Bilingualism refers to the regular use of two languages by speakers who have a high level of proficiency in each language. In contrast, multilingualism refers to the regular use of three or more languages on a regular basis. Between one third and one half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. In the United States, bilingualism and multilingualism are much less common than in other countries. According to the 2000 United States census, one in five respondents indicated that they spoke a language other than English at home. Public schools report that approximately one child in eight speaks a language other than English at home. In the coming decades, the number of bilingual speakers in the United States is expected to rise due to continued immigration.
Children who are raised in an environment where more than one language is used on a regular basis can easily acquire two or more languages concurrently. This type of bilingualism is referred to as simultaneous bilingualism and contrasts with sequential bilingualism, which occurs when a second language is learned after a first language has already been acquired. Circumstances giving rise to simultaneous bilingualism include when each parent is a native speaker of a different language or when the infant is raised in a home where a single language is used, but there is regular contact with a speaker of another language, such as a relative or household worker. There is no evidence that learning more than one language during childhood places an unmanageable burden on the child or results in long-term delays in the use of either language.
Becoming bilingual is much more easily accomplished during early childhood than later in life. Eric Lenneberg argued that the ideal time for learning any language was from birth to puberty. His view was called the critical period hypothesis and is described in his 1967 book Biological Foundations of Language. Following this view, learning a second language after puberty may require more effort and be less successful than learning a second language during early childhood. In the United States, most students receive second language instruction after puberty in high school or college. In general, this type of second language instruction rarely results in native-like proficiency in a second language. In countries where the rates of bilingualism are higher than in the United States, school children routinely receive second language instruction in elementary school. This comparison suggests that one factor in producing large numbers of highly skilled bilinguals may be providing second language instruction to children before the critical period has ended. However, it must be noted that the motivation to learn a second language is also an important factor in determining whether one who receives second language instruction will become bilingual. It may be the case that high school and college students in the United States are generally less motivated to the learn second languages than students in other countries.
There is compelling evidence that learning more than one language during childhood produces benefits in general cognitive development. Having experience with more than one language may enable the child to achieve a mental flexibility at an earlier age than monolingual children. This mental flexibility may enable the bilingual children to develop an early awareness of how language works. Research reported by Sandra Ben-Zeev in 1977 showed that bilingual children outperformed monolingual children on verbal as well as nonverbal tasks. Ben-Zeev suggested that the bilingual children were more skilled than monolingual children at discovering and applying the rules required in each type of task. Research reported by Ellen Bialystok in 1991 showed that bilingual children outperformed monolingual children on verbal and nonverbal tasks requiring children to direct attention to a task in the presence of distracting information. However, it must be noted that children who succeed at becoming bilingual at an early age may differ in a variety of ways from same-age children who are not bilingual. It may be the case that the actual cause of bilingual children’s superior performance on cognitive tasks also accounts for their ability to become bilingual at an early age. It is not known how many young children receive exposure to more than one language, yet fail to become bilingual.
In the United States, there has been resistance to bilingual education since the end of World War I, when the use of languages other than English was viewed as un-American. In 1968, the Bilingual Education Act was established to provide federal money to local programs addressing the needs of children for whom English was a second language. In 1974, state and local governments were required to meet the needs of school children with limited proficiency in English. The United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Lau v. Nichol that when schools fail to provide bilingual instruction to school children who have limited proficiency in English, they are violating the children’s civil rights. The ruling was a landmark for advocates of bilingual education; however, the ruling did not mandate how bilingual education should be delivered to students. Consequently, local communities implemented a variety of strategies to avoid violating the law.
One of the most commonly used bilingual education programs is Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE). In TBE, school children study English but receive instruction in all other academic subjects in their native language. In such programs, children eventually transition into classrooms in which English is the only language of instruction. The length of time children are allowed to transition to English may vary across school districts. Many school systems use transition periods of only 3 years. A second type of program is called two-way or dual programs. In these programs, children receive instruction from bilingual teachers who encourage students to improve their skills in their native language as well as English. These programs may use the students’ native languages not only to teach them the standard curriculum but also to teach them about their ethnic heritage, culture, and history. In 1992, the National Academy of Sciences published a report reviewing studies that evaluated bilingual education strategies. The results suggested that students who receive bilingual education scholastically outperformed students who did not receive bilingual education.
In the 1970s, immigration to the United States reached record levels. Four million legal immigrants and approximately 8 million undocumented or illegal immigrants came to reside in the United States. Since then, many federal, state, and local agencies have addressed the need for multilingual services, for education as well as voting, tax collection, delivery of social services, disaster assistance, and information about consumer rights. Many states now offer driver’s license tests in languages other than English. For example, Massachusetts offers driver’s license tests in 24 languages. In Miami, Florida, there are areas of the city where street signs are printed in both English and Spanish. In New York City, classroom instruction is provided in 115 different languages. Projections of future immigration suggest that the numbers of immigrants in the United States will continue to rise in the coming decades. It is reasonable to assume that there will be increased burdens placed on schools and government agencies to provide services in languages other than English.
Data from the 2000 United States Census confirm that English remains the most widely spoken language in the United States with 215.4 million speakers. The second most widely spoken language in the United States was Spanish with 28.1 million, followed by Chinese with 2 million speakers. The language with the largest proportional increase in the number of speakers was Russian. The number of Russian speakers nearly tripled in the 1990s, from 242,000 to 706,000. The second largest proportional increase was among speakers of French Creole whose number of speakers more than doubled, from 188,000 to 453,000. Despite the growing linguistic diversity of the United States, the vast majority of U.S. residents use English on a regular basis. Overall, 92% of respondents in the 2000 U.S. Census reported having no difficulty speaking English.
There has been opposition to bilingual education in public schools by the English-only movement. The movement is composed of a number of political groups who have supported making English the official language of the United States. There are 28 states in which English has been distinguished as an official language. In Hawaii, English and Hawaiian are recognized as official languages. In New Mexico, English and Spanish are recognized as official languages. However, the United States government has not yet identified any language as the official national language.
While current rates of bilingualism in the United States are well below of those in other parts of the world, the number of speakers for whom English is a second language is expected to rise in the United States. The increase in bilingualism will continue to create challenges for local schools and government agencies and fuel the political debate regarding the extent to which education and government services should be provided in languages other than English.
- Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), http://www.nabe.org/
- Ben-Zeev, S. (1977). The influence of bilingualism on cognitive strategy and cognitive development. Child Development,48, 1009–1018.
- Bialystok, E. (1991). Language processing in bilingual children. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
- Bialystok, , & Hakuta, K. (1994). In other words: The science and psychology of second language acquisition. New York: Basic Books.
- Crawford, J. (1999). Bilingual education: History, politics, theory and practice. Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services.
- Hakuta, (1986). The mirror of language: The debate on bilingualism. New York: Basic Books.
- Lenneberg, (1967). Biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley.