Teaching two birds to fly with one stone: the CLIL approach to tertiary education in a multi-lingual world

Andreas Schmidt
Marmara University, Turkey


This article investigates the relationship between purpose in learning and its outcomes with regard to education delivered in a second language. Bilingual education poses specific challenges, because language training and academic specialisation need to be integrated. The CLIL method is proposed as a way to bridge this gap between the acquisition of a second language and the demands from studying an academic subject by making both language teaching and subject teaching purposeful and dependent on one another.

CLIL attempts to embed the learning of a second language in the subject content, so that students start to learn their subject through the second language rather than experiencing the language and the subject teaching as separate parts of their education. The article discusses how this might be achieved by looking at the application of the CLIL method in university education.

Teaching two birds to fly with one stone: the CLIL approach to tertiary education in a multi-lingual world

In a slightly modified version of the old adage: “Necessity is the mother of all invention” it could be posited that “purpose is the engine of all learning”.  Purpose, it seems, is what drives humanity’s endeavour to understand and manipulate the world around us, be it to feed or to improve ourselves. And, despite the fact that this utilitarian view of education might collide with deeply held Enlightenment notions about the acquisition of knowledge as a value onto itself, most of us require purpose – i.e. some sort of extrinsic motivation – to pick up that textbook or to traipse to school at 8 am.

It is this prerequisite for purpose which poses specific difficulties to university language teachers when trying to convince non-linguist students of the necessity to engage with a second language. Of course, by way of an answer there always is the incessant repetition of the truism that “in a globalised world, one needs to be able to communicate across language boundaries to succeed”. Only it never seems to hit home; most students will invest but the bare minimum in their language education and, instead, will rely on sources in their native tongue when turning to non-language subjects. And, although deeply regretful from the perspective of the linguist, can students really be blamed for such behaviour? Not in the least. In fact, their tactics are perfectly rational when viewed from the students’ position. Their purpose is it to graduate as engineers, managers, accountants or historians as quickly as possible, being a proficient user of a second language is at best a secondary concern. However, in their purposeful pursuit of one aim, an equally valuable target falls by the wayside: to be able to function as a professional in the multi-lingual reality of a globalised world.

In order to marry these two educational objectives – to be a well-trained professional in one’s field and to be able to operate in that field within more than one language – a new perspective is required; one that does not see both objectives as mutually exclusive or one as subordinated to the other. For this marriage to be successful, a partnership on equal terms needs to be formed. Or to put it more succinctly,

If you want to improve the quality of teaching, the most effective place to do so is the context of the classroom lesson … the challenge now becomes that of identifying the kinds of changes that will improve student learning … of sharing this knowledge with other teachers …  (Coyle, Hood, Marsh, 2010:51)

An approach which attempts this partnership is Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL); it does so by combining the requirements for content of an academic subject with the insights won by studying language acquisition in order to make non-language subjects accessible to students through a second language:

… [A]chieving this twofold aim calls for the development of a special approach to teaching in that the non-language subject is not taught in a foreign language but with and through a foreign language. (Coyle, Hood, Marsh, 2010:3)

In other words, it is not enough to rely on a university’s language centre to boost students’ proficiency in the respective second language to a level which would allow them to operate effectively in that language and to be able to access subject content prepared for a native speaker audience. Simply put, it is not enough to just throw a textbook written for a native speaker student population at a non-native audience and hope for the best. How then can the integration of subject content with a vehicular second language best be achieved? How can two birds be taught to fly with one stone?

CLIL does not reinvent the wheel; all it does is to bring together insights and best practice from various fields and to amalgamate them into a purpose-built method to aid the facilitation of bilingual education, i.e. education delivered through the medium of a second, non-native language. It borrows methodologies from language teaching, such as task-based learning or immersion and communicative strategies; from neurolinguistics and pedagogy it seeks to apply to the creation of learning environments and resources the insights into language acquisition and learning generated by Lev Vygotsky, Stephen Krashen and Benjamin Bloom (Mehisto, Marsh, Frigols, 2008). And this multi-disciplinary perspective is then attempted to be translated to institutional contexts. CLIL thereby relies on a horizontal application across professional and subject boundaries. It requires a spirit of cooperation between the branch of an organisation which delivers subject teaching and the one that is tasked with raising second language standards within the student population. All too often academic institutions rely on a vertical organisation whereby language teaching is seen as a secondary activity provided by a service department. Kees de Bot posits that CLIL tries to break with this division of labour insofar as it does not attempt to teach a subject in a second language but through a second language:

It is obvious that teaching a subject in a foreign language is not the same as an integration of language and content … Language teachers and subject teachers need to work together … [to] formulate the new didactics needed for a real integration of form and function … (Coyle, Hood, Marsh, 2010:33)

Once subject specialists and language teachers see each other as two parts of the same equation, a successful drive can be undertaken towards providing students with an effective bilingual educational experience: linguistic skills can be tied to immediately obvious uses – i.e. the use of the past tense in describing a chemistry experiment, strategies used in the language classroom like presenting key vocabulary at the outset of a lesson can be applied to a subject classroom and teaching resources, such as textbooks, handouts, etc., can be edited with the students’ level of proficiency in mind (Deller and Price, 2007). Through all this CLIL might well be able to provide purpose to learning a language while studying a non-language subject and thereby answer a challenge posed by education in a global world.


Coyle, D., Hood, P. and Marsh, D. 2010. CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Deller, S. and Price, C. 2007. Teaching Other Subjects Through English, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mehisto, P., Marsh, D. and Frigols, M. J. 2008. Uncovering CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning in Bilingual and Multilingual Education, London: MacMillan.

URN: http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:jamk-issn-2343-0281-20