Exams & Curriculum

Supporting Bilingual Identities: The IB Bilingual Diploma

(Please note that this article has been already published on ISZL.ch)

Contributor: Lorna Caputo, First Language and English as an Additional Language (EAL) Coordinator, International School of Zug & Luzern

“Being fully bilingual is such a strong advantage in our world today and I have the opportunity to have that.” – ISZL Student

The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) enables young, multilingual people to develop their bilingualism so they can confidently navigate diverse environments and develop global competencies. Language is one of the main elements we use as we develop a sense of how we fit into our family, school, local area the world at large. By coming to grips with how our languages contribute to the complexities of our own identity and can even influence our way of thinking, we can better understand other cultures and alternative conceptual frameworks.

The International Baccalaureate Organisation believes that valuing all languages strengthens intercultural awareness (IBO, 2014), and encourages its schools to create educational pathways that support and develop multilingualism. The IBO’s core belief that linguistic awareness, plurilingualism and global mindedness are strongly linked is shared with other global institutions, such as UNESCO and the Council for Europe.

In a recent publication on the future of education, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic body, discussed the importance of personalised learning environments that acknowledge and further develop students’ prior knowledge, skills, values and attitudes through their curricula (OECD, 2018). Acknowledging students’ previous linguistic and educational experiences in an increasingly diverse world and finding creative ways to develop these is a challenge for many schools.

What is clear is that multilingualism is valued beyond the home and school. In a 2014 article on bilingualism, the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Leszek Borysiewicz, discussed the importance of recognising first languages (also known as ‘home’ or ‘heritage languages’) and the need for bilingual children to have access to additional opportunities to develop their language skills (in Ward, 2014). While multilingualism is not always a prerequisite for university entrance, being able to access courses, publish, and present in more than one language, is definitely advantageous.

Looking at the world of business, Damari et al (2017) looked at several studies conducted into the demand for multilingualism in the US labour market, and concluded that multilingual candidates for some jobs have an advantage over monolingual candidates. The advantages of multilingualism for education and employment are clearly demonstrated by such research.

At the International School of Zug & Luzern (ISZL), not only do older students have the opportunity to learn more than two foreign languages through the Language Acquisition (or ‘Language B’) programme, but there is also a comprehensive First Language programme (also known as ‘mother tongue’). In the Middle School and High School, formal first language classes aimed towards balanced bilingualism are offered in the curriculum. In the final stage of the IB, the Diploma Program, students combine different courses to meet the DP’s requirements; it is in this selection that bilingual students can opt to study two first language courses (‘Language A’). By studying two languages at native-speaker level, these students are awarded the prestigious ‘IB Bilingual Diploma’, which recognises the high level of bilingualism they have attained. Interestingly, even though many candidates taking the IB Diploma are bilingual, fewer candidates are awarded the bilingual diploma than the standard diploma, but this is changing (Rivera et.al, 2014). One of the major challenges of taking the bilingual diploma is that these students need to have maintained and developed their bilingualism over the years. While there are several ways to maintain academic bilingualism, the most common approaches include being schooled in other languages, attending first language programmes (after-school or as part of the curriculum), and/or having private tutors.

In Rivera’s 2014 research, students were asked why they chose to take the Bilingual Diploma. The student respondents ranked several reasons, but two key beliefs emerged: that the Bilingual Diploma would benefit them in their careers and that it enhanced their future education options. Importantly, of the bilingual students that chose not to pursue the Bilingual Diploma, the main reasons offered were that the level of their second language was too low and that they did not consider multilingualism to be important; where the former indicates that sufficient language support was not offered at earlier stages of education, the latter suggests that the students (as well as parents and educators) were not aware of the research on the connection between multilingualism and education/employment possibilities.

The good news for ISZL is that the number of students being awarded the IB Bilingual Diploma has increased significantly in recent years. More and more students who took the MYP Language A option as part of their MYP studies are indeed continuing on to the Diploma level. In order to establish why ISZL students opt for the Bilingual Diploma, I asked students currently in the programme to give me their thoughts. I will give the final word to them:

In reference to Higher Education:
“Studying my own language brings me closer to home and makes it possible to get into the university I want to get into.”
“Studying two language As is a way to perfect both languages and it was as predicted, a huge advantage as it led me to be accepted into my first choice university which required full bilingual proficiency.”
“I wasn’t sure where I wanted to study, so having two language A subjects was a plus.”

In reference to their futures:
“Being fully bilingual is such a strong advantage in our world today and I have the opportunity to have that.”
“Studying these two languages in depth allows me to prepare myself for the future.”
“Having been granted the chance to study both English A and my mother tongue as a Language A was not an opportunity I was going to leave behind.”

In reference to their sense of self:
“It’s a way to keep in touch with where I come from and my family.”
“Being bilingual is part of who I am.”
“For me it is important to remember my first language and to develop English.”
“It has allowed me to develop my bilingual skills and shaped me as a student.”


Damari, R. R., Rivers, W. P., Brecht, R. D., Gardner, P., Pulupa, C., & Robinson, J. (2017). The demand for multilingual human capital in the US labor market. Foreign Language Annals.

IBO (2014) Language and Learning in IB Programmes. Cardiff: IBO.

OECD. (2018, April 5). 2018 [Publication]. Retrieved April 15, 2018, www.oecd.org/education/2030/E2030%20Position%20Paper%20(05.04.2018).pdf

Rivera, C. (2014, June). 2014 [Executive Summary]. IB Diploma Programme Study: Factors influencing students to earn a Bilingual Diploma.Retrieved April 15, 2018. http://www.ibo.org/globalassets/publications/ib-research/dp/bilingual-diploma-final-report.pdf

Ward, L. (2014, June 2). Bilingualism offers ‘huge advantages’, claims Cambridge University head. The Guardian. Retrieved April 15, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jun/02/cambridge-university-boss-wants-languages-pushed-in-uk-classrooms


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