CLIL: What It Is, and Why Language Teachers Will Find It Delightful

It’s time to take a break from teaching language.


Because with a rich, meaningful context, your students can learn language without needing you to explicitly teach it.

And that’s where the revolutionary teaching approach CLIL comes in, which stands for Content and Language Integrated Learning.

We’re going to take a look at what it is, how it works and why you’ll definitely want to apply it to your own classes.

CLIL: What It Is, and Why Language Teachers Will Find It Delightful

What Is Content and Language Integrated Learning?

CLIL, as a term, can be traced back to 1994 and Professor David Marsh of the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. But while the term “CLIL” can be a relatively recent European innovation, the concept of CLIL has been used long before 1994.

CLIL is simply the teaching of subjects to students in a language that is not their own. So we have two elements to look at here:

  • The subject: This can be anything from academic subjects like physics and history, to even life skills taught in a classroom context.
  • The medium of instruction: This is the language used inside the classroom to explain the subject.

So for example, in a class of American students, a CLIL class could involve:

  • Mathematics in Hindi
  • Automotive engineering in German
  • Culinary arts in French
  • Philosophy in Greek
  • History in Chinese

Just as “integrated” suggests, a CLIL class hits two birds with one stone: the subject matter and the target language.

But let’s be clear, CLIL is not a language class. It’s a subject class taught in a certain tongue. While students are learning about the subject matter, they’re also learning a new language alongside it.

Because a foreign language is used, students might have a disorienting experience initially, which is to be expected. For all intents and purposes, it’s really just a subset of the learning experience. There will be times when students may hug a foreign language dictionary like their life depended on it, or they might just be going off of gestures and visual aids during the initial lectures.

But that’s okay. Because over time, in the process of researching and learning about the subject, working the assignments, talking with classmates and generally going about the usual coursework, new linguistic competencies rise to the surface.

Example of a CLIL class

Let’s look a bit closer at how this could come about. Let’s head to the prestigious culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris–the hallowed training ground that produced some of the most beloved chefs the world over: Julia Childs, Giada De Laurentiis, Ming Tsai etc. Classes in Le Cordon Bleu are given in French, mainly because the instructors leading the classes are French.

Students may come from anywhere in the world, and whether they know the difference between bonjour (hello; good morning) and au revoir (goodbye), students will no doubt learn French by attending this culinary school. In effect, they’re attending a CLIL class.

For example, in the first week of class, students might hear a chef say the French word “tranche” many times. By looking and closely observing what is happening in class, students will see that the chef is always slicing stuff every time tranche is mentioned. Thus, students can conclude that it has something to do with cutting, slicing or dicing. (That narrowing down of definition, at that point, is enough for the moment.)

A Google search during the break could validate the students’ assumption, and they’ll discover that tranche is the French word for “slice.”

Coming out of the “CLIL” class, students now know not only how to slice the different types of meats and vegetables, but they’ve learned new vocabulary as well. So now when these students meet French phrases like une tranche de porc (a slice of pork) or tranche de vie (slice of life), they’re already halfway there in figuring it out.

And that’s how CLIL works. It’s not a language class, it’s a class about a subject that the students are very interested in, taught in a language students are not familiar with. But in the process of learning about the subject, the students acquire linguistic competence as well.

Why It Works: CLIL’s Underlying Principles

Language is learned in context

In CLIL, the subject matter provides the fodder as well as the communicative context in which the target language is learned. That means every vocabulary word, phrase and concept is both immediately relevant and meaningful. There is a direct context in which the word becomes useful, vivid and alive. In a French cooking class, or a Greek philosophy class, the linguistic strides have a base to grow from.

Students learn the words, phrases and concepts as they need them.

In fact, in CLIL, students often first feel the necessity of learning the word/concept before they actually discover what it means. Students might be thinking, “I have no idea what the professor is saying—I don’t even know what tranche means. But I need to learn it if I ever want to make this dish.”

Compare this to a dry vocabulary list, where students first learn the translation of certain words or phrases and then think up scenarios where they can apply them. In many language classes, for example, students might first learn the French expression Allons-y! (Let’s go!) and later think of situations where this could be appropriate. Meanwhile, students in a French cooking class would hear “Allons-y! Allons-y! Allons-y! ” as the chef walks around the tables, spurring students to chop, slice and dice faster.

The lessons also include authentic material in the target language. This allows students to hear the language as it is actually spoken and can include written texts and videos such as those found on FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

And because language is learned in context, students have an easier time saving the lessons in long-term memory. They have a replete of anchors that could remind them. In a way, they have the whole classroom experience tied to it.

In rote memorization, the mental connections are not as strong. The vocabulary given sound so random, even when they’re grouped topically! Sometimes there’s even a disconnect or incongruence for the students, and they begin asking, “Why do we have to learn this? Where am I going to use this?” (Like I said, these questions are automatically answered in a CLIL class. Students see the need to learn it first, before they actually know what a word means.)

In the end, context always wins, lasting far longer and stronger than rote memorization.

Language is learned naturally

CLIL not only provides the context for learning, but it does so naturally and in a way that mimics how we learn our first language as kids.

It’s important to be reminded that when kindergarten students arrive for the very first day of school, they’re already fluent in their first language. They can communicate with each other, and can tell the teacher what is wrong or what it is they want.

This competence was acquired sans any grammar lesson.

In CLIL, there are hardly any grammar lessons. It doesn’t concern itself with surface forms like sentence structure or verb conjugation. Proper observance of rules come far second to the comprehension of language.

That’s just how we learned as children. That’s why there are plenty of native speakers who have a hard time explaining the rules of grammar of their native tongue, because they didn’t learn it that way. They acquired their language in the normal course of life, interacting with mom and dad, listening as adults talk to each other, watching cartoons. It was not formalized training; it was a very practical socialization.

A CLIL class offers that same scenario to students—to see language in action, being used to communicate in a concentrated and relevant context.

In addition, CLIL understands that in learning any language, errors, guesses and negotiation of meaning are all part of the journey. Although not explicitly stated, mistakes are part of the curriculum.

In the example about the Le Cordon Bleu students who found the meaning of tranche via a Google search, they may have tried out numerous different spellings, like tranch, traunch, trunsch. (Because French pronunciation have these little twists and turns of the tongue, right?)

It’s this active involvement with the language and the engagement of critical thinking skills that make CLIL so effective. It’s not some passive, pie-in-the-sky thing. Language is not some future occurrence that students gets ready for in case they encounter it. Language is alive and in their face, and they’ll have to do something about it, wrestle with it and use it.

Language is innately tied to motivation

The importance of motivation in language acquisition has already been established in several studies.

What is great about a CLIL class is that it efficiently uses students’ innate motivation for the subject matter (like history, chemistry or math) and indirectly channels it to a target language. Because subject matter and medium of instruction are inseparable and intertwined, the target language ultimately benefits from the natural interest a student has for the topic.

For example, a student who is incredibly interested in the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso might take an entire course about him, in Spanish. Although learning about Picasso is his ultimate driving force, learning the Spanish language becomes a desirable collateral damage to this passion. Not too bad, right?

In a way, CLIL starts with the student’s passion and uses that to fuel learning. Again, students won’t be asking, “Why am I studying this? Where will I use this?” They will have already answered those questions for themselves.

As language teachers, when we’re looking for illustrations to help explain a point, we try to look for examples or illustrations that students will find interesting, something that will resonate with them or perk up their attention and pique their curiosity. Well, CLIL starts off with a really big hook—the very topic that interests the student, thus warding off many of the motivational issues in learning the language.

Nobody’s saying that the journey will be easy, especially when the first language is rarely, if at all, referenced. What CLIL hopes is that by integrating language and content, students will go over the natural hurdles of learning with more motivation and greater interest.

Using CLIL in Language Classes

Since I’ve been stressing that CLIL is a subject class, not a language class, you’re probably wondering, “Can I still use CLIL if I’m not specialized in any other subject matter like physics, history or music?”

Of course! You don’t have to go back to university and take up a new major. You can simply apply CLIL to an individual lesson. How might we go about this?

First, in order to provide a meaningful context, choose a topic that would interesting for your class. For example, maybe as a lesson in your French class, you can teach them how to make a fruit salad. (It’s not a Le Cordon Bleu recipe, but hey, it will serve the purpose.)

Bring the ingredients to class and set them on a table for the class to see. As a language teacher, you’ll be tempted to turn this into a language lesson and proceed to immediately translate the names of the fruits into English and display them for the whole class to see. But don’t. It will only sound like you’re giving them a new set of vocabulary words to memorize, the only difference being you brought actual objects for them to see.

As a CLIL lesson, think of it as having a French cooking show, with your students as live audience. Talk to your students while you’re slicing up the fruits. You may have to repeatedly point to an apple and say, “La pomme. La pomme. La pomme,” in order for them to get that you’re referring to the apple, but don’t give them the English translations. Your class will feel better and remember more if they discover the translation for themselves rather than you directly giving it to them.

Continue making your fruit salad. After finishing your recipe, only then can you review what the class has learned. But even then, you don’t have to give them the direct translations for the fruits. (You don’t want your students to be thinking, “Pomme is apple in English.” You want them to think “pomme” the moment they see that red fruit in your hand.)

Or for your Spanish class, if you feel like playing the role of a math teacher, you could teach them simple math skills.

Start with basic addition and subtraction, for example. Again, as a language teacher, you’ll be tempted to teach translations, but don’t. That’s what you do in a language class.

When doing CLIL, think of yourself as an actual math teacher teaching to a bunch of native Spanish speakers who would have no need for translations. If your students begin to feel that the whole exercise is actually becoming a mathematics class in Spanish instead of a Spanish language class, then you’re doing great.

Perhaps you can begin by writing the numbers and their Spanish names across the board (“1 = uno, 2 = dos 3 = tres. . .”). This will serve as a handy reference that your students can turn to in the course of the math lesson.

Then write some basic addition and subtraction equations to serve as practice exercises.

With 3 + 1, for example, you might go one term at a time and point to the figure “3” and repeatedly and say, “Tres, tres, tres” and do the same with “+” (mas) and “1” (uno) before you say, “Tres mas uno.”

You can then finish the equation by writing the equals sign while saying, “Tres mas uno es igual a…” (Three plus one is equal to…)

By looking at the reference you’ve provided beforehand, your class should be able to determine that the answer to the equation is cuatro (four).

And so you’re actually teaching math, not language.


With CLIL, you stop being the language teacher for the moment, and become a subject teacher instead. CLIL-based lessons provide students with meaningful context with which they can learn and anchor the target language, learning it naturally.

CLIL the general method and CLIL as applied in a language class are still in their infancy, to be sure. While more work needs to be done in coming up with teaching techniques and strategies, what is clear today is that CLIL can be a great way to teach a new language, broaden horizons and bring greater understanding among diverse groups of people.

Welcome to the world of CLIL—you’ll never see language teaching the same way again!

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