Bilingualism/Bilingual education

Bilingualism Bilingual Education 2195
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Bilingualism is the ability to communicate in two different languages. Bilingual education is the use of two different languages in classroom instruction.


Languages are learned most readily during the toddler and preschool years and, to a lesser extent, during elementary school. Therefore, children growing up in bilingual homes and/or receiving bilingual education easily acquire both languages. Throughout much of the world, bilingualism is the norm for both children and adults. In the past, immigrants to the United States often began learning and using English in their homes as soon as possible. In the early 2000s, however, many immigrants choose to maintain their native language at home. Bilingual children are at an advantage in this increasingly multilingual nation.

Bilingual language development

Language acquisition is very similar for monolingual and bilingual children, although some experts view bilingualism as a specialized case of language development . Children growing up in homes where two different languages are spoken usually acquire both languages simultaneously. Although their acquisition of each language may be somewhat slower than that of children who are acquiring a single language, their development in the two languages combined is equivalent to that of monolingual children. Bilingual language learners proceed through the same patterns of language and speech development as children acquiring a single language. Their first words usually are spoken at about one year of age, and they begin stringing two words together at about age two. Even if the two languages do not share similarities in pronunciation, children eventually master them both.

There are two major patterns of bilingual language development, both occurring before the age of three. Simultaneous bilingualism occurs when a child learns both languages at the same time. In the early stages of simultaneous bilingual language development, a child may mix words, parts of words, and inflections from both languages in a single sentence. Sometimes this occurs because a child knows a word in one language but not in the other. Some bilingual children initially resist learning words for the same thing in two languages. Children also may experiment with their two languages for effect. During the second stage of bilingual language development, at age four or older, children gradually begin to distinguish between the two languages and use them separately, sometimes depending on where they are. One language may be used less formally to talk about home and family , whereas the other language may be used more formally, perhaps for relating events that took place outside the home. Often children find it easier to express a specific idea in one language rather than the other. Bilingual children also go through periods when one language is used more than the other. Some children may begin to prefer one language over the other, particularly if that language is spoken more frequently in their home or school. Bilingual children usually are not equally skilled in both languages. Often they understand more in one language but speak more in the other.

Sequential bilingualism occurs when children use their knowledge of and experience with a first language to rapidly acquire a second language. The first language may influence the way in which they learn and use their second language. Learning the second language is easier for children if the sounds, words, and vocabulary of the languages are similar.

Bilingual language development usually proceeds more smoothly when both languages are introduced early and simultaneously. When the parents each use a different language with their child, the child is less likely to experience language confusion.

Research indicates that there are numerous advantages to bilingualism. Bilingualism has been reported to improve the following skills:

  • verbal and linguistic abilities
  • general reasoning
  • concept formation
  • divergent thinking
  • metalinguistic skills, the ability to analyze and talk about language and control language processing

These abilities are important for reading development in young children and may be a prerequisite for later learning to read and write in a new language.

Types of bilingual education

Bilingual education is common throughout the world and involves hundreds of languages. In the United States bilingualism is assumed to mean English and another language, often Spanish. More than 300 languages are spoken in the United States. In New York City schools, classroom instruction is given in 115 different languages. Bilingual education includes all teaching methods that are designed to meet the needs of English-language learners (ELLs), also referred to as "limited English proficient" (LEP) students.

There are numerous approaches to bilingual education, although all include English as a second language (ESL). ESL is English language instruction that includes little or no use of a child's native language. ESL classes often include students with many different primary languages. Some school districts use a variety of approaches to bilingual education, designing individual programs based on the needs of each child.

A common approach is transitional bilingual education (TBE). TBE programs include ESL; however, some or all academic classes are conducted in children's primary languages until they are well-prepared for English-only classes. Even children who converse well in English may not be ready to learn academic subjects in English. Often these children spend part of the school day in an intensive ESL program and the remainder of the day receiving instruction in their primary language. Bilingual teachers may help students improve their primary language skills. Bilingual/bicultural programs include instruction in the history and culture of a student's ethnic heritage. Studies have shown that children who receive several years of instruction in their native language learn English faster and have higher overall academic achievement levels that those who do not.

Two-way bilingual or dual-language programs use both English and a second language in classrooms made up of both ELLs and native English speakers. The goal is for both groups to become bilingual. Children in twoway bilingual education programs have been found to outperform their peers academically.

Many educators—and a segment of the public—believe in the English immersion approach, even if ELLs do not understand very much in the classroom. In this approach nearly all instruction is in English, and there is little or no use of other languages. If the teacher is bilingual, students may be allowed to ask questions in their native language, but the teacher answers them in English. Some schools employ structured English immersion or sheltered English, in which teachers use pictures, simple reading words, and other techniques to teach ELLs both English and academic subjects.

History of bilingual education

Although bilingual education has been used in the United States for more than 200 years, the 1968 Title VII amendment to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) instituted federal grants for bilingual education programs. This legislation led to the development of appropriate teaching and learning materials and training for teachers of bilingual students.

In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the San Francisco school system had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by not providing English-language instruction for Chinese-speaking students. All school districts were directed to serve ELLs adequately, and bilingual education quickly spread throughout the United States. In the 1980s a group called Asian Americans United filed a class-action lawsuit charging that Asian Americans were not being provided with an equitable education because they were not offered bilingual classes. The result of this suit was the creation of sheltered ESL, in which ESL students take all of their classes together.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001—President George W. Bush's major education initiative—reauthorized the ESEA. It also imposed penalties on schools that did not raise the achievement levels of ELLs for at least two consecutive years. Although most research indicates that it often takes seven years for ELLs to attain full English fluency, the new federal law allows these children only three years before they must take standardized tests in English. Schools with large numbers of children speaking many different languages are particularly disadvantaged under the law. A 2003 survey by the National Education Association found that 22,000 schools in 44 states failed to make the required yearly progress on standardized tests, primarily because of low test scores by ELLs and disabled students. The National Association for Bilingual Education claims that NCLB sets arbitrary goals for achievement and uses "invalid and unreliable assessments." Furthermore, although the NCLB requires teachers to be qualified, as of 2004 there is a severe shortage of qualified teachers for ELLs. Some communities have developed early-intervention programs for Spanish-speaking parents and preschoolers to help children develop their Spanish language skills in preparation for entering English-only schools.

In May of 2004, the U.S. Department of Education and faith-based community leaders launched an initiative to inform Hispanic, Asian, and other parents of ELLs about the NCLB. It featured the "Declaration of Rights for Parents of English Language Learners under No Child Left Behind."

As of 2004 American public schools include about 11 million children of immigrants. Approximately 5.5 million students—10 percent of the public school enrollment—speak little or no English. Spanish speakers account for 80 percent of these children. About one-third of children enrolled in urban schools speak a primary language other than English in their homes. Between 2001 and 2004, 19 states reported increases of 50 to 200 percent in Spanish-speaking students. ELLs are the fastest-growing public school population in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Between 2000 and 2002, nationwide ELL enrollment increased 27 percent. About 25 percent of California public school children are ELLs. However, there is a profound shortage of bilingual and ESL teachers throughout the United States. Although 41 percent of U.S. teachers have ELLs in their classrooms, only about 2.5 percent of them have degrees in ESL or bilingual education. The majority of these teachers report that they are not well-prepared for teaching ELLs. About 75 percent of ELLs are in poverty schools, where student turnover is high and many teachers have only emergency credentials.

Opposition to bilingual education

In 1980 voters in Dade County, Florida, made English their official language. In 1981 California Senator S. I. Hayakawa introduced a constitutional amendment to make English the country's official language. In 1983 Hayakawa founded U.S. English, Inc., which grew to include 1.8 million members by 2004. U.S. English argues the following premises:

  • The unifying effect of the English language must be preserved in the United States.
  • Bilingual education fails to adequately teach English.
  • Learning English quickly in English-only classrooms is best for ELLs, both academically and socially.
  • Any special language instruction should be short-term and transitional.

In 1986 California voters passed Proposition 63 that made English the state's official language. Other states did the same. In 1998 Californians passed Proposition 227, a referendum that attempted to eliminate bilingual education by allowing only one year of structured English immersion, followed by mainstreaming. Similar initiatives have appeared on other state ballots. However, only 9 percent of the California children attained English proficiency in one year, and most remained in the immersion programs for a second year. Prior to the new law only 29 percent of California ELLs were in bilingual programs, in part because of a shortage of qualified teachers. Since the law allowed parents to apply for waivers, 12 percent of the ELLs were allowed to remain in bilingual classes.

In January of 2004, as part of a lawsuit settlement, the California State Board of Education was forced to radically revise the implementation of their "Reading First" program. Previously California had withheld all of the $133 million provided by NCLB from ELLs enrolled in alternative bilingual programs.

Common problems

Language delay

Language and learning difficulties occur with the same frequency in monolingual and bilingual children. However, as the number of bilingual children in the United States increases, it becomes increasingly important for parents and pediatricians to understand the normal patterns of bilingual language development in order to recognize abnormal language development in a bilingual child.

If a bilingual child has a speech or language problem, it should be apparent in both languages. However detecting language delays or abnormalities in bilingual children can be difficult. Signs of possible language delay in bilingual children include the following:

  • not making sounds between two and six months of age
  • fewer than one new word per week in children aged six to 15 months
  • fewer than 20 words in the two languages combined by 20 months of age
  • limited vocabulary without word combinations in children aged two to three years of age
  • prolonged periods without using speech
  • difficulty remembering words
  • missing normal milestones of language development in the first language of a sequentially bilingual child

Language development in bilingual children can be assessed by a bilingual speech/language pathologist or by a professional who has knowledge of the rules and structure of both languages, perhaps with the assistance of a translator or interpreter.

English-only education

ELLs in English-only programs often fall behind academically. Many ELLs who are assessed using traditional methods are referred for special education . Such children often become school drop-outs.

Parental concerns

Parents in bilingual households can help their children by taking the following steps:

  • speaking the language in which they are most comfortable
  • being consistent regarding how and with whom they use each language
  • using each language's grammar in a manner that is appropriate for the child's developmental stage
  • keeping children interested and motivated in language acquisition


Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) —The 1965 federal law that is reauthorized and amended every five years.

English as a second language (ESL) —English language instruction for English language learners (ELLs) that includes little or no use of a child's native language; a component of all bilingual education programs.

English language learner (ELL) —A student who is learning English as a second language; also called limited English proficient (LEP).

Immersion —A language education approach in which English is the only language used.

Limited English proficient (LEP) —Used to identify children who have insufficient English to succeed in English-only classrooms; also called English language learner (ELL).

Metalinguistic skills —The ability to analyze language and control internal language processing; important for reading development in children.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act —The 2001 reauthorization of the ESEA, President George W. Bush's major education initiative.

Sequential bilingualism —Acquiring first one language and then a second language before the age of three.

Sheltered English —Structured English immersion; English instruction for ELLs that focuses on content and skills rather than the language itself; uses simplified language, visual aids, physical activity, and the physical environment to teach academic subjects.

Sheltered ESL —Bilingual education in which ESL students attend all of their classes together.

Simultaneous bilingualism —Acquiring two languages simultaneously before the age of three.

Structured English immersion —Sheltered English; English-only instruction for ELLs that uses simplified language, visual aids, physical activity, and the physical environment to teach academic subjects.

Transitional bilingual education (TBE) —Bilingual education that includes ESL and academic classes conducted in a child's primary language.

Two-way bilingual education —Dual language programs in which English and a second language are both used in classes consisting of ELLs and native-English speakers.

See also Language development .



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Margaret Alic, PhD

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