect to the three languages. In Model D schools, Basque can be considered the medium of instruction, Spanish the school subject and English is always the third language of instruction. Model A schools use Spanish as the medium of instruction and Basque as the school subject and then there are Model B schools in which both languages are used equally.

The one thing the two cases have in common is the fact that the trilingual schools are in a bilingual region instead of a trilingual region where all three languages are spoken in daily life. The third language, English, is taught as a language that can be used in the international communication. What is different between the cases is the function of the minority language in daily life. Basque is perhaps much higher valued by the population than Swedish and Frisian in relationship to the national language.

Trilingual primary education in the regions at issue has different backgrounds. Finland has had experience in bilingual primary education since 1968, when the learning of two languages became obligatory. In 1991 it became possible to use not only Finnish or Swedish as a medium of instruction. However, approval was necessary of the teaching staff, the students and their parents. Since then, several experiments in trilingual education were initiated.

In the Basque Country bilingual primary education was regulated in 1982, when schools could be divided according to three models. The educational system in the Basque Country has adopted a third language into primary education in the early Nineties.

The design of trilingual primary education in the different regions is largely dependent on the different attainment goals that are set for every language.

In the Finnish case, it is mentioned that

it is the intention of the Swedish immersion programs to better prepare the students for the labour market, specifically on the Nordic common trade market. English, as a third language is not used in daily life in Finland as such, although pupils are exposed to English in the media. Therefore English is less directly instrumental for most students, although the foreign language enables them to communicate on an international level. This is probably the same for the other two cases selected.

In the Basque Country the goals of language teaching differ per model. Model A schools use mainly Spanish and have adopted Basque and English as additional subjects in enrichment programs. Model B schools try to promote proficiency in both Spanish and Basque and on those schools English is an enrichment program. The model D schools reinforce the Basque language in school so children become fully competent in Basque and Spanish, but these schools also try to raise the level of proficiency in English. Whereas the pupils in Finland and in the Netherlands are exposed to a relatively high amount of English in the media, the pupils in Spain do not regularly see or hear English in daily life.

The age-factor is an important issue in the discussion about trilingual primary education. Different theories exist as to when a second and a third language should be introduced to pupils. The belief that children learn a language more easily when they are young is widespread.

As primary school starts in Finland at the age of seven, all pupils involved in trilingual primary education first receive teaching in Finnish and Swedish at the age of seven. Some pupils already receive language instruction in two or three languages in pre-primary school. When that project first started, Swedish was introduced to the children at the age of six and English was introduced at the age of nine. Nowadays pupils start with Swedish at the age of five and English at the age of seven, whereas Finnish is used for a couple of hours / week in grade 1 to approximately half of the instruction time in grade 6.

In the Basque Country the pupils attending the trilingual programs are younger than in Finland. Most pupils are introduced to the three languages successively between the age of four and six, although primary school does not start until the age of six, when compulsory education starts. A few schools introduce English at the compulsory age of eight.

It is difficult to teach a language or use a language to teach a particular subject, if teaching materials are not adequate for the teaching process. This might even have a negative effect on the motivation for pupils to learn the target language.

In Finland traditionally a textbook and an exercise book are used for the teaching process. Teachers at the primary school use more and more self-made materials or combine information from different materials. The teachers also use the library and the possibility to exchange books on a regular basis, so that each group of pupils has access to different books addressing the same subject. This way, pupils also have the opportunity to learn to enjoy reading books and get acquainted with literature. Despite all these provisions there is still a need for more flexible instruction materials, developed especially for immersion education.

In the Basque Country the materials for Basque and Spanish are very diverse: textbooks, exercise books, audio-visual materials and multimedia. All of them are being published on a large scale. Teacher trainers and teachers themselves usually specially develop the materials for the teaching of English between the ages four and eight. Teaching materials for the teaching in English between eight and twelve are widely available and have been published by commercial institutions.

For a trilingual program to be effective, a certain number of hours per week over the primary school period must be spent in those languages. In Finland usually Finnish is the language most used in class. Swedish is used for only a couple of hours. Where English is used as a medium of instruction, the time allocated to this language is comparable to Swedish. By contrast, the school in Vaasa uses the first language (Finnish) in grades 1 and 2 for two hours per week, while English is used for one hour per week. The immersion language (Swedish) is used for the remaining hours (17 hours per week). In grades 3 and 4 Finnish is used for seven hours per week. English is used for two hours per week and Swedish is used for 14 hours per week. In grades 5 and 6 Finnish is medium of instruction for 7-11 hours per week, English two hours per week and Swedish 13-17 hours per week.

In the Basque Country the time allocated to the teaching in the three different language differs per school model. In model A schools Spanish is mainly used as medium of instruction and Basque and English are taught for three to four hours per week. In model B schools time is divided equally between Spanish and Basque as medium of instruction and English is taught for three to four hours per week. In model D schools Basque is used a medium of instruction and Spanish and English are taught for three to four hours per week. In some schools English is also used as a medium of instruction. For example, in three experimental D type schools, English was used to teach content for seven hours per week in grades 3-6.

Not all subjects lend themselves equally well to be taught in a foreign language. In Finland practically all subjects can be taught in Swedish. Mostly environmental studies, music, mathematics and arts are taught in either Swedish or English. In Vaasa the subjects are taught in thematic units of different length. It is therefore difficult to state what subjects are taught in which language.

In the Basque Country Spanish is used for all subjects in model A schools, and Basque in model D schools. In model B schools each for them decide when to use which language for which subject. In principle Basque and Spanish are both equally used for every subject. English is usually used for handicrafts, but some schools teach science, music and sports in English. Some schools use English in a content based approach and include units on mathematics, science or social sciences.

Opportunities for multilingual education in Kazakhstan

As we have already mentioned multilingualism can be the result of different factors. Kazakhstan is a unique place, since in combines several of the factors, which determine the use of two languages on its territory and stimulate learning of English as the language of globalization.

There are lots of reasons which determine use of both Kazakh and Russian languages on the territory of Kazakhstan because Russian and Kazakhstan have long established ties. Historically Russian people lived on the territory of contemporary Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan once was a part of the Soviet Union. Thus, its population has been exposed to the Russian language for more than one century.

Kazakhstan and Russia have strong economic and cultural ties, which were established ling ago and are still existent. Russian has long been the language of science, research and technology, and is still of great importance. According to the census of 2009 63% of the population are Kazakhs and about 24% of the population are Russians [6].

Everything mentioned above creates the situation in which two languages co-exist and are necessary in everyday communication. Beside English and Russian, English has gained importance as the language of globalization and intercultural communication.

Both Kazakh and Russian are used in governmental organizations, local government institutions, documentation of state and governmental institutions, constitutional documentation, arbitration courts, military, field of science (including defense of dissertations); names of state institutions, texts of seals and stamps regardless of the form of ownership, labels of goods, all texts of visual information [5].

Either Kazakh or Russian may be used in postal-telegraphic messages and customs documentation.

Both Russian and other languages (if necessary) may be used in localities of compact residence of ethnic groups in: documentation of non-governmental institutions, courts, documentation of administrative offences, contracts of individuals and legal entities, responses of governmental and nongovernmental institutions to requests of citizens, paper forms, information signs, announcements, advertisements, price catalogs and lists; pre-school institutions, orphanages; high, vocational and higher education; cultural events; press, radio and TV programs.

The Republic of Kazakhstan has adopted a policy according to which a lot of attention should be paid to learning and being able to communicate in these two languages equally well. State educational standards imply integrating the three languages into the school curricula.

Now let us consider school education according to the same criteria we used for describing trilingual schools in Finland and the Basque country.

Kazakhstan is a bilingual country: the Kazakh language, spoken by 63% of the population, has the status of the "state" language, while Russian, which is spoken by almost all Kazakhstanis, is declared the "official" language, and is used routinely in business.

In the previous two cases we described two of the three languages belong to the same language family: English and Swedish, English and German. The languages involved in the trilingual education in Kazakhstan also belong to two different language groups: English and Russian both belong to Indo-European languages of West-Germanic and East-Slavonic groups respectively, Kazakh is a Turkic language.

Attempts to establish trilingual education have been made since the early 90s when Kazakhstan gained independence. Like in the Basque country there were established different models of schools:

Model A schools are intended for native speakers of Russian who choose to be instructed in Russian. Kazakh is taught as a second language for five hours a week since the 1st grade.

Model B schools are intended for native speakers of Kazakh who want to be instructed in Kazakh. Russian is taught as a second language for five hours a week since the 1st grade.

In both types of schools English is taught as a foreign language beginning with the 5th grade for three hours a week (like in immersion schools of Finland).

Like in Finland, the national language program encourages early introduction of several languages. Traditionally, the languages are introduced during specific language lessons and thus are kept separate from other content lessons and are not used as languages of instruction.

We have already mentioned that teaching a second and foreign language can be done through a second/foreign language program or by immersion language program. It turns out that none of our secondary schools actually suggests language immersion programs since only 13% of the curricula is taught in the second language (in Russian for schools with the Kazakh language of instruction, and in Kazakh

in schools with instruction in Russian), and even less – 8% of the curricula is taught in English. At that none of these learning is a content learning; it is acquiring second or foreign language for practical purposes. This is probably the main reason why school graduates are not proficient in speaking three languages as it is intended to be.

We have considered the phenomenon of multilingual education as a social and linguistic phenomenon. To complete the project we set certain objectives which have been fulfilled in the current research.

  1. First, we studied the phenomenon of multilingualism and found out that multilingualism is the ability of an individual speaker or all members of the community to speak multiple languages. We described reasons which contribute to the development of multilingualism, including colonialism, migrations, political and cultural ties, education, etc.
  2. To get a better understanding of what multilingual education is we studied the experience of two European countries in establishing trilingual schools. We studied the language immersion program in schools of inland and different models of schools in the Basque country (Spain).
  3. We found out that being different by their organization trilingual schools in Finland and Spain have some common features. In particular, in both cases languages are introduced to school children at a quite early age and a part of the content learning in these countries is done through the second language.
  4. Finally we studied the possibilities for multilingual education development in Kazakhstan. We started with reasons that promote use of several languages in the Republic of Kazakhstan, compared the system of language learning in Kazakhstan to two described cases of Finland and Spain, found out similarities and differences between them. We managed to find out that in terms of reasons, experience, teaching materials, age of students and etc. our system of language learning does not differ much from the systems of language learning in Finland and Spain. The reason why Kazakhstan’s attempt to establish trilingual education is less successful in our opinion lies in the fact that we approach it a second/foreign language program, not as a language immersion program, which provides content learning in the language other than native and thus guarantees better results.



  1. Beetsma, D. (ed) Trilingual Primary Education in Europe. Inventory of the provisions for trilingual primary education in minority language communities of the European Union
  2. Delpit, L.Dowdy, J. K. (ed) The skin that we speak. Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom. The New Press. New York
  3. Gorter, D. et al. Cultural diversity as an asset for human welfare and development. Benefits of linguistic diversity and multilingualism. Position paper of research task 1.2
  4. Hoffmann, C.Towards a description of trilingual competence. International Journal of Bilingualism, Vol. 5, No. 1 (March) 2001, pp. 1-17
  5. The Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Year: 2012
City: Oskemen
Category: Philology