ERIC Identifier: ED321963
Publication Date: 1990-09-00
Author: Garcia, Eugene
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Bilingualism and the Academic Performance of Mexican-American
Children: The Evolving Debate. ERIC Digest.
Language, in its broadest sense, is a complex social system that allows
children to understand and influence their environment. For children whose
normal language environment is bilingual, instruction need not be a worrisome
affair. Teachers, however, need to understand several key characteristics
of the bilingual instructional enterprise if they are to fulfill the social
contract on which effective teaching is based.
This Digest will consider three important issues. First, it will articulate
the debate that has, for decades, swirled around the education of bilingual
students. Second, it will examine myths about the negative effects of bilingualism.
And, finally, it will present what educators have done to ensure a responsive
environment in which the communication and learning of bilingual Mexican-American
students can thrive.
Debate has centered on which language to use for instruction: both Spanish
and English, or English only. There is less debate about the goal of this
instruction--to help students function effectively in environments where
English is the dominant mode of communication.
On one side of this debate are supporters of bilingual instruction.
They believe that instruction in two languages helps develop language and
thinking skills that will transfer readily to English. The skills children
develop in learning to read Spanish, for example, can be transferred to
learning to read in English. On the other side of this debate are the supporters
of instruction in English. They suggest that the earlier the exposure to
English and the more time spent learning English, the easier the transition
to English will be. Earlier and more intensive instruction in English,
they believe, is most effective.
Supporters of each position, however, want to help students acquire
English language skills, make short-term and long-term achievement gains,
and realize eventual social and economic success. The following discussion
considers this evolving debate in light of the most recent research on
THE MYTH OF LANGUAGE DEFICIENCY
In the arithmetic of language development, what does the need to function
in two languages (bilingualism) add or subtract to a student's development?
Early research on the effects of bilingualism painted a very bleak picture.
In 1952, Thompson (see Hakuta, 1986) concluded, "There can be no doubt
that the child who is exposed and reared deliberately in a bilingual environment
is handicapped in his language growth." In essence, this view contended
that learning one language is hard enough, so learning two must be at least
twice as hard, particularly for a young child. This thinking led school
administrators to discourage bilingual instruction in schools (Hakuta,
Most recent research suggests this conclusion is false. Both in the
United States and throughout the rest of the world, recent research has
shown that young children who live in supportive and nurturing bilingual
environments do not develop linguistic handicaps (Garcia, 1983). This research
has carefully documented the development of bilingualism in Mexican-American
children and compared the result to the development of English in monolingual
children. These comparisons clearly indicated that bilingual children,
both at early and late periods of development, do not differ significantly
from monolinguals. There were no significant differences on measures of
vocabulary, phonological, or syntactic development. Bilingualism itself
does not seem to interfere with the development of either language.
An interesting finding, sometimes negatively interpreted, is that bilingual
children often move through a phase of language mixing. Bilingual children
are at times, but not always, observed to use two languages as if they
were one. For example, a child who is bilingual in both Spanish and English
may say, "Yo quiero PLAY" (I want to PLAY), or, "yo estaba PLAYENDO" (I
was PLAYING). In such cases, the child may use English vocabulary (or grammar)
within the context of Spanish syntax. In the past, such instances of mixed
language usage were interpreted as evidence of language confusion. Today,
we understand mixed language usage as a normal developmental stage for
some bilingual children. It resembles the way monolingual children, for
example, say "sheeps" for the plural "sheep" or "deers" for the plural
"deer" in the course of normal language development (Garcia & August,
In the United States, millions of young children are exposed to two
languages. In fact, there are over 100 languages spoken in combination
with English in this country's families. Instead of perceiving bilingualism
as a liability, today's research suggests that bilingual children raised
in supportive and nurturing environments demonstrate linguistic and cognitive
advantages in comparison to monolingual children. Hakuta and Garcia (1989)
reviewed the literature regarding the effects of bilingualism. According
The research evidence suggests that bilingual acquisition involves a
process that builds on an underlying base for both languages. There does
not appear to be a competition over mental processes by the two languages
and there are even possible cognitive advantages to bilingualism. It is
evident that the duality of the languages per se does not hamper the overall
language proficiency or cognitive development of bilingual children. (p.
Bilingualism was once viewed as a "bad habit," which, like all bad habits,
needed to be ended as soon as possible. Today we can rest easy about the
supposed harm bilingualism causes. Instead, we can actively cultivate the
bilingual development of infants and children.
EFFECTIVE SCHOOLING FOR BILINGUAL STUDENTS
Shouldn't bilingual students get as much instruction in English as possible?
Don't bilingual children require early and consistent exposure to English
so they can begin early to acquire the English that they will need to learn
successfully? Isn't an English instructional placement exactly what is
needed? Doesn't common sense require that these questions be answered with
When students are bilingual, recent empirical evidence has indicated
that each question can, in fact, be answered with a clear "no." Bilingual
language instruction that matches the natural social context of the child
is recommended by research (e.g., California State Department of Education,
1981, 1986). The better a child masters language in general--including
related cognitive and social skills of effective communication in two languages--the
better the child can master academics in English (e.g., Willig, 1985).
Research evidence for this conclusion comes from a variety of studies
comparing instructional practices. In addition, case studies provide descriptions
of effective instructional practices found "naturally" in classrooms that
serve academically successful bilingual students.
Willig (1985) and Wong-Fillmore and Valadez (1986) addressed the extensive
comparative literature related to instructional practices that improve
the development of literacy in bilingual populations. Almost all these
studies have included bilingual Mexican-American students. Willig (1985)
used meta analysis to combine academic achievement scores from a large
set of statistically unrelated studies. This meta analysis indicated that
bilingual education programs significantly enhanced academic achievement,
in comparison to English instructional programs. Wong-Fillmore and Valadez
(1986) provide a more traditional review of related independent studies
and reach the same conclusion.
Garcia (1988) used a quite different approach to study the instructional
practices of "effective" classrooms serving bilingual Mexican-American
students. These classrooms produced high standardized academic achievement
test scores (above national norms) for these students. Bilingual instructional
environments were common in these classrooms. In addition, an integrated
curriculum, responsive to the linguistic ability of students and implemented
by trained bilingual (and biliterate) teachers, was common across the 14
classrooms of the study. In these classrooms children were made to feel
that their bilingualism was an academic asset, not something for which
they or their families needed to feel shame.
Cummins (1984) has been particularly concerned with how students and
families perceive bilingualism. Cummins has found that, in some instructional
situations, educators tend to view bilingual children and their families
as "foreigners." The bilingual speech patterns of these children and their
families mark them as "different," and this observed difference sometimes
leads to prejudicial treatment.
Such treatment is based on the natural tendency to view with suspicion
individuals who are different from the norm. Quite often, teachers try
to eliminate the attributes that make these children seem so foreign. Unfortunately,
such attempts serve only to provoke negative reactions from bilingual students
Such reactions, on both parts, are understandable. The point is that
the burden for short-circuiting this cycle of suspicion falls on educators.
Bilingual students--like all students--need to be appreciated and respected
for their differences (Cummins, 1984). There is, in fact, reason to celebrate
Understanding the above issues can help teachers provide instruction
to bilingual and Spanish monolingual students in a way that will make the
experience rewarding for them and their students.
Teachers might consider the following recommendations:
Become better informed about the recent research that reconsiders the
advantages of bilingualism and the range of alternatives in bilingual education.
Set aside all the negative myths and misunderstandings that have preoccupied
debates about bilingualism.
Provide a secure communicative environment for all children.
Give students a rich linguistic environment that makes regular use of
their bilingualism for academic purposes.
Guard against defensive behaviors and attitudes that give the impression
that the child's native language and culture are not valued.
California State Department of Education. (1981). Schooling and language
minority students. Los Angeles, CA: California State University, Evaluation,
Dissemination, and Assessment Center.
California State Department of Education. (1986). Beyond language: Social
and cultural factors in schooling language minority students. Los Angeles,
CA: California State University, Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment
Cummins, J. (1984). Bilingualism and special education. San Diego, CA:
College Hill Press.
Garcia, E. (1983). Early childhood bilingualism. Albuquerque, NM: University
of New Mexico Press.
Garcia, E. (1988). Attributes of effective schools for language minority
students. Education and Urban Society, 20(4), 387-398.
Garcia, E., & August, D. (1988). The education of language minority
students. Chicago, IL: Thomas Publishing Company.
Hakuta, K. (1986). Mirror of language: The debate on bilingualism. NY:
Hakuta, K., & Garcia, E. (1989). Bilingualism and education. American
Psychologist, 44(2), 374-379.
Willig, A. (1985). A meta-analysis of selected studies on the effectiveness
of bilingual education. Review of Educational Research, 55, 269-317.
Wong-Fillmore, L., & Valadez, C. (1986). Teaching bilingual learners.
In M. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook on research on teaching (pp. 648-685). Washington,
DC: American Educational Research Association.