Bilingualism Essay

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Bilingualism simply refers to fluency in two languages (more than two would be multilingualism). Within the field of educational psychology, the major debate over bilingualism has concerned a simple question: Should bilingualism be regarded as an asset or as a handicap? Over the last century two very different answers have emerged, depending on the era. Like many other debates within psychology, clear answers to this question have tended to become clouded by politics.

Early studies of bilingualism, in the first half of the twentieth century, took place in a highly charged atmosphere of isolationism and xenophobia. Recent immigrants were looked upon with suspicion in a nation suffering the effects of the Great Depression, as well as the aftermath of World War I. This suspicion took a variety of forms, with the most obvious example of prejudice against foreign languages occurring in 1923, when the case of Meyer vs. Nebraska was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The suit was brought by German Lutherans, who had been educating their children in German-language schools, at least until the state of Nebraska made non-English schools illegal.

In this atmosphere, some educators sought to determine whether bilingualism among immigrant children was a hindrance to their education (frequently with the initial assumption that it was). The usual method involved entering the public schools of a large city and giving intelligence and/or achievement tests, then comparing the results for monolingual speakers of English to the scores of bilingual children. Most of these studies found that the monolingual children outperformed the bilingual children, often by a great deal. This was then explained by the researchers (and associated politicians) as indicating that bilingualism interferes with cognitive development and that schoolchildren should be made to speak only English. These early studies made little effort to control for some fairly obvious confounding factors, however, such as differences in socioeconomic status, how long the children had actually lived in the country, or even actual proficiency in English; also no effort was made to test children in their primary language.

A new picture began to develop in Wallace Lambert’s studies of the emerging French-Canadian middle class in the 1960s, however. When such factors as socioeconomic differences were controlled, Lambert found no shortcomings among bilingual children at all. The French/English bilingual children of Montréal actually outscored monolingual children of both language groups in both verbal and nonverbal measures of intelligence. He further identified a greater cognitive flexibility in the bilingual children: since they know more than one language, they are far more aware of the arbitrary nature of words. For example, they understand that there is nothing intrinsic about a hat that requires that word to be used—it could just as easily be a chapeau or a sombrero. It bears one name rather than another only because the community has agreed to call it that. These findings have since been confirmed by studies of bilingual children in many other multilingual locations around the world, including South Africa, Israel, Singapore, Switzerland, and the United States.

This has led to some interesting educational experiments in Montréal, in which parents from an English-speaking suburb have requested French immersion schooling for their children, meaning most classes are conducted entirely in French. Results have been quite positive: the Anglophone children are somewhat behind at first, like the American children in the early studies; they haven’t become truly bilingual yet at that point, but by sixth grade they have completely caught up and score higher on some measures than monolingual controls.

Research over the last several decades has continued to further affirm the advantages of bilingualism. The positive cognitive gains associated with learning a second language in childhood include classification skills, concept formation, creativity, and even visual-spatial skills. Lambert and his associates also documented a very interesting side effect of the immersion training: the bilingual children, whether of French or English background, became more tolerant of members of the other group than monolingual children were. Indeed, the only disadvantage that has been found consistently in bilinguals is a very slight decrease in processing speed on certain language tasks, probably because there is a larger vocabulary and set of rules to search through for an answer. It is important to note, however, that these cognitive advantages all assume true bilingualism—mastery of both languages. Many of our immigrant children lack this at first, so education that ensures fluency in both languages is very important.

The positive cognitive findings have been successfully replicated repeatedly in the United States, including some highly successful attempts at full-immersion education, yet the English-only movement continues to be strong. Lambert’s distinction between positive and negative bilingualism may be relevant here. There are two ways to regard bilingualism. Positive bilingualism is a view of bilingualism that involves no loss of the first language and in which both languages are associated with prestige and respect. Negative bilingualism is the view that something is lost when a new language is learned and that the new language will replace the old language to some degree. The U.S. educational establishment and certain legislators seem to accept negative bilingualism as the proper attitude where elementary schoolchildren are concerned but switch to positive bilingualism at the high school level. When young children come to school already speaking a language other than English, they are discouraged from using it, but U.S. high school students are almost universally required to study a foreign language. A well-documented shift in difficulty of language learning occurs in adolescence as compared to early childhood. Young children usually find learning a second language extremely easy, but after puberty language acquisition can be quite difficult. Thus, saving bilingualism for high school may not be the most sensible approach.


  1. Lambert, W. E. Bilingual Education of Children: The St. Lambert Experiment. Montreal: Newbury House, 1974.

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