Bilingual Education-Term Paper

This article describes the history, theories and research of bilingual education practice and describes the most common program types currently utilized in K-12 public education. Bilingual Education is a term used to describe a wide variety of programs that utilize two languages to teach academic content. Some bilingual programs are designed to develop full bilingualism, or the ability to use two languages proficiently; others use the native language to facilitate the acquisition of English. The history of bilingual education is one characterized by controversy and wavering support for the use of two languages in public schools. Modern debates focus on whether demographic trends that are making the U.S. more diverse indicate the need for more or less native language support in the classroom. An important factor in deciding this question is whether bilingual programs are more effective than English Only programs in raising student academic achievement.

Keywords Bilingualism; Developmental Bilingual Education; Dual Language Immersion; English Language Learners; English Only; Linguistically Different Learners; Transitional Bilingual Education; Heritage Language; Sheltered Content Instruction


The education of "bilingual" students in the U.S. has always been closely tied to political, economic and social concerns. As a nation of immigrants, the U.S. was founded by colonists from multiple language backgrounds and nationalities. While early private schools were quickly established to teach colonial children, schools were generally segregated by communities so that students studied in their native languages (Brisk, 1998). As immigrant communities (mainly from Europe) vied for political and economic power in the new world, language and nationality differences raised tensions between neighbors. This in turn led to calls for new immigrants to assimilate by learning the language and customs of earlier arrivals. For example, in colonial Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin complained that an influx of German speaking immigrants would threaten the ability of the English in the settlement to maintain their language and government. He was so worried about this prospect that he established one of the first groups of English language schools for Germans with the hope of helping them to better assimilate into the English-speaking culture (Crawford, 1996).

Various waves of immigration throughout U.S. history have raised similar concerns and have often dovetailed with national political discussions about the role of education in building and maintaining a democracy, a pluralistic society or a skilled workforce. The result has been that local, state and federal education policies have frequently vacillated between supporting and opposing bilingual education. For instance, in the early to middle 19th century, many schools taught using two languages such as German-English schools in the Midwest or French-English schools in Louisiana. Yet beginning in the late 1880s and extending into the 20th century, many states enacted laws to require English to be the only language of instruction (Brisk, 1981, 1998). While wavering political support characterizes the history of bilingual education, the common thread in educating U.S. bilinguals has been that learning English has been deemed important. Thus, the definition of a bilingual program in the U.S. generally includes teaching English as one of the two languages of the curriculum.

The modern history of bilingual education begins in earnest in the 1960s. In the political climate of the times in which many women and African-Americans were advocating for equality and civil rights, linguistic minorities began to demand their right to preserve their languages and cultures as well as to receive quality English instruction that would guarantee them equal access to educational and economic opportunities. They argued that equality bilingual instruction could provide one means to this end (Brisk, 1981; 1998).

In response to these concerns, the Bilingual Education Act, formally called Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), was passed in 1968. This act provided for the education of students of "limited English speaking ability" (Wiese & Garcia, 1998, p. 1). Though the act did not prescribe a particular type of program to schools, it included bilingual education as an approved option for educating these students (Wiese & Garcia, 1998).

Also important in the movement to obtain educational equality for bilingual students was the Supreme Court Case Lau v. Nichols. In this landmark case, non-English speaking Chinese students sued the San Francisco Unified School District for not providing them with English language instruction. The Supreme Court ruled that under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all students have a right to equality in education, and non-English speaking students are not given an equal education just because they attend the same schools and use the same textbooks as native English speakers. Rather, the Court affirmed that English language learners (ELLs) need specialized instruction in English if they are to reap the benefits of their education (Lau, 1974). As a result of this case, the door was opened for the implementation of a wider variety of programs to serve bilingual students (Brisk, 1998; Wiese & Garcia, 1998).

Despite apparent gains for advocates of bilingual education, many vocal critics opposed the use of native languages in the classroom. In the 1980s and 1990s, organizations such as "English First" and "U.S. English" called for English to be a national language - and the only language of instruction in public schools - in order to preserve national unity ("English First"; "U.S. English," 2005). In 1997, Spanish immigrant parents in Los Angeles complained that their children were not learning English in bilingual programs (One Nation/One California, 1997). Learning of this issue, an independent activist named Ron Unz founded "English For The Children" and drafted the now famous California ballot initiative known as Proposition 227. This proposition, which passed in 1998 with 61% of the vote, required that English be the only language of instruction in California's schools, effectively eliminating bilingual education as an option for most students. The success of the measure led "English For The Children" to sponsor similar initiatives on several state ballots with varying degrees of success. Along with these setbacks for bilingual education, federal legislation during this time also shifted away from only supporting bilingual education to accepting English Only instruction (Wiese & Garcia, 1998).

Bilingual education remains controversial. With new research showing the cognitive benefits of obtaining bilingualism (Bialystok, 2005), an increasingly global society offering greater economic opportunities for those who can speak more than one language, and the U.S. population becoming more diverse, supporters of bilingual education say that their programs are the best choice for meeting the needs of the population today and in the future (Krashen, 2007; "Research Section," 2007; Thomas & Collier, 2002). On the other hand, English Only advocates continue to be active. They look at U.S. Census Bureau reports showing that there are 322 languages spoken in the United States, and they say what is needed is a common language for communication among peoples. They say that when governments provide multilingual services, they send the message to immigrants that one does not need to learn English in order to live in the U.S. Since they believe this is wrong, they argue that multilingual services - including bilingual education - should be replaced by English Only programs that emphasize the fastest acquisition of English as possible (U.S. English, 2005). It is likely that given demographic realities and conflicting political ideologies that the debate surrounding bilingual education will continue for at least the foreseeable future.


Program Models

By definition, bilingual education is education that teaches academic content using two languages. However, beyond this basic definition, there is considerable variety in how a bilingual program actually looks. Many differences exist because student populations are so diverse. Students not only come from many language backgrounds, but they differ in age, socioeconomic status, level of literacy and amount of formal education in their first language. They have experienced differing degrees of parental support and their own motivation to learn a new language varies. Programs also differ due to regional differences such as the total number of ELLs within the local educational system and the amount and quality of teacher training on linguistically different learners that teachers have had (Brisk, 1998; Genesee, 1999).

Although bilingual education programs are diverse, most programs share at least some basic tenets. These are that bilingual children should achieve academic proficiency to the same level or better than monolingual, native English speakers; that bilingual children need cross-cultural as well as linguistic training, and that both languages - the students' native language and the target language - have value in helping the child to learn (Brisk, 1998; Center for Equity & Excellence in Education, 1996; Genesee, 1999).

In identifying different models of bilingual education, an important characteristic is whether the school wants students to achieve full bilingualism or merely acquire the target language. To be fully bilingual, students must be able to read, write, speak and listen in both languages. Therefore, programs with this goal tend to be longer term...

Understanding Bilingual Education
1. Analyzing Purposes of Bilingual Education (This paper)
2. Analyzing Types of Bilingual Education
3. Analyzing Cases of Bilingual Education


Introduction to Bilingual Education

Bilingualism is the study of languages in contact, typically in situations where people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds share the same space. Bilingualism was analyzed into four levels in another paper: individual, family, societal, and school levels (McCarty, 2010b). Bilingual education is bilingualism at the school level. It is not to be confused with bilingual child-raising (Pearson, 2008; McCarty, 2010a), such as speaking two languages to an infant systematically at home, which is bilingualism at the family level. Bilingual education should involve teaching in two or more languages in a school, that is, more than one language as the medium of instruction for students to learn regular school subjects.

However, other levels of bilingualism, including their cultural dimensions, do influence bilingual education. All people have a cultural identity and a linguistic repertoire, the languages they can use to some extent. Grosjean (1982) explains that "language is not just an instrument of communication. It is also a symbol of social or group identity, an emblem of group membership and solidarity" (p. 117). As a result, the attitudes people have toward different languages tend to reflect the way they perceive members of the other language groups.

Furthermore, languages have a relative status or value as perceived by the majority of a society. Languages are regarded as useless or attractive according to the economic power or cultural prestige attributed to them by the mainstream of a society, which tends to privilege national or international languages. Native languages of children of immigrants may seem to be of no use, and tend to be disregarded, while languages that are valued by the mainstream society tend to be used in education. However, Sweden has offered educational support in 100 languages (Yukawa, 2000, p. 47), while Japan's limited support has been nearly all in the Japanese language. This shows that it is not a matter of wealth but of the dominant way of thinking in the nation. The contrast in treating minority students can be as stark as a choice between assimilation and multicultural policies (Grosjean, 1982, p. 207).


Various Purposes of Bilingual Education

There are "varying aims of bilingual education" because it "does not necessarily concern the balanced use of two languages in the classroom. Behind bilingual education are varying and conflicting philosophies and politics of what education is for" (Baker, 2001, p. 193). These different purposes then lead to various actual school systems of monolingual or bilingual education. Ten typical aims of bilingual education were cited by Baker:

Varying Aims of Bilingual Education
  1. To assimilate individuals or groups into the mainstream of society.
  2. To unify a multilingual society.
  3. To enable people to communicate with the outside world.
  4. To provide language skills which are marketable, aiding employment and status.
  5. To preserve ethnic and religious identity.
  6. To reconcile and mediate between different linguistic and political communities.
  7. To spread the use of a colonial language.
  8. To strengthen elite groups and preserve their position in society.
  9. To give equal status in law to languages of unequal status in daily life.
  10. To deepen understanding of language and culture. (adapted from Baker, 2001, p. 193)

As can be seen from the above list, there are many and diverse purposes for conducting school programs that are called bilingual education, according to the way of thinking of decision makers in different cultures. Grosjean summarizes how implicit government policies affect the languages used in education: "Depending on the political aims of the authorities (national or regional), some minority groups are able to have their children taught in their own language, while others are not" (1982, p. 207). "If the government's aim is to unify the country, assimilate minorities, or spread the national language, more often than not minority languages will not find their place in education" (p. 207). Whereas, "if a society wants to preserve ethnic identities, give equal status to all languages and cultures in the country, revive a language, teach a foreign language more efficiently, or make its citizens bilingual and bicultural, it will often develop educational programs that employ two languages and are based on two cultures" (p. 215).


Conclusion to the First Paper on Bilingual Education

As Grosjean identifies the key issues above, the concerns of bilingualism researchers and practitioners shine through. A society may be judged by how it treats its minorities or protects the human rights of its vulnerable members. Some purposes for selecting languages to use in education may be better than others from both ethical and pedagogical perspectives. In any case, analyzing the diverse purposes behind the languages that appear in schools can deepen the understanding of resulting educational systems in the world, and possibly suggest improvements in terms of bilingual education.




  • Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed.). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  • Grosjean, F. (1982). Life with two languages. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • McCarty, S. (2010a). Bilingual child-raising possibilities in Japan. Child Research Net: Research Papers.
  • McCarty, S. (2010b). Bilingualism concepts and viewpoints. Child Research Net: Research Papers.
  • Pearson, B.Z. (2008). Raising a Bilingual Child. New York: Living Language.
  • Yukawa, E. (2000). Bilingual education in Sweden. In S. Ryan (Ed.), The best of Bilingual Japan, (pp. 45-47). Osaka: Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Bilingualism SIG.

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