Research Findings in Education and Learning

The research in the Education and Learning field shows that the child’s native language is a good foundation on which to build the second language. In addition, it has been shown that English-only policies often have unrecognized impact beyond education when speakers of other languages absorb negative attitudes toward their home language (or varieties of their home language) and culture that are prevalent in mainstream society.

The effects of these attitudes are apparent in that historically, immigrant families in the United States have tended to preserve their native languages as an important part of their cultures. Immigrants traditionally have been bilingual for two or three generations after immigrating but eventually abandon the immigrant language altogether.

Today, immigrants evidence a stronger preference for speaking English and less motivation for preserving their native languages, so that the shift to English mono-lingualism occurs more rapidly, in most cases in two generations. In this context, English only rules seem to be unnecessary since there is no threat to the English language posed by the new immigrants and their linguistic orientations.

Ironically, while English-only campaigns in the public schools promote having minority children abandon their home languages and make the transition to English as soon as possible, private corporations that now tend to operate in several countries at once regard second languages as a valuable job skill that increases a firm’s competitiveness in the international marketplace. It is important to note that in addition to its purely communicative value, bilingualism has social, psychological, and cognitive benefits.

In terms of their social communicative competence, bilinguals are able to maintain family communication and interaction across generations; psychologically, the identity of belonging to a particular language and culture group can increase bilinguals’ self-esteem as well as the cohesion of their families. In terms of cognitive competence, studies have shown that young bilingual children have greater semantic flexibility than their monolingual peers in specific tasks such as object labeling.

The findings of various studies differ on whether some cognitive benefits (e.g., metalinguistic awareness) may be temporary rather than permanent, adding to the existing societal ambivalence about whether the effort to maintain or develop bilingual competence is worthwhile. This ambivalence is due in large part to the fact that the researchers have not controlled for the effect of partial bilingualism as opposed to full mastery of both languages.

There are indications in the research that fully bilingual and biliterate individuals benefit more from being bilingual than persons who are haphazardly or informally bilingual. Even if there is no easy answer to this question, however, there is no harm in a child’s being able to communicate with members of his or her family in their first language.

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