The benefits of multilingual education

This November, California voters will vote on Prop 58 (also called Prop 58-LEARN [Language Education, Acquisition, and Readiness Now]; Senate Bill 1174). This bill, introduced by Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), will bring back California parents’ option to choose multilingual education for their children. I will be upfront and disclose that—as a researcher of bilingual children’s language and cognitive development—I am fully in support of this bill. But my goal for writing this post is not to simply proclaim my support of this bill; rather, my goal is to provide some context for why multilingual education could be beneficial for everyone.
Some history

There’s been a long-held belief in the United States that English-only education is beneficial for all students. The general thinking was that an English-only education would help students learn English faster; that learning English helps everyone assimilate to American culture and life; and that learning English created a sense of social unity. In fact, even in California where multilingualism and multiculturalism have long been the norm, voters passed a bill in 1998—Prop 227 (the English in Public Schools Statute)—that began placing English-language learner (ELL) students (i.e., students who speak a non-English language at home and learn English at school) in English-only monolingual classrooms. Though there were certainly various politics at play, the general belief behind this 1998 bill was this same long-held belief that students—especially ELLs, who are largely immigrant children or the children of immigrant parents—would benefit in many ways by being immersed in an English-only educational environment.

How would multilingual education benefit English-language learning (ELL) students?

Multilingual education helps ELL children both learn English and maintain their home language—both of which benefit these children’s overall language and social development. When ELLs have a strong foundation in one language, that strong foundation also supports learning and academic achievement in the other language. For example, Spanish-speaking ELLs’ oral language skills in Spanish (the home language) has been found to predict English literacy skills, such that ELLs with stronger Spanish-speaking skills have better English literacy skills 2 years later! Thus, helping ELL children maintain and further develop their home language can actually support English language learning as well.

In addition to supporting the acquisition of English language skills, maintaining the home language is critical to ELLs’ ability to maintain relationships with their families and communities. Many ELL children lose their oral language skills in the home language when they are placed in English-only monolingual classrooms, and that can make communicating with family and community members—who may only speak the home language or have very limited English proficiency—extremely difficult. Aiding ELLs in maintaining their home language not only supports ELLs’ English-language learning, but also ensures that ELLs do not become disconnected or driven apart from their families and communities. Multilingual education can help ELLs learn English while simultaneously maintaining their home language and ties to their families and communities.

How would multilingual education benefit monolingual English-speaking students?

Multilingual education provides monolingual students with the opportunity to learn a second language and become bilingual. A large body of research now shows that bilingualism benefits various cognitive and social-linguistic skills, throughout the lifespan. Infants raised in a bilingual environment are perceptually more flexible than infants raised in monolingual environments. For example, when infants are shown silent videos of two people speaking in different languages, bilingually-raised infants—compared to monolingually-raised infants—are better able to differentiate that the two people are speaking in different languages, even when the speakers are speaking two different languages that the infants have never been exposed to! This perceptual flexibility seems to last into adulthood and might even make learning a third (or fourth or more!) language easier. On top of this perpetual flexibility, bilingual children have also been found to have a better understanding of the communicative functions and grammatical
conventions of language. Bilingual children develop an understanding of grammatical rules and structures earlier than monolingual children, and bilingual preschoolers—compared to their monolingual peers—better understand that speakers of different languages call objects by different names (e.g., apple vs. manzana). Bilingual preschoolers have also been found to be better able to name the language that they speak!

Aside from language-related skills, learning to speak two languages benefits cognitive skills like attention, inhibition, and switching as well. Bilingual children develop these kinds of cognitive skills earlier than their monolingual peers. The reason why researchers think bilingual children develop these kinds of cognitive skills faster is because bilingual children are constantly exercising their cognitive skills each time they speak: bilingual children need to pay attention to what language they’re speaking, inhibit speaking in the other language, and switch from one language to the next depending on who they’re talking to. And this also seems to have lifelong consequences; bilingual older adults show behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s about 5 years later than monolingual older adults, even though images of their brains will show similar progression of the disease. In other words, bilingual older adults’ brains are able to compensate for beginning Alzheimer’s symptoms through the cognitive skills they’ve been exercising throughout their life.

Concluding thoughts

Multilingual education can benefit all students not only academically during childhood, but also cognitively, socially, and linguistically across the lifespan. With the number of multilingual, multicultural children increasing in the United States, increasing the availability and accessibility of multilingual education could be an asset now to both ELL and monolingual students, as well as in the long-run as these students enter an increasingly more global society and economy.

And if you are a California voter, please take the time to learn more about Prop 58 and multilingual education, and—regardless of your position on this matter—go vote!



A sidenote

Though research on bilingual learning and development has a long history, it gained a lot of momentum in the last 10-15 years. Most of the research findings that I’ve talked about here are recent studies from the last 10-15 years. However, many older studies state that bilingual children have deficits in cognitive skills, have smaller vocabularies than monolingual children, and overall, have poorer academic outcomes; I want to note that many of these older studies that talk about deficits have now largely been challenged or even refuted. For example, many of these older studies measured bilingual children’s cognitive and language abilities only in one language—typically the weaker of the bilingual child’s two languages (i.e., the language that was spoken at school and not spoken by the child’s family). For example, if a bilingual child’s cognitive skills are measured only in their weaker language, then it’s unsurprising that the bilingual child would seem like s/he has a deficit in cognitive skills. Or if a bilingual child’s vocabulary size is only measured in one language, then you’d be completely missing the child’s vocabulary in his/her other language! Though readers should always be reading with a critical eye (regardless of how old or new the research is), it can be useful to take into consideration how recently the research was conducted.



For more information on…

Prop 58: 

  • The full bill:
  • A summary of the bill:,_Non-English_Languages_Allowed_in_Public_Education_(2016)

Benefits of multilingual education for bilingual/multilingual students: 

  • Bialystok, E. (2007). Acquisition of literacy in bilingual children: A framework for research. Language Learning, 57, 45–77.
  • Castro, D. C., Páez, M. M., Dickinson, D. K., & Frede, E. (2011). Promoting language and literacy in young dual language learners: Research, practice, and policy. Child Development Perspectives, 5(1), 15-21.
  • Hammer, C. S., Hoff, E., Uchikoshi, Y., Gillanders, C., Castro, D. C., & Sandilos, L. E. (2014). The language and literacy development of young dual language learners: A critical review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(4), 715-733.
  • Hammer, C. S., Lawrence, F. R., & Miccio, A. W. (2007). Bilingual children’s language abilities and early reading outcomes in Head Start and kindergarten. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 237–248.
  • Tabors, P. O. (1997). One child, two languages: A guide for early childhood educators of children learning English as a second language. Baltimore: Brookes.

Benefits of multilingualism/multilingual education for monolingual students:

  • Akhtar, N., Menjivar, J., Hoicka, E., & Sabbagh, M. A. (2012). Learning foreign labels from a foreign speaker: The role of (limited) exposure to a second language. Journal of Child Language, 39(05), 1135-1149.
  • Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., Binns, M. A., Ossher, L., & Freedman, M. (2014). Effects of bilingualism on the age of onset and progression of MCI and AD: Evidence from executive function tests. Neuropsychology, 28(2), 290.
  • Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(4), 240-250.
  • Weikum, W. M., Vouloumanos, A., Navarra, J., Soto-Faraco, S., Sebastián-Gallés, N., & Werker, J. F. (2007). Visual language discrimination in infancy. Science, 316(5828), 1159-1159.