Anne-Marie de Mejía

NNEST of the Month

January 2012

Anne-Marie Truscott de Mejía is an Associate Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Formación en Educación at Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia.  She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics in the area of Bilingual Education from Lancaster University, U.K.  Her research interests include bilingual classroom interaction, the construction of bilingual curricula and processes of empowerment, and bilingual teacher development. She coordinated a research project sponsored by the National Ministry of Education on the state of the art of bilingual education in different regions in Colombia, as well as a diagnostic study about the conditions and needs of three bilingual public (state) schools in Bogotá in their transition towards bilingualism.  She is the author of a number of books and articles in the area of bilingualism and bilingual education both in Spanish and English.  Her latest publications include Forging Multilingual Spaces (2008) and Empowering Teachers across Cultures (2011), jointly edited with Christine Hélot.

January Interviewer: Ana T. Solano-Campos


1.      In Power, Prestige and Bilingualism, you point out that elite bilingualism is a world-wide phenomenon.  What is elite bilingualism? And what are the implications of this for teaching and learning around the world?

From what I know of so-called “elite” bilingualism, most programmes, at least in Colombia and other parts of Latin America, have developed from private schools set up originally to cater to children of foreign speaking people who settled in the country.  So today we still have various schools for French, German, Swiss, Italian, English and Hebrew speaking children.  For many years, these were the point of reference for the elite bilingual programmes developed for Spanish-speaking Colombians.  When they came into vogue, about 30-40 years ago, they were modeled on these community bilingual education programmes, and therefore paid a lot of attention to the development of the target language (in this case the international language the school had adopted rather than the student’s native language, or L1).  In many cases, Spanish, the L1 of most of the students, was used in such subjects as Religion, Physical Education, and Music, while English or another foreign language was used for the “high profile” subjects of Math, Natural Science, Economics, and others.  There was also very little reference to cultural considerations, as these were presumed to be non-problematic since the students came from the dominant language and cultural group.   It was considered important to have native-speaking teachers of the target language, as the development of a “native-like” accent was (and still is) seen as essential.  Moreover, most of the teachers hired had little knowledge of how to teach second or foreign language learners and therefore fell back on their knowledge of how to teach first language learners.

Now, although things have changed a lot in this respect and teachers and school principals are more conscious of the challenges involved in educating bilingual students, I think there are certain implications which can be drawn for teaching and learning around the world.  First of all, it is important to recognize that in a profession which historically has had a monolingual, foreign language ideological orientation, as Grosjean (1985) has noted, a bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person; and that therefore a bilingual education programme needs to focus on the bilingual development of the learners and not on second or foreign language learning per se.

Furthermore, I think that the question of academic language and content learning needs to be balanced in the curriculum by attention to communicative language interaction if, as is often the case, parents expect their children not only to be able to do examinations in the foreign language, but also to interact with speakers of that language.  I also feel that the notion of “the native speaker” and “native-like” accents needs to be problematized in light of the current debate as to whether the native speaker is now an anachronism.  In my experience, many teachers currently teaching in elite bilingual programmes have not questioned the value of native speaker expertise. Rather, they automatically assume that native speaker expertise is superior to the expertise of high-level bilingual teachers, who can also act as linguistic and cultural role models for their students. This is especially important in these days where, according to Graddol (2006), most interactions in English are between non-native speakers of the language.

Finally, I would recommend that the sensitizing of students to cultural similarities and differences be carried out from an intercultural perspective which is not limited to the celebration of festivities per se, but which tries to engage learners in an on-going debate leading to deeper understanding of the meanings and implications of difference, diversity and similarity from a historically-situated viewpoint.

2.      In what ways does the meaning of the term “bilingual education” differ in Latin American countries, like Colombia, and the United States?

As I understand it, this is a rather ironic situation. Whereas the term “bilingual education” in the US is generally seen from a rather negative point of view (one publisher told me that it was difficult to sell books with a title using the expression), the notion of “dual language education” is high profile.  The situation in Colombia, and I believe in many other Latin American countries, is different.  Bilingual education is often seen as the key to success, both in education and job-wise.  People believe, often against contradictory evidence, that if they are bilingual, understood here as being proficient in English, then they are en route to a better future.  Thus, bilingual education is a very positive selling point for private schools.

This, in fact, influenced the last government under Alvaro Uribe to name the language and education policy implemented in 2005 as “The National Bilingual Programme”, instead of referring only to ELT.  It was considered a more international perspective. In fact, up to now, it has taken into account the learning of only one language, English, and coincides with what many of my students have told me when they interview people about being bilingual: that to the majority, bilingualism means “investing in English”.  This “investment” has extended from the private sector to all public schools in Colombia and thus has made bilingualism potentially available to a much wider public.

3.     How do notions of inequality, deficiency, or prestige permeate bilingual and intercultural education in Colombia? How are these notions currently being contested?

As Enrique Hamel (2008) has noted, in Latin America, there are two sets of actors involved in bilingual education, situated at different poles of the social and educational scale, who hardly ever meet.  These are the teachers, researchers and school administrators who work in high prestige, bilingual education programmes for those learning so-called “majority” or international languages, where the bilingualism involved is valued and thus “highly visible”.  At the other end of the scale are the programmes designed for speakers of “minority” languages, particularly indigenous languages, where bilingualism is frequently undervalued and discriminated against and is thus “invisible” to most of the mainstream.

In view of this situation, a group of academics decided to do something practical to try and reduce the gap between researchers, teachers, students and others concerned with different types of bilingualism and bilingual education in Latin America.  In 2004, we organized a symposium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, (International Symposium on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education in Latin America – Bilinglatam) aimed at providing a forum for those working in bilingualism and multilingualism in both majority and minority languages.  This was initially supposed to be a “one-off” event, but has, in fact, continued, with symposia being held in Bogotá, Colombia in 2006, in São Paulo, Brazil in 2009 and more recently in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2011.  These events have helped to put people from Ethno-education programmes as these are known in Colombia (and as Intercultural Bilingual Education in the rest of Latin America), in contact with their counterparts who work with foreign languages. They have also helped to find points of contact among differences in policies and practices of bilingual and multilingual education in different Latin American countries, and thereby to contest the positioning of different types of programmes and languages as more or less prestigious and “useful” than others.

4.      When did you first become interested in bilingual education?  What motivated you to do research in this area?

My interest in bilingualism started, in fact, from very a personal situation.  My husband is Colombian and speaks Spanish as a first language, while I come from London and my first language is English.  I was trying to decide how to bring up our two children bilingual in English and Spanish and started asking around and reading about bilingualism.  The “one person – one language” was the formula recommended and seemed to work, up to a certain point.  I gradually became increasingly interested in the subject, and when I started work at Universidad del Valle, in Cali, I decided that I would like to do some research in the Colombian educational context on the effectiveness of foreign language teaching and learning.   I had noticed that the level of English Language Teaching (ELT) in the public schools was extremely low and thought that there must be an alternative.  The only other possibility seemed to be to look at the private bilingual school system, which had enjoyed a high level of prestige and success for over 80 years.  This led, in fact, to my PhD research project on code-switching at preschool level in two bilingual schools in Cali.

At that time (the late 80s), there was very little research being carried out in the field in Colombia.  Anything interesting in this area was related to indigenous bilingualism, but bilingualism in majority or international languages was not really recognized as a suitable study for research. I am glad to say that today this has changed radically and that bilingualism is commonly referred to in discussions about language and education in Colombia.

5.      How can teachers become empowered?

In our most recent book, “Empowering teachers across cultures”, Christine Hélot and I try to tackle this question in different linguistic and cultural contexts.  I don´t think there is any single way to bring this transformation about.  What I do believe is that helping teachers to become aware of power differences, both in the classroom and in the education system they work in, may lead to a realization that they can take responsibility for decisions about such things as the curriculum, about teacher education, about the use (or not) of code-switching in their classrooms, grounded in their pedagogical knowledge and experience, and not necessarily think their voice is not valued in these types of decision.  While it is a truism to state that no-one can empower anyone else, it is also possible to facilitate conditions where people can be helped to empower themselves, and the first condition for empowerment is conscientization, as Freire (1974) said many years ago.

When working with schools on these issues, what we have tried to do is literally to “let teachers´ voices be heard”.  In the discussion groups on specific readings in the area of bilingualism and bilingual education in our projects, which include different actors from the school community, teachers, parents (when possible), head teachers, students, and academic researchers, we try to keep silent, to encourage others to relate aspects of their practice to the issues under discussion.  This, in fact, is quite difficult to do sometimes, as we have found.  As academics, we are perhaps very accustomed to giving our views about the topic under discussion and often find it hard to take a back seat.  However, the result is worthwhile.  In one of the projects, teachers from the preschool section, who are sometimes seen as the least capable participants in such discussions, took the lead and provided a wealth of interesting and valuable considerations on their experience of teaching their bilingual learners.

One important consideration that I have found in projects relating to teacher empowerment is that it is vital to involve school administrators, such as coordinators and school principals,in these activities.  The decision making resulting from empowerment needs to involve both top-down, as well as bottom-up perspectives.  Sadly, I know of cases where teachers have tried to bring about change, but these attempts have been thwarted by the school administration.

Another important aspect in helping teachers and their students to become more empowered is to encourage them to carry out small-scale classroom research projects, which may or may not be action research projects.  Many teachers still think that research is done by those who work in universities, but often when they realize that they themselves can create knowledge and possibilities for change in their schools and classrooms by careful observation, analysis, and reflection on the implications of the findings of classroom data, then things begin to change.  I´m not saying that all teachers will respond positively to the carrying out of classroom research project.  Many will say that they do not have time in their busy schedules for such activities.  However, in my experience, there are always one or two committed individuals who will be encouraged to take on the role of “teacher-researchers”.  Then, of course, the door is open for teachers to work with their students on projects aimed at raising awareness on issues of power, resistance and empowerment.

6.      What research projects are you currently working on?

At the moment, I am currently finishing two longstanding projects along with other colleagues.  One has to do with the formulation of “Orientations” for schools in Colombia who wish to become bilingual or multilingual in international languages, such as English or French.  The Ministry of Education commissioned this project and hopefully, in 2012, the document will be published as official Ministry policy.

The other project has to do with language and content teaching and learning at the primary school level.  We looked at how teachers in eight bilingual primary schools in Bogotá taught content areas, such as Natural Science and Math in English, and their views on the difficulties, challenges and decisions involved in this.

Next semester, we are beginning a new project relating to teacher empowerment.  This time we are going to work with another university in the west of the country, Universidad del Quindío, on a joint project looking at how certain teachers in bilingual schools in Bogotá and in Quindío implement change in their classrooms, leading to empowerment, not only of themselves but of other colleagues working in close collaboration with them.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about some of the things we have been doing recently, here in Colombia, and I do hope some ofwhat I have said here resonates with people who may read this blog.


Freire, P. (1974). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Graddol, D. (2006). English Next. London: British Council. Available for free from the website of the British Council.

Grosjean, F. (1985). The bilingual as a competent but specific speaker-hearer. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development6, 467-477. Also in Cruz-Ferreira, M. (Ed.). Multilingual Norms. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2010 (19-31).

Hamel, R. E. (2008). Plurilingual Latin America: Indigenous languages, immigrant languages, foreign languages- Towards an integrated policy of language and education. In C. Hélot & A. De Mejía (Eds.), Forging multilingual spaces: Integrated perspectives on majority and minority bilingual education, 58-108. NY: Multilingual Matters.

Hélot, C., & de Mejía, A. (2008). Forging multilingual spaces: Integrated perspectives on majority and minority bilingual education. NY: Multilingual Matters.

de Mejía, A. M., & Hélot, C. (Eds). (2011). Empowering teachers across cultures. Frankfurt am Main : Peter Lang.

de Mejía, A. M. (2002). Power, prestige, and bilingualism: International perspectives on elite bilingual education. Buffalo, NY:  Multilingual Matters.


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About Ana Solano

Ana is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Ana holds degrees in Applied Linguistics, TEFL, and TESOL and taught EFL/ESL for many years. She is interested in qualitative, interdisciplinary, and comparative perspectives to the education of bilingual/multilingual immigrant and refugee children in top migrant destination countries.

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