Bilingualism: Problem or Resource?

By James Crawford

An eye-catching full-page advertisement appeared in the New York Timesfor July 25, 1989. “IF SOME N.Y. EDUCATORS GET THEIR WAY,” warned the 96-point headline, “THIS IS THE KIND OF FUTURE MANY OF OUR CHILDREN WILL FACE.” Underneath was the picture of a stereotypical low-status worker: a dishwasher.

U.S. English [a national lobbying group advocating that English be declared the nation’s official language] thereby launched a furious lobbying campaign against bilingual education in New York State. Its target was the Board of Regents, the overseer of public schools and universities, then considering a proposal to keep limited-English-proficient (LEP) children a little longer in bilingual classrooms. Previously students had been reassigned as soon as they achieved minimal competence in English. But there were growing indications that this practice could be harmful. Students often lacked the language skills to keep up in all-English classrooms and many were falling behind, never to catch up. So the state Division of Bilingual Education recommended a more gradual transition to English.1 It noted that “the child’s first language should be regarded as an important cultural asset as well as a useful tool in learning English and school subjects. Research over the past two decades … lends strong support for developing students’ native language and literacy skills while they learn English.” Among other things, it asked the Regents to adopt a policy “that all students in New York State become proficient in English, and to the extent possible, in another language.”

For readers of the Times, U.S. English painted a different picture:

“Under this plan, children will be forced to study all subjects in their native languages, with very limited instruction in English. The result — hundreds of thousands of children will be denied the opportunity to participate fully in the American dream.

“Don’t be fooled. This plan will handicap, not help, children with a limited knowledge of English

“We at U.S. English believe that all children should be guaranteed the right to learn English.

“You can help. But time is running out. Call the Regents’ office, (518)474-5889. Insist that they stop this from going forward. Do it now. We cannot afford to be silent.”

Over the next few days, the Board of Regents received thousands of calls from members of the public who were understandably concerned. In response it scheduled a series of hearings throughout the state to clarify and discuss the proposed changes. U.S. English spent at least $72,000 to fly in critics of bilingual education, place newspaper ads, and otherwise attempt to influence the Regents’ decision. It accused the Division of Bilingual Education of promoting the “ideological goal of a multilingual America.” It staged a nation-wide petition drive, calling on U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos to withhold federal funds from New York programs that “hinder non-English speakers from learning English.“ And its P.R. apparatus churned out position papers and news advisories featuring additional erroneous claims: for example, that the plan would lead to the hiring of non-English speaking teachers and allow students to graduate from high school without speaking English.2 In the end, the lobbying blitz failed to convince the Regents — they adopted the new regulations intact — but

U.S. English did succeed in rallying public hostility against bilingual instruction.

Attacks on bilingual education have always served a propaganda function for “Official English” proponents. Increasingly, however, the schools themselves are becoming the focus of “English Only” campaigns, in which simplistic charges and media hype are impeding efforts to determine what is best for children.

Monolinguals have enough trouble as it is with the concept of learning in two languages. Set aside the ethnic politics, the melting-pot mythology, the nativist impulses, and bilingual education still offends the conventional wisdom. Opinion polls are consistent. While few Americans object to short-term help in the vernacular for children who come to school without English — that seems only humane — most fail to see why students should continue to receive such instruction for two, three, or more years. The idea is jarring to pragmatist habits of mind. Isn’t English the newcomer’s ticket to success in this country? Outside of a few places like Miami, foreign languages seem about as useful in the U.S. job market as foreign currency. Can it benefit linguistic minorities to isolate them in separate classrooms and prolong their reliance on Spanish or Chinese? In the past immigrant children appeared to pick up English right away. But nowadays most live in ethnic enclaves, often poor and crime-ridden, where everyone seems to speak their native tongue. The odds are already against these kids. If the schools won’t teach them English, who will?

This is the altruistic voice of American pragmatism. Then there’s the self-interested voice, which asks: Is it wise to encourage language diversity, considering the societal costs? Isn’t bilingualism wasteful, impractical, and divisive? In the United States we have the good fortune to speak one dominant language, which is fast becoming a universal language as well. Rather than squander this advantage, why not engage in a benevolent form of linguistic imperialism? Helping others to acquire English would appear to profit everyone, not least of all ourselves.

Monolingualism has become an ideal, an emblem of national strength, whereas bilingualism is seen as a curse, an oddity, a mark of low social status, or an expectation of foreign visitors to our shores.3 Few Anglo-Americans ever attempt to learn a second language, much less succeed, leaving the United States an underdeveloped country when it comes to linguistic resources. During the 1980s a trend toward stiffer requirements has yielded a substantial increase in foreign language study. Still, in 1990 fewer than two in five U.S. high school students were enrolled in a foreign language course. Normally this involved one or two years of Spanish, French, or sometimes German, but rarely Russian, Chinese, or Arabic.4

Unlike educated Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans, U.S. college graduates are seldom expected to speak any tongue but their own. The State Department has long since dropped its second-language requirement for Foreign Service recruits because too many promising applicants were thus disqualified. It even has trouble finding competent translators, a failing manifested by President Jimmy Carter when he visited Poland and tried to express, in his hosts’ language, an interest in better relations. “I desire the Poles carnally” is how Carter’s words came out.

What accounts for Americans’ obstinate monolingualism? Some argue that geographical isolation limits our opportunities to use other tongues. Foreign language skills learned in school almost always go to waste unless the student has a chance to live abroad. But if location is determinant, why are the Japanese and Australians so far ahead of us in language abilities? Why are tens of millions of Chinese studying English, while only a few thousand Americans are studying Mandarin? Another popular excuse is that U.S. residents have limited economic incentive to become bilingual. Few of our jobs require proficiency in languages other than English, and those that do (teaching, translating) pay modest salaries. On the other hand, the need for bilingual skills is growing with changing demography. Public employees, especially in law enforcement and social services, are now called upon to use Spanish, Vietnamese, or Creole — though generally without extra compensation.

While to some extent a matter of practicality, American monolingualism is principally a matter of values. It is supported by attitudes that emphasize the negative aspects of linguistic diversity and ignore the potential benefits. “Language-as-problem” is our dominant orientation, argues Richard Ruiz of the University of Arizona, as opposed to “language-as-resource.” Hence the treatment of bilingual education as a compensatory program for disadvantaged children. The prevailing transitional emphasis focuses on overcoming a disability — students’ lack of English — rather than on cultivating abilities that could be useful to this society.

Take the example of Korean, a language of growing commercial importance that is relatively difficult for English speakers to acquire. The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, offers an intensive 47-week course for military personnel, providing some 1,400 hours of instruction at a cost of $12,000 per student (in addition to salaries and benefits). While the DLI is reputed to be among the most successful language schools anywhere, its graduates achieve lower levels of oral proficiency in Korean than a 5-year-old native speaker brings to school. Nevertheless, Korean children are rarely encouraged to maintain or develop these skills. While they may be enrolled in a so-called bilingual program, the instructional goal is not bilingualism, but an expeditious transition to English. In U.S. public schools there are virtually no developmental bilingual programs in Korean (or in most other languages; there are a handful in Spanish). As the problem of English acquisition is solved, a valuable resource is squandered.

Monolinguals naturally cherish a number of myths about how a second language is acquired. On the one hand, the task seems terribly onerous. Americans who struggled to learn a foreign language in school recall the drudgery of memorizing vocabulary and grammar, not to mention the embarrassment of attempting actual communication. (Woe unto those who tried to use their high school French in Quebec!) As adults with little to show for the experience, they tend to despair of the whole idea of language learning. On the other hand, children make it look so effortless. They seem to “pick up” a strange tongue within a few weeks, chattering away with new playmates before their parents can utter a respectable sentence.

Although these perceptions reflect real phenomena, they are distorted by social prejudices. Many Americans conclude, for example, that the most effective way to learn a second language is to be “totally immersed” in it. Necessity seems to be the best motivator. Conversely, the option of relying on one’s mother tongue appears to weaken the incentive to learn another. This immersion fetish— the idea that maximum exposure and maximum will are what count in language acquisition — inspires much of the skepticism surrounding bilingual education. According to this reasoning, if children are allowed to keep their life preservers, they will never swim unassisted.

If science is often counterintuitive, psycholinguistics is especially so. Recent findings about bilingualism contradict many of our perceptions drawn from immediate experience. To wit: the detour of native-language instruction is often the best route to English acquisition. Accepting this kind of go-west-to-get-east idea means abandoning one worldview and embracing another.

Largely unbeknownst to the the American public, a conceptual revolution has taken place in this field since passage of the 1968 Bilingual Education Act. Two of its leaders are Stephen Krashen, of the University of Southern California, and Jim Cummins, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Neither researcher began with any “ideological” agenda favoring multilingualism. Krashen was seeking more effective ways to teach English as a second language, while Cummins was unconvinced by the traditional rationale for native-language instruction. Initially bilingual education was conceived as a temporary measure to cope with a “language mismatch” between home and school — a way to keep minority students from falling behind in other subjects while they learned English. But the researchers discovered a more significant benefit: a firm command of the first tongue facilitates the acquisition of a second.

While that may sound paradoxical, it makes good sense when the underlying principles are revealed. Krashen explains that “humans acquire language in only one way — by understanding messages, or by receiving comprehensible input.” That is, the more exposure to intelligible messages in a second language, the more second language will be acquired.5 Without quality input, however, quantity is meaningless.

Students learn very little English in a sink-or-swim classroom, where the teacher’s words sound like undifferentiated noise. The brain does not process what it cannot understand; hence any benefit of second-language exposure is lost.

Here is the first way in which bilingual education can promote English acquisition. It provides the context that makes English more comprehensible. Krashen illustrates this principle with what he calls the “Paris argument”:

Pretend that you have just received, and accepted, an attractive job offer in Paris. Your French, however, is limited. (You had two years of French in high school and one semester in college, and it was quite a while ago.) Before your departure, the company that is hiring you will send you the following information, in English: What to do when you arrive in Paris, how to get to your hotel, where and how to find a place to live, where to shop, what kinds of schools are available for your children, how French companies function (how people dress in the office, what time work starts and ends, etc.), and specific information about the functioning of the company and your responsibilities.

It would be very useful to get this information right away in English, rather than getting it gradually as you acquire French. If you get it right away, the world around you will be much more comprehensible, and you will thus acquire French more quickly. Anyone who agrees with this, in my opinion, agrees with the philosophy underlying bilingual education.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that children starting school differ from adults in their mastery of language. They have not finished acquiring the basic skills, literacy in particular, on which future academic achievement will depend. Here is the second way in which bilingual education can help. Instead of discarding children’s foundation in their native tongue and starting over from scratch, it facilitates a “transfer” of these proficiencies to English.

Two reading experts, Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman, have postulated that acquiring literacy is analogous to acquiring language: “We learn to read by reading,” by making sense of print. Extending this logic, Krashen reasons that “it will be much easier to learn to read in a language one already knows, since written material in that language will be more comprehensible.” If anything defies common sense, it is teaching children to read in English before they have acquired English, needlessly complicating the task. Better to build on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Literacy, mastered in the first tongue, never needs to be relearned in a second. “Once you can read, you can read. This ability

transfers to other languages that may be acquired,” Krashen explains.6 “Reading is the major source of our competence in vocabulary, spelling, writing style, and grammar.” Print also expands the child’s background knowledge and exposure to understandable messages, compounding the benefit.

Besides comprehensible input there is another variable that affects the brain’s response to second-language stimuli.

Krashen calls it the affective filter, a term for all the subjective barriers — high anxiety in a new environment, low motivation to learn the language, fear of sounding foolish — that can keep comprehensible input from reaching our “language acquisition device.” Simply put, the right attitude is essential. Smith suggests that it involves two things: an expectation of success and a desire to join “the club” of those who speak that language. Defeatism almost ensures that one will fail, and so do feelings of estrangement (whether condescension or inferiority) toward speakers of the second tongue. Among adults these are common obstacles. Here is where young children sometimes have an advantage, with their prepubescent lack of self-consciousness and their eagerness to make new friends. More open and motivated than their elders, they tend to pick up simple conversational skills more easily.

Yet this is not always the case. A positive attitude can be destroyed by insensitive educators. To devalue a minority child’s language is to devalue the child — at least, that’s how it feels on the receiving end. The longtime policy of punishing Chicano students for speaking Spanish is an obvious example. While such practices are now frowned upon, more subtle stigmas remain.

Children are quick to read the messages in adult behavior, such as preference for English on ceremonial occasions or a failure to stock the school library with books in Chinese. The “early-exit” approach to bilingual education, with its haste to push children into all-English tracks, may have a similar effect.

Whatever the cause, minority students frequently exhibit an alienation from both worlds. Jim Cummins calls it bicultural ambivalence: hostility toward the dominant culture and shame toward one’s own. Though the idea of enhancing students’ self-esteem has been much ridiculed of late, it is especially germane to the problem of English acquisition. If Cummins and Krashen are correct, a negative sense of self can be a formidable obstacle to language learning.

Recent research on bilingualism provides some welcome news. “A sense of urgency in introducing English to non-English-speaking children and concern about postponing children’s exit from bilingual programs” are unfounded, according to Kenji Hakuta and Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Despite appearances, it turns out that adults and adolescents acquire languages more efficiently than children. Canadian studies have shown that one year of second-language study in the seventh grade is worth three years of study beginning in the first grade. The researchers add that “starting to speak English even as late as high school is no barrier to learning to speak it very well.” These findings confirm Krashen’s “input hypothesis.” Older learners receive more comprehensible input because they understand more of what they hear and read, drawing on their greater knowledge and intellectual attainment. On the other hand, it makes sense to begin English instruction early for the simple reason that learning a second language takes time — indeed, a good deal more time than is commonly realized.

Conversely, there is no evidence that “native-language instruction holds kids back,” as U.S. English claims. Quite the reverse. A premature transition to all-English classrooms seems to retard academic achievement. This is true not only for the socio-cultural reasons noted above, but also for linguistic reasons. “Language is not a unitary skill, but a complex configuration of abilities,” write Hakuta and Snow. “Language used for conversational purposes is quite different from language used for school learning.” In other words, there are two types of proficiency. One is exemplified by the speech children use on the playground, interpersonal communication that is high in context and low in cognitive demands. The other is more complex, involving the ability to manipulate verbal symbols without the aid of physical gestures or oral feedback, the kind of language needed for abstract reasoning. Jim Cummins, who first elaborated and tested this distinction, concludes that children need much less time to develop conversational proficiency in a second language (one to two years) than academic proficiency (five to seven years).

This creates a quandary for the schools. After a relatively brief exposure to English, many students sound fluent enough to make it in an all-English classroom. So there is often pressure to “mainstream” them at that point, although few have acquired the kind of English they need to keep up in class. Until the age of ten or eleven, all children are continuing to acquire complex grammatical structures in their first language, along with vocabulary, literacy, semantics, and a repertoire of linguistic styles appropriate for various occasions. Moreover, they are using these tools to cover academic terrain of increasing difficulty. As Cummins observes, English-speaking students “do not stand still waiting for the minority student[s] to catch up.” So when the latter are placed in a regular classroom without fully developed English skills they inevitably fall behind.

No Shortcuts

If research on bilingualism has demonstrated anything over the past twenty years, it is that there are no shortcuts to English proficiency. Subtractive approaches, whether immersion or short-term bilingual, cannot speed up the process. Even under the best of circumstances, the average LEP child needs five years or more to complete the transition. A fixation on teaching English as quickly as possible fails to prepare students to compete on equal terms. As a group they remain “at risk,” disadvantaged, stigmatized. On the other hand, additive approaches promise to break the cycle of underachievement. When their first language is cultivated along with English, students are equipped to develop normally. They enter the mainstream later, but with improved chances of success and with the added dividend of fluency in two languages.

Pedagogically this should not be a complicated choice. However, there are political questions. English Only advocates insist that “prolonged bilingual education” is unacceptable, irrespective of its pedagogical virtues, because it “threaten[s] to divide us along language lines.” This fear outweighs any solicitude about students’ life chances. English must always come first: “If the standard of success in educating immigrant children is going to be ‘no dropouts, no academic failures,’” says U.S. English, “then frankly we can’t afford immigration.” In other words, subtractive bilingualism may have its costs, but consider who is paying them. Besides, if minority st dents excel in school, who will be left to wash the dishes.


  1. Specifically, the plan was to raise the “exit criterion” for bilingual programs from the 23rd percentile in English proficiency to the 40th percentile.
  2. Under existing regulations, LEP students arriving in New York after the eighth grade had the option of taking the required Regents’ Competency Tests in their native tongue. To graduate, however, they still had to pass a test in English as a second language.
  3. The commentator John McLaughlin once complained that Mexican presidents Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas had spoken through interpreters when interviewed on his TV show. “When are they going to get into the twentieth century down there?” McLaughlin raged. “Somebody should tell the President of Mexico that when he appears on American television, he should speak English”; quoted in Eric Alterman, “Pundit Power,” Washington Post Magazine, March 18, 1990, p. 33.
  4. In 1990, a survey by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reported the following public-school enrollments in grades 9-12: Spanish, 2,611,367; French, 1,089,355; German, 295,398; Latin, 163,923; Italian, 40,402; Japanese, 25,123; and Russian, 16,491. (In grades 7-12, there were a total of 6,738 enrolled in Mandarin and 478 in Arabic.) Assuming no overlap in these figures, ACTFL concludes that 38.4% of U.S. high school students were studying a foreign language that year, up sharply from 22.6% in 1982; Draper, “Foreign Language Enrollments.” Yet only about 3% of secondary students “achieve meaningful proficiency in a second language — and many of these students come from bilingual homes;” ACTFL Public Awareness Network Newsletter6, no. 3 (May 1987).
  5. The terms acquisition and learning are used interchangeably here. Krashen draws a distinction to denote “two independent ways of developing ability in second languages. ‘Acquisition’ is a subconscious process identical in all important ways to the process children utilize in acquiring their first language, while ‘learning’ is a conscious process that results in ‘knowing about’ language.” He hypothesizes that while learned knowledge — e.g., memorized grammatical rules — can serve a ‘monitor,’ or editing function, naturally acquired language is essential to a full range of communicative competencies; Input Hypothesis, p. 1.
  6. The “transfer” effect varies depending on “surface” differences between languages. According to Cummins, researchers “have reported highly significant correlations for written grammatical, discourse, and sociolinguistic skills in Portuguese and English” and slightly lower, yet still meaningful correlations between Japanese and English. Similar results have been documented for Spanish and English, Hebrew and English, Finnish and Swedish, and Turkish and German; Cummins, Empowering Minority Students, pp.46-48.

James Crawford is a Washington-based journalist who has been the Washington editor of Education Week. He is the author of Bilingual Education and the editor of Language Loyalities: A Source Book on the Official English Controversy.

The above is excerpted from Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of “English Only” by James Crawford, 1992, 324 pages, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass. Reprinted by permission. Hold Your Tongue is now available in paperback for $12.95.