Why is CLIL always about second language learning?

February 12, 2018


CLIL and Second Language Learning: A must?

Whenever CLIL is discussed within any content, the main topic is always: second language acquisition. This makes sense, because CLIL is all about learning a second language while learning a subject at the same time.

Or is it?

The role of language within CLIL

As you probably know (I kind of assume you do) the CLIL acronym stands for Content and Language Integrated Learning. This implies language is involved. However, it is not stated anywhere that second language learning is involved. Yet, this is what we focus on quite a lot, if not always, when discussing CLIL.

Is that a bad thing? In my opinion: no, not per sé. Yet, being aware of this fact does have implications for how you teach using the CLIL Methodology. Let me explain.

My experiences in a ‘regular’ CLIL lesson

When I switched schools a couple of years I had to start teaching in Dutch again, my first language, because of the availability of bilingual classes and very capable teachers who were already teaching those groups. This challenged me a little: I had taught for years in English only and was afraid I would have to change my way of teaching.

You probably guessed it: I was wrong.

I could implement all of the CLIL activities I used to do in my English-talking classes just as easily in my Dutch-speaking classes.

And yes: I still made them aware of the language they used and had to communicate in. Maths contains quite a few phrases that are hard to understand even when you are ‘just’ speaking a first language.

Better teachers?

In an article published in CLIL Magazine Spring 2015 (page 12), Rick de Graaff actually mentions that subject teachers who teach using the CLIL methodology experience a development concerning their own skills as a teacher. Not just as a language teacher, which would make sense, but also as a subject teacher.

Being able to explain things in different ways is a skill every teacher (should) have, but how often have you thought about the role of language when explaining something new?

CLIL for non-CLIL teachers

Last year I was asked to host a series of workshops on CLIL for non-CLIL teachers. In other words: I was asked to train teachers how to use the CLIL methodology within a first-language setting. This was not only a very interesting request, the teachers thought they had really learned some new ways of working with their students, being made aware of the role they had within a class setting.

They were not just subject teachers. They were also language teachers. Without teaching in a second language!


CLIL is commonly used in combination with second-language acquisition, and I get it. It makes sense to use a language-learning methodology when learning a new, second language.

However, next time you teach a first-language lesson, think about the role of language in that lesson.

What words are new? What words or sentences might pose a challenge? Do students really understand everything you say, even if it is done in their first language?

Answer these questions for your next lesson, and you might just end it becoming a CLIL teacher. Without the need of a second language!

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