Introduction to Dora Kovács" case study

by Antoinette Camilleri Grima

Dora Kovács

In her case description, Dora Kovács, the Head teacher of the Herman Ottó Grammar School in Hungary, focuses on the offer of foreign language education as part of a cross-curricular bilingual programme (KovacsGraz.ppt).  She raises a few significant issues which are of direct relevance to the proposals and explanations presented in the Guide (Guide_ACG.ppt). 

This school like some others in Hungary and elsewhere has initiated a culture of transformation in the way foreign language education is perceived and provided.  Setting up curricula that follow the guiding principle of plurilingualism as expressed in the Guide "will certainly be a gradual process, as it involves transforming curricula and mentalities" (the Guide, p. 68), and so one should be encouraged by the fact that both national and regional authorities have embarked on projects like the one described here, which already go some way foreword from the curricular offer of foreign languages as separate subjects just over a decade ago.  Moving towards a relatively balanced bilingual curriculum plus another foreign language is a step towards plurilingualism.

The following are some of the indicators that highlight progress in this case description:

  1. The plurilingual option is in great demand.  The Guide states that "creating the external conditions favourable to the plurilingual idea is a collective task which requires training…and will probably need support from social intermediaries" (p. 70).  In Hungary, as explained here, it was not difficult to find support for such programmes.  There is so much competition to enter these programmes among students that a competitive entry examination had to be established.  It is also made clear here that the regional and national governments support these bilingual programmes in certain ways, including through financial aid.  These innovations can be eventually extended to more advanced forms of plurilingual education, once the climate is set in favour of a diversified language provision.
  2. Bilingual programmes in schools like this one have started a "decompartmentalisation" process.  The Guide would like to see language education as a related concern to other subjects like literature, philosophy, history, geography and citizenship education (p. 67), and as explained in section 6.4 it is necessary to decompartmentalise the process of teaching languages as separate subjects in competition with each other. By aligning foreign language learning with a choice of subjects that were not previously associated with languages, is one way of changing the mentality that a foreign language is simply another subject on the school time-table, and therefore brings home the idea that languages are valuable, and that they "can be taught in ways that are functional" (Guide, p. 62).
  3. Proficiency in foreign languages has great relevance to university course requirements and career prospects (Guide, p. 62).  Students who are very eager to participate in bilingual education, and who work hard to achieve good grades, cannot be blamed if they see this as a means of obtaining admittance to their choice of university courses, and eventually to the careers and professions they would like.  In this case, the special focus on the foreign language is meant for a certain type of student - and is criticised, for example by Kapintanffy (Kapitanffy.doc) possibly as a form of elitist education.  But surely the solution can only be found in extending the programme and in diversifying the offer in other schools, and not in discontinuing a successful and welcomed project (Lakesandrivers_results) .

Bilingual education in the Herman Ottó Grammar School Challenges, Opportunities and Difficulties

Dora Kovács

The School

Herman Ottó Grammar School is situated in Miskolc, the third biggest town of Hungary and the cultural centre of the North-East. The school has 860 pupils, boys and girls in equal proportions. It is one of the most prestigious grammar schools of the region particularly as far as humanities are concerned. In 1994 the school moved into a new building. The spacious and harmonious environment made the school even more popular with students and their parents.

The Linguistic Context

The Herman Ottó Grammar School has, for a long time, enjoyed a good reputation for providing a high standard of foreign language education in Russian (up to the 1990s), English, German and French. Latin has also been taught since the beginning, although nowadays interest in learning Latin has diminished. Since the year 2000 pupils have also been able to learn Spanish. Hungarian, the mother tongue of some 15 million people, is considered to be a very difficult language for foreigners, and so Hungarians generally feel the need to speak one or more foreign languages. This motivates language learning in the educational system: the first foreign language must be introduced at the latest at the age of ten, but very often language learning starts much earlier, i.e. in the first year of schooling (at the age of six/seven).  All secondary school pupils are expected to pass the school leaving (A level type) examination in at least one foreign language. In grammar schools, two foreign languages are compulsory and no university degree can be obtained without a qualification in two foreign languages (state approved language exam certificates are demanded for admission to universities).

The Language Background of our pupils

Hungary is mostly a monolingual country i.e. most people speak Hungarian. Immigration is a rather insignificant issue at national level. Minorities (Slovak, Romanian, German, Serb and Croatian) living in Hungary are relatively small in terms of population, and live mostly in rural areas. This means that the mother tongue of the majority of our pupils in the Herman Ottó Grammar School is Hungarian.  Our pupils are very strongly motivated to learn Western European languages, and our teachers can truly rely on this motivation. A large number of our pupils obtain language examination certificates in two foreign languages at the point of leaving our school, and this is an asset for them as far as admission to university is concerned (School profile).

National policy for language education

The national policy for language education entertains different options. Language learning starts at elementary level with at least three lessons per week but there is a strong tendency to offer specialised classes where the number of lessons can reach 5 per week. Very few elementary schools propose the simultaneous acquisition of two foreign languages. English is the most popular and most demanded language followed by German and French. Other foreign languages are taught sporadically in a few elementary schools.

While only one foreign language is compulsory in secondary technical school curricula, grammar schools are obliged to teach two foreign languages, the first (normally English - which the pupil started in elementary school) is usually taught for five lessons per week and the second (a new language introduced in the grammar school: German, French, Italian, Spanish or other languages) is most commonly taught for three hours per week.

However special programmes are also proposed to enhance language learning. The latest of them is an additional "0" year in which pupils concentrate on one foreign language (20 lessons/week) and have a few lessons in other basic subjects (Maths, Hungarian language and literature) before starting their "real" studies in a secondary school. Language learning that starts earlier on in this way, continues in this school for 5 lessons/week for the next four years of secondary schooling and is intended to help students obtain good proficiency in the given foreign language.  This programme has been operational for only two years.

Bilingual Education

Another special programme - introduced in the 1990"s and very popular ever since - is bilingual education i.e. a programme where besides reinforced language learning, at least three other subjects must be taught in the target language. The local government of Miskolc, the maintainer of local schools, is very much in favour of bilingual education and many schools have opted for this kind of programme.  Schools proposing bilingual education are authorised to organise entrance examinations and to receive pupils from other school districts, too. Parents are also ready to put their children in such classes not only in view of enhanced language acquisition but also in the hope of a higher level of education in general. In fact, these classes often prove to be more successful in other subjects as well, a result which is probably related to the students" high motivation and the strong parental involvement and support in the background.

In Miskolc bilingual education exists both at elementary and secondary school levels. The majority of elementary schools that offer bilingual education, use English as a target language, while two schools offer German. The subjects taught in the target language are normally: Art, Music, Physical Education, Information Technology, Mathematics, Biology and Geography, and sometimes History. Most of the grammar schools in Miskolc also offer bilingual education in English (4 schools), German (2 schools), French (2 schools) and Spanish (1 school). Various subjects are taught in the target language, such as: History, Biology, Geography, Mathematics, Computer Studies, Civilisation and Physical Education. Undertaking education through a foreign language requires a solid linguistic background, and so two types of bilingual classes can be found at secondary level and pupils (and parents) can choose between the four- or five-year programmes. The four-year programme means that pupils would already have acquired B1 (Common European Framework) level in the given foreign language which enables them to carry out studies through the medium of this language. This also means that a rigorous selection process is necessary. Therefore these schools organise entrance examinations mainly to test the pupils" skills in the target language. The five-year programme is similar to the "0" year system mentioned above: pupils in these classes attend school for 5 years. Their first year is devoted to intensive language learning and they start their "normal" secondary school studies in the second year.

Bilingual Education at the Herman Ottó Grammar School

Both types of bilingual education are in place at the Herman Ottó Grammar School where the English section works with the four-year programme while pupils in the Spanish section are introduced to Spanish in our school, so the five-year programme is followed. In both sections one of the subjects taught in the target language is History; the others are Geography and Computer Studies in Spanish, Biology, Mathematics and Civilisation in English.

A number of challenges are faced by our school. One of them is the careful selection of the learners. As far as the English section is concerned an entrance exam is organised by the school to be sure that our future pupils have all acquired at least B1 level in the target language. These language skills are absolutely required to be able to follow History or Biology teaching in English. Although no knowledge of Spanish is demanded in the Spanish section, an entrance exam is still organised to test the candidates" intellectual capacities and language learning abilities. Intensive language learning (and that"s what our pupils do during their first year in the Spanish section) is very hard work and requires assiduity and strong will on the part of the learners. Moreover, bilingual classes have special programmes and this means that those who cannot keep up with the requirements cannot change classes. It is thus of extreme importance that we choose young people who are perseverant enough to live up to this difficult task.

Another challenge is the adjustment of our teaching to ever-changing government policy (School policy).  It is true that educational policy at the national level is favourable to bilingual teaching, but no separate curriculum has so far been established for bilingual classes. There has been a lot of hesitation in the teaching of History, for example: some schools have carried out the entire programme in English while others have taught World History in English and the History of Hungary in Hungarian. Education as such has undergone manifold changes during the last fifteen years. The latest - and perhaps the most important - of them is the reform of the upper level final examination ("A" level type examination). The new format of the examination was introduced last year, and as a consequence, pupils in bilingual education did not really have a choice but to take it. Although things seem to have improved since last year, it is still a great challenge for schools to give an adequate preparation for both the normal and the upper level.  It is the latter which provides students with the extra points that are necessary for admission to the prestigious universities. This task is all the more difficult both for pupils and teachers as there is a lack of adequate course books for bilingual programmes. Foreign course books usually do not correspond to the Hungarian curriculum and it is also clear that translated material from Hungarian is not really appropriate for this type of teaching. As a result there is scant material development in schools and only scattered initiatives have been taken to start coordination on a national level. Material development is the teachers" responsibility solely which puts a very heavy load on these colleagues. Very few training opportunities are offered and teachers also face the problem of lack of time (MindMap_results.pdf) .

Staff development is another field where schools providing bilingual education may encounter difficulties. Teachers working in such classes are usually teachers of English and another subject like History, Biology, or Mathematics. These specialities, a foreign language together with a natural science, are not very frequently studied together by teachers and so schools are limited in the offer of subjects taught in the target language depending on their staff.  This also means that it is extremely hard to find replacement teachers outside the capital city. If the only teacher of English and Biology leaves the school for one reason or another, this may paralyse the bilingual teaching of Biology. The situation is even more difficult as far as Spanish is concerned, for Spanish is less frequently taught at universities and it is almost impossible to find Spanish teachers with another specialisation. For the moment, our school, the Herman Ottó Grammar School employs a native Spanish teacher of History and Geography but the ideal solution would be to have a Hungarian teacher of Spanish and one of these specialities, as native speakers usually stay only for a short period (maximum three years).

The presence of native speakers is obligatory and - as a matter of fact - absolutely necessary in bilingual education. While in French, for example, a network has been established to provide schools with native teachers, it is not at all easy to find native teachers of English. They often stay no longer than one school-year, so by the time they adjust to Hungarian school-life, they are nearly gone. In contrast, in order to consolidate the position of Spanish in the Hungarian educational system, the Spanish government helps by providing material such as course books as well as native teachers.

In spite of all the difficulties listed above bilingual education is still very popular in Hungary and is a very sought after specialisation in the Herman Ottó Grammar School of Miskolc, too. It has to be said that bilingual education gives a chance to "smaller" languages (in our case, Spanish) to be taught in an intensive way and to gain importance. Due to enhanced language learning and the possibility of extracurricular activities such as drama or participating in different international projects, our pupils learn to use the language in everyday life and for professional purposes as well. Quality language learning and teaching is ensured which increases the chances for these pupils of getting in, and coping with the requirements of English departments in higher education.


Bilingual education has gained ground in Hungary and is very popular among pupils and their parents.  Starting from the elementary level, but mostly at secondary level, schools are trying to respond to the increasing demand for teaching non-language subjects through foreign languages.  This was the main reason for introducing bilingual education in English and in Spanish at the Herman Ottó Grammar School in Miskolc. In spite of the difficulties encountered in the area of staff development and due to constantly changing government policy, the school is coping very well. Almost a hundred per cent of our students following the English programme have been admitted to university, and these students have been successful in subjects other than English too.

The Role of the Head teacher in the Implementation of Plurilingual Education
Project work for pluringualism
Diversifying the language curriculum
Let's begin with the youngest
Challenges and opportunities of bilingual education
Social and economic considerations in setting up a new bilingual programme
Using a foreign language as a medium of instruction