Bilingualism as a Strength (Part One)

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Teach For Bulgaria and EducArt are developing a methodology for teaching Bulgarian as a second language. This project can have a great impact on minority children, Bulgarian students who live abroad, and their teachers

“How am I supposed to teach syntax, when these children don’t know the alphabet – you can’t expect them to know the difference between definite and indefinite articles” – Krasimir Krastev (Teach For Bulgaria, class of 2017-2019), teacher at Vocational School “Acad. Petko Staynov” in Kazanlak

You have probably also heard the concerning news about the latest PISA results. According to the report, 47% of 15-year-olds in Bulgaria did not attain Level 2 proficiency in reading (OECD average: 23%). What is even more disheartening is that the number of students who cannot grasp the meaning of a text, differentiate between facts and opinions, or identify relationships of cause and effect has increased by 5.5% in three years. 

One of the main factors at play here is that Bulgarian is not the first language for many students in the country. These are mainly Roma or Bulgarian Turks who live in smaller towns and rural regions, do not speak Bulgarian at home, and often do not go to kindergarten before they start first grade. When these children start school they are already behind their peers in terms of language skills, have a hard time catching up, and feel isolated in the classroom. 

This social problem may seem irrelevant to you, but it has a great impact on all of us. Illiterate students are more likely to drop out of school, they are not competitive on the labor market, and have a harder time fitting in. They live in encapsulated communities in small towns and rural areas.


It doesn’t have to be this way. Multilingualism is not a problem; it’s a challenge which can easily turn into a great strength, if it is overcome. If students are taught Bulgarian as a second language, they will grow up bilingual and use both languages efficiently from an early age. 

The main obstacle in our current education system is the lack of a methodology for teaching Bulgarian as a second language. Teachers are forced to improvise when they work with Roma students because there are no specialized educational resources that can help children catch up. Multilingual students are not the only ones who struggle with Bulgarian. Children with less educated parents or parents who do not spend much quality time with them are also affected. 

To solve this problem Teach For Bulgaria and EducArt are launching a project called “Do You Speak the Language of Your School?”. Its goals are to design diagnostic assessment tools to measure students’ Bulgarian language proficiency, create a methodology for teaching Bulgarian as a second language, and provide teachers with all necessary educational resources.

You can support this project by making a donation at GlobalGiving
This fundraising campaign is supported by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The bank will match all donations from private donors for 2019 (via its Community Initiative).


Вяра Михайлова по време на обучение
Vyara Mihaylova at a training she led for Teach For Bulgaria participants

Teach For Bulgaria’s partners from Educart are Vyara Mihaylova, early bilingual development specialist, and Anastasia Novikova who is a specialist in multilingualism and the didactics of language training.

They both have degrees in German studies from the University of Heidelberg and have taught German as a second language to children of immigrants. During their time in Germany they have also participated in the development of a curriculum for German as a second language for non-German speaking preschool students. When they came back to Bulgaria a few years ago they noticed that many teachers of minority children were faced with the same challenges as their German colleagues. This motivated the language acquisition experts to join a team working on an Erasmus+ project whose goal was to develop a curriculum for Bulgarian as a second language for minority preschool students. The curriculum was based on the German version they both had worked on, but tailored to the local context. 

“There is not enough empirical evidence documenting the natural process of Bulgarian language acquisition when it’s the child’s second language. There is plenty of research for German and English,” Mihaylova says. This means that there is no way of knowing the best order of teaching various language elements or which method would help students learn more efficiently. “In German, for example, it has been established that the best order in which teachers should be introducing gender is to start with the masculine and the feminine, and finish with the neuter,” Mihaylova explains. 


Красимир Кръстев с колеги от Заедно в час
Krasimir Krastev and two of his colleagues

The results of the first project, which Vyara, Nastya, and other experts have worked on, is the methodology for teaching Bulgarian as a second language for preschool students (aged 5 to 7) and the educational resources called “Bulgarian with Draco and Mimi for Multilingual Children”. 

The goal of this project is to develop their methodology even further and make it appropriate for primary school students. The project also entails the development of Bulgarian language diagnostic tools which could potentially be applied by any teacher in order to identify the strengths and areas of improvement of their students. 

EducArt are partnering with Teach For Bulgaria in this project. This seems to be a natural collaboration which makes a lot of sense. On the one hand, Vyara has been providing training and professional support for Teach For Bulgaria participants who work with multilingual children. On the other hand, these teachers are a valuable source of information for the linguists. Many of them have come up with their own teaching strategies or are implementing different elements from various trainings. They can share a lot of details about the problems they encounter when teaching multilingual students. 

Krasimir Krastev is one of them. He teaches Bulgarian language and literature at Vocational School “Acad. Petko Staynov” in the town of Kazanlak. Krasimir completed Teach For Bulgaria’s program in 2018 and kept teaching at the same school. Almost all of his students are Roma. According to him, the biggest problem is that the older students get, the wider the achievement gap becomes which turns effective teaching into a very challenging task. 

“It’s tough to differentiate my teaching and prepare personalized tasks for every student because their proficiency levels are so varied. I often assign group work to my most advanced students and spend one-on-one time with those who struggle.“ Krasimir explains how he applies this strategy when he teaches his students about Greek mythology and the shield of Achilles. “I group my most advanced students together, have them read the description of the shield and ask them to draw it on a piece of cardboard. I do the opposite for my struggling students – I draw the imagery and connect it with the unfamiliar words from the text.”

Another issue is the lack of appropriate educational resources for older students. “There are no books appropriate for high school students. They are not interested in children’s books, they don’t find them relatable,” the teacher explains. And whatever resources he uses, he has to adapt them anyway in order to meet his students’ personal needs. “Everyone’s story is different – some students have missed the beginning of their studies, other have attended school for 3 or 4 years and have dropped out for some reason.”


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None of these challenges are insurmountable, but they require a great deal of systematizing and getting acquainted with the specificities of working with bilingual children.  

“Linguistically speaking, it is clear that if you are learning a second language or you are bilingual (learning two languages at the same time), the process of language acquisition is different from what it would look like if you were just learning your mother tongue,” Vyara Mihaylova says. 

First graders in Bulgaria learn how to write and read simultaneously, but it is mostly the result of the skills they have previously gained at home and at kindergarten. This fact is often overlooked. A lot of minority children do not have the same cultural and educational background. 

“In order for someone to develop their writing, reading, and functional literacy skills , they need to speak the language – this is the natural process. Multilingual children often start writing before they have a chance to speak the language or learn how to use in their everyday lives. This is why we need to be talking about how to help them develop their speaking skills and reading literacy while we teach them the language as well,” Mihaylova explains. 

Mihaylova and Novikova’s methodological concept is a systematized knowledge of the Bulgarian language in terms of vocabulary, grammar, reading literacy for beginners, and speaking skills in the form of gamified narration. The teachers will have access to specialized educational resources with clear instructions and teaching strategies.

You can read the second part of this article here. It will give you more information about the different ways in which Teach For Bulgaria participants work with multilingual students.

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