In this chapter, I showed that bilingualism is an ordinary fact of life for the vast majority of the world’s people. We saw that bilingualism is not only common in many of the historically multilingual societies of Asia and Africa, but also in the so-called “monolingual” countries where significant numbers of bilingual individuals and communities can be found. I presented five prevalent myths about bilingualism and the research evidence and facts that disprove them. Although there are more bilingual than monolingual people in the world, we saw that bilingualism is often treated as a special case and a deviation from a monolingual norm.
This monolingual view is clearly seen in how bilinguals are defined—many people think that a bilingual is two monolinguals put together in one person. But we saw that a bilingual is rarely completely fluent in two languages. Most bilinguals have different proficiencies in two languages because they learn the two languages under different circumstances and use them with different people in a variety of situations. Thus, rather than use the monolingual speaker as a yardstick against which to measure a bilingual’s proficiency in each language, one should consider a bilingual as a fully competent speaker who has developed adequate competences in the two languages for his/her particular communicative needs.
The second myth was the belief that immigrants are staying in ghettos and not learning English. However, the fact is that immigrants are lining up to get into English classes that fill up all too quickly. Many immigrants are losing their mother tongues very rapidly, becoming monolingual in English in just two or three generations.
We also saw that contrary to a popular assumption that earlier is better when it comes to learning a second language, research evidence for a critical period for second language acquisition is mixed. While some studies suggest that children have an edge over adults in learning a second language, many others conclude that older learners do better. There is currently no consensus among researchers as to a specific age beyond which it becomes difficult or impossible to learn a second language to the same degree as native speakers of that language. Rather, given adequate time, effective instruction, support, and motivation, adults and older learners are quite capable of becoming bilingual. While age is not a crucial factor in second language acquisition in general, we saw that for language minority children, an earlier exposure to the societal language prevents them from establishing a firm foundation in their native languages, often resulting in subtractive bilingualism.
The fourth myth was that immigrant parents should speak in the societal language with their children to help them succeed academically. Linguistic minority parents are frequently advised by teachers, doctors, and speech therapists to stop speaking the native language at home so as not to confuse children with input from two languages. However, the view that bilingual input confuses children is not supported by empirical sociolinguistic evidence. In many multilingual societies, children grow up with two or more languages with no negative consequences to their cognitive development. Furthermore, parents are by far the most significant source of native language input for language minority children—if parents do not speak the home language to children, the children cannot normally learn it elsewhere. Significant costs are incurred when parents and children cannot communicate due to a language barrier. Therefore, parents should be encouraged to interact with their children in the language they command.
Finally, we saw that bilingual education is often wrongly blamed for the poor academic performance of language minority children. Contrary to the popular assumption that bilingual education leads to school failure of language minority students by preventing them from learning English, we found that most immigrant children in fact never receive bilingual education. The vast majority of language minority students in the U.S. are placed in monolingual education programs and are expected to be mainstreamed quickly. We saw that immigrant students tend to be concentrated in low-performing schools in poor neighborhoods. In these schools, not only do ELs perform poorly, but mainstream English-speaking populations also do badly. When immigrant students are not isolated in these low-achieving schools, they tend to perform considerably better. Thus, rather than blame language minority children’s poor achievement on bilingual education, what schools need to do is to find ways to end the isolation of ELs and offer courses that are designed to teach them academic English.
The points discussed in this chapter will be explored further in the rest of the book. But first, in the next chapter, I turn to a description of how bilingualism is manifested in schools and society in a globalized world.