Tony Gurr

The New Orthodoxy and the Rehabilitation of Bilingualism – in the US (too)!

In Bilingualism, ELT and ELL on 21/02/2011 at 12:39 am


Humans have a unique talent to learn more than one languagefact!

Polyglots outnumber monoglots in the world’s populationfact!


Studies and research findings from a wide variety countries and educational systems suggest that not only is the development of multiple language proficiency possible – it is highly desirable, especially for children.

In an earlier post (What do Turkish citizens say about language learning?) I talked about how Europe is embracing its “mother-tongue-plus-two strategy”. Then, in The “New Orthodoxy” of ELT I suggested that we all think about Graddol’s comment that our world is becoming “bilingual”.

A friend of mine mentioned that the issue of a “bilingual world” didn’t have much to do with what was happening in the EU – he told me that what was happening in the US was far more important and that Americans will fight bilingualism to the “death”.

It’s true – there are some Americans who agree with the oft-quoted “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me!” (a US senator actually said this) or might say “I’ll give you my monolingual English-to-English dictionary, when you take it from my cold, dead hands!


BUT, there are others!

  • Bilingualism is very common in the United States. Census data reports that just over 18 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home and that three-quarters of these American citizens report that they speak English “well” or “very well”.
  • Some observers note that more and more Americans are welcoming the fact that mono-lingualism in the States is on the decline (Peckham, 2010) and it appears that Americans are finally heeding the advice that “the knowledge of two languages is greater than the sum of its parts”.
  • More and more Americans also recognise that bilingualism has significant economic advantages: bilinguals tend to earn more than monoglots.

To be honest, the issue of bilingualism (or pluralism) in economic life has never faced serious challenges in the US.

The controversy over bilingualism has been most visible in discussions on educational policy, when it becomes wrapped up in wider political and cultural issues – and, many would claim, xenophobia and racism. These tensions are best highlighted by the heated debates that surrounded “Proposition 227” (an anti-bilingual education law in California) in 1998 and the more recent 2009 US Supreme Court decision in the case of Home vs. Flores.

One of the “others” is –  Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. Krashen has been a key figure in the debates over bilingual education in the US since the late-1970s – and is probably known by every single language teaching professional around the globe. In recent years he has become more radical in his support of bilingual education. He claims his more activist response has been conditioned by the increased hostility to bilingualism in the United States.

Krashen has made laudable and repeated attempts to demystify the political discourse surrounding bilingualism and silence critics of bilingual education. In his writing over the late-90s, he effectively demonstrated that the research used to make the case against bilingualism did, in fact, not prove that it did not work and had made false claims about the numbers of parents who were “against” bilingual education.

However, it was not until researchers looking into the functional plasticity of the human brain and brain density (in 2004) started to release their findings that bilingualism in US education started to make its long-awaited return.

The impact of such work into the neurobiology of bilingualism and other studies into genetic research in the field of speech and language disorders has helped to reignite interest in bilingual education in the US and also increased attention to other educational research that has shown the positive effects of language learning on test scores, intelligence and achievement.

Today, across the States, there is a growing recognition that “foreign languages” are an essential component of the educational experience for all learners and need to be given recognition on the “core curriculum”. Just as is the case in the EU – and most of Asia!

For example, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in the unparalleled success of US schools in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

While it is true that this had a great deal to do with the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies describing the America’s linguistic incompetence as “scandalous”, it is also a testament to the way “community engagement” (combined with a “communication-oriented curriculum” and student participation in challenging exchange programmes) can make a real difference to the language learning of children – without millions of federal dollars.


P.S: Krashen will be in Istanbul at the Bahçeşehir University Preparatory School 3rd International ELT Conference on May 14th.


P.P.S: A few references to keep all the “ineks” happy (you know who you are)!

Bialystok, E and Hakuta, K. (1994). In Other Words: The science and psychology of second-language acquisition. New York: BasicBooks.

Hakuta, K. (1986). Mirror of Language: The debate on bilingualism. New York: Basic Books.

Krashen, S. D. (1996). Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education. Culver City: Language Education Associates.

Krashen, S. D. (1999). Condemned Without a Trial: Bogus Arguments against Bilingual Education. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press

Krashen, S. D. (2010). Keep Your Brain Young: Read, Be Bilingual, Drink Coffee. Language Magazine (October, 2010).

Peckham, R. D. (2010). Getting Down to the Core with Foreign Language Advocacy. Language Association Journal, Vol 61 (02), 2010.

Tucker, G. R. (1999). A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. ERIC Digest (EDO-FL-99-04). August, 1999.

  1. I almost never drop comments, however i did a few searching and
    wound up here The New Orthodoxy and the Rehabilitation of Bilingualism – in the US (too)!
    | allthingslearning. And I do have some questions for
    you if it’s allright. Is it only me or does it appear like some of the comments appear like they are coming from brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are posting at additional sites, I’d like to follow anything new you have to post.

    Would you make a list of every one of all your shared sites like
    your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

    • Hey Ruth,

      Just landed in Ankara – God! Bloody awful weather – just like the UK! Tell me why I left Cyprus this afternoon?

      OK – Mmmmmm, maybe! But, I often wonder why so few people do actually comment. I often get jealous that more famous bloggers (than my fair self) get so many comments on posts that are just as brain dead as the comments that you refer to 😉

      Life – it’s a funny old game. I actually took a bit of time away from the blog, twitter, Facebook etc (yes I has them all) – I needed to unplug to work on a few projects and papers. Just do a search and you’ll find me – My digi- footprint is pretty Yeti-size 😉 But, I will get. Ack to blogging pretty soon – promise 😉

      Take care – TY 4 taking the time to drop us a line or 3 😉


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