Common Myths About Bilingualism

Myths about
Bilingualism in Individuals
Myths about
Multilingual Societies
Myths about
Language Rights

Myths About Bilingualism in Individuals


Myth: Learning two languages confuses children and impairs their cognitive ability (i.e., their ability to think and learn).

Reality: Unfortunately, many people think that there is only room enough in a child's (or adult) brain for one language.However, if we look around at other countries, we can easily see that inmany places, children grow up learning two, three, and sometimes more languages without any cost to their educational development. For example, in Switzerland, the home language may be French, Swiss-German, Italian, or Romansh, but most children learn one additional language very early, and by the time they graduate from secondary school, the majority of students are trilingual.

Contrary to the idea that two languages confuse people, there is evidence that well-developed bilingualism actually enhances one's "cognitive flexibility" -- that is, bilingual people (including children) are better able to see things from two or more perspectives and to understand how other people think. (Hakuta, 1986). Bilinguals also have better auditory language skills (i.e., they can discriminate sounds of a language more finely) than monolinguals, and they mature earlier than mono-linguals in terms of linguistic abstraction (i.e., ability to think and talk about language). (Albert and Obler, 1978, cited in Cummins, 1994).

Myth: Parents who speak a language other than English to their children will hurt their children's chances for academic success in this country.

Reality: In general, it is best for parents to speak the language they are most fluent in to their children. This could be the native language or a language the parents speak very well. If parents speak to their children in a language the parents do not know well themselves, then they are providing a model for children of a language that is not fully developed. Sometimes, wishing to give children more exposure to English, immigrant parents force themselves to speak English at home even though their English is not very proficient.But this may actually have the undesired effect of delaying the child's language development and hurting their chances for academic success.

Myth: The more exposure one has to a language, the more quickly one will learn it.

Reality: Simply being exposed to a language is no guarantee that we will learn it. If we are exposed to language input that we cannot understand, much of what is said (or written) will be "over our heads." In order for language learning to take place, we must receive "comprehensible input" -- that is, language input must be modified so that we can understand it. (Krashen, 1981)

Furthermore, studies have shown that when minority students are provided with native language instruction for at least 50% of the day through grades 5 or 6, they do better academically than those in all-English programs. In other words, they suffer no loss as a result of less exposure to English, and in fact by 6th or 7th grade they appear to be gaining on their counterparts in all-English programs. (Ramirez, 1991; Collier, 1995).

Myth: Bilingual education has been proven ineffective. It only serves to delay the learning of English and slow students down academically.

Reality: Bilingual education is not one thing; it is many. There are at least five different models of bilingual education in the U.S. While all of them share the goals of providing students with equal access to the curriculum and promoting academic success, they differ greatly in the degree to which they promote bilingualism. The vast majority of U.S. programs are designed to use the home language only for a short time as a bridge to English. A main goal is to transition students into all-English classes as quickly as possible, leaving the home language (and much of the culture that goes with it) behind. These are called early-exit transitional programs. Some types of bilingual education promote literacy in English and develop the home language to some extent. These range from late-exit transitional programs to maintenance programs. The most intensive and long-term programs promote full proficiency and literacy in two languages. These programs include two-way developmental and minority language immersion programs such as the ones in Canada and Hawai'i. Therefore, when we question whether bilingual education has been effective or not, we have to first know what the program was designed to do; then we can ask whether it has accomplished that goal.  

The most comprehensive study to date is Thomas and Collier's 1995 study of 42,000 language minority student records, with 8-12 years of data per student. The researchers found that "two-way bilingual education at the elementary school level is the most promising program model for the long-term academic success of language minority students. As a group, students in this program maintain grade level skills in their first language at least through 6th grade and reach the 50th percentile or NCE in their second language generally after 4-5 years of schooling in both languages. They also generally sustain the gains they made when they reach secondary education, unlike students in programs that provide little or no academic support in the first language." (Collier, 1995) In addition to academic success,they also were able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Unfortunately, this type of program is very scarce in the U.S.

Myth: Some programs are able to teach people foreign languages in a matter of days or weeks, so there is no reason why language learning should take a long time if people are motivated to learn.

Reality: There is a great difference between the conversational phrases taught by short-term language programs and the high level academic fluency needed to succeed in school, college, and the high skills job market. The conversational phrases taught by short-term language programs permit the learner to order food, make hotel reservations or locate a train station. They do not claim to equip learners with the ability to write a high school paper on Moby Dick, for example, at the same level as a native English speaker. (NABE Report: Bilingual Education: Separating Fact from Fiction)

Myth: A lot of immigrant children have learning disabilities, not language problems. They speak English just fine but they are still failing academically. 

Reality: We often see children on the playground who appear to speak English with no problem. Yet when they are in a classroom situation, they just don't seem to grasp the concepts. Many people fail to realize that there are different levels of language proficiency. The language needed for face-to-face communication takes less time to master than the language needed to perform in cognitively demanding situations such as classes and lectures. It takes a child about 2 years to develop the ability to communicate in a second language on the playground, but it takes 5-7 years to develop age-appropriate academic language. Many immigrant children have been misdiagnosed in the past as "learning disabled," when in fact the problem was that people misunderstood their fluency on the playground, thinking that it meant they should be able to perform in class as well. Actually, they still needed time and assistance to develop their academic English skills (Cummins, 1994).

Myth: Older generations of immigrants learned without all the special language programs that immigrant children receive now. It was "sink or swim" and they did just fine!

Reality: Like present-day immigrants, earlier immigrants also faced discrimination. Many earlier immigrants had trouble in school. In 1911, the U.S. Immigration Service found that 77% of Italian, 60% of Russian, and 51% of German immigrant children were one or more grade levels behind in school compared to 28% of American born children (ACLU, 1988). Further more, the level of education needed to get a job has changed. When immigrants came to this country in the earlier part of this century, they were able to get industrial jobs with relatively little education and not much English. Currently, the job market holds little promise for those without a college education. Low skilled jobs are being done by machines and computers, or moved to other countries, and jobs in the service industry and high tech communications are expanding.

A final point to keep in mind is that earlier immigrants came mainly from Europe and were relatively light-skinned, with Caucasian features. They also came from cultures that were similar in many ways to mainstream U.S. culture. It was easier for them to assimilate into American society because, once they abandoned their home language, they looked like any other "American." Today, many immigrants come from Asia, Latin America, and other non-European countries. They have clear physical attributes that mark them as different from white Americans. Long after they have learned English and acquired jobs in this country, they are still subject to racial discrimination and hate crimes.

To summarize, earlier immigrants would have benefited from special programs if they had existed. And the U.S. would now be enriched by having many bilingual citizens. Instead, we lament the fact that so few Americans know a "foreign" language.

Myth: The older a person is, the harder it is to acquire a second language.

Reality: This depends on many things. First, it appears that different locations in the human brain are responsible for different language learning tasks. Some of these tasks, like acquiring native-like pronunciation in a second language, are easier for children. This doesn't mean it's impossible for adult learners to sound "native-like"--it may just be more difficult. Other language learning tasks, like acquiring grammar, vocabulary, syntax, and literacy, are easier for older learners because they already have developed proficiency in these areas in their native language, and this language ability "transfers" to another language. Older immigrant students whose native language literacy skills are well developed acquire English proficiency significantly faster than younger immigrant students. (Cummins, 1994) However, we must remember that age is only one factor affecting language learning. Others, such as motivation, attitudes toward the two languages, social context, and the learning environment itself, also have a powerful impact on the degree to which people do or do not acquire a second language.

Myth: Immigrants don't want to learn English.

Reality: Immigrants recognize that English is the language of power in this country and they are learning it as quickly as they can. Given a supportive learning environment, it takes 2 years to develop basic conversational skills and 5-7 years to be fully literate in another language. There are long waiting lists for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at many adult schools. Immigrants who want to learn English are being turned away because there aren't enough classes. In Los Angeles, for example, schools run 24 hours a day and 50,000 students are on waiting lists for ESL classes.

According to the 1990 census, over 97% of Americans speak English including immigrants. It is important to distinguish those who cannot speak English at all and those who speak English and another language. Only 0.8 percent of U.S. residents do not speak English.

Myths About Multilingual Societies


Myth: If everyone agreed to speak only one language, we wouldn't have so much war and interethnic conflict.

Reality: Of course people need a common language to understand one another. But that doesn't require eliminating minority languages; it only requires bilingualism. Switzerland has four official languages and has never had a war. Finland has three (Finnish, Swedish, and Lapp). Hawai'i has had two co-official state languages since 1978 -- English and Hawaiian -- and no civil strife has resulted. On the other hand, much of the conflict in the world has erupted in places where there is only one language. For example, in the U.S.'s own Civil War, both sides spoke English, and in the Bosnian conflict, the parties speak dialects of a single language, Serbo-Croatian. In the world's bloodiest genocide since World War II, Khmer-speaking Cambodians under Pol Pot killed millions of other Khmer-speaking Cambodians (Diamond, 1993).

Thus language is not the "glue" that binds us together. What really binds us as a nation is a common belief in freedom, including the freedom to speak any language we please.

Myth: It costs taxpayers too much money to provide government services in languages other than English.

Reality: The use of a language other than English can make it easier and more expedient to serve taxpayers. For example, in Arizona recently, a bilingual state employee found it easier, quicker, and less expensive to collect medical malpractice information from claimants who were more comfortable conversing in Spanish. Communicating in a language one is not proficient in takes more time and may result in dangerous miscommunication, especially in life threatening situations.

Although some people say the number of translated government documents are "overwhelming", a recent survey found that out of 400,000 documents, only 265 were translated into languages other than English.

For the little that it costs the government to provide certain translated documents and services in languages other than English, a great benefit is gained: The right of Americans to communicate with their government and to receive public services that are guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act for all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or national origin.

Myth: Hawai'i Creole English (HCE or pidgin) is just bad English.

Reality: HCE is the native language of most children and adults in Hawai'i. It is a fully developed language or variety, just as "good" as standard English in every way except that it suffers from low social prestige. If speakers of HCE controlled more of the resources in the U.S., HCE would be the standard language and everybody else in the country would be trying to learn it!

The situation is very similar to that of African Americans, many of whom speak a variety known as Black English or African American English. It too is a systematic, fully grammatical language with rules and standards of its own. In Los Angeles and several other places, new programs have been developed in the schools to help students learn Standard English, which they call the "cash language" because it is related to economic opportunities. However, they also make sure that students maintain their African American English, which is the language of the home and community. Students in this program become "bidialectal" (proficient in two dialects). Likewise in Hawai'i, people do not have to lose pidgin in order to speak Standard English-- they can have both!

Myth: It is pointless to try and revive the Hawaiian language; it's dead.

Reality: For the last 10 years, the Hawaiian language has been undergoing a very powerful renaissance. It is now far from dead, but it is still not "out of the woods". Thanks to the dedicated efforts of many native Hawaiians in the Punana Leo and Kula Kaiapuni (immersion preschools and schools), there are now over 1000 children from preschool through 9th grade who speak Hawaiian. However, they are still small in number, compared to the 250,000 Hawaiians and part Hawaiians who live in Hawai'i. The language needs to be continually nurtured through programs for children and for adults. It is especially critical for parents and other adults to begin speaking Hawaiian to their children at home, for this is the only way we can ensure long-term survival of the language.

There are other examples of languages that have been revived from near oblivion, so we know that it is possible to do this for Hawaiian as well, provided the community continues to feel it is an important goal. The Hebrew language was considered dead, but it is now a living language again in Israel. Catalan in Spain has also been revitalized in the last twenty years.

Common Myths About Language Rights


Myth: The law does not require fair treatment of non-native speakers of English, non-English and limited-English speakers.

Reality: The law does not require "special" treatment of those who do not speak English, or who speak English with an accent. However Federal and State law require equal and fair treatment of these classes of people in many contexts: education, government services, employment, and the courts.

While English is recognized as the language of broader communication in government and commerce, discrimination based on language is prohibited under United States and Hawai'i constitutional and civil rights laws.

Failure to provide bilingual education for non-English speaking students is a denial of equal access to educational opportunities, constituting a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Denial of access to federally-funded government services and benefits on the basis of language is also considered discrimination, and a violation of Title VI.

In employment, discrimination based on accent and English-only rules are unlawful absent relationship to a strong business justification, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Both state and federal constitutional due process protection guarantee the rights of non-English or limited-English speaking defendants.

Hawai'i civil rights law makes discrimination on the basis of national origin unlawful in employment, housing, and public accomodations. Language is considered a characteristic of national origin.

Both the Hawai'i and United States constitutions provide for equal protection of the laws, which extend to national origin and language minorities.

The Hawai'i Constitution establishes Hawaiian as an official language with equal dignity to English.

Hawai'i has promoted several initiatives in education, language access to services, and Hawaiian language revitalization, in efforts to comply with the spirit and letter of the law.

Myth: If the law prohibits language discrimination, there is no reason for further concern about the issue.

Reality: Compliance with civil rights laws has not been complete. We need to do more. Effective enforcement of the legal prohibitions against language discrimination will continue to demand resolve, commitment, and resources.

Congress is considering English-only legislation similar to that which has been passed in several states, undermining the rights of language minorities and weakening our anti-discrimination laws. Passage will mean denial of full participation and access to government services and benefits for non-English and limited-English speakers, and will undermine efforts to revitalize Hawaiian and other indigenous languages.




American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). (1988). English Only. Briefing Paper #6.

Albert, Martin, and Obler, Lorraine. (1978). The bilingual brain. New York: Academic Press.

Collier, Virginia. (1995). Acquiring a second language for school. Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Cummins, Jim. (1994). Primary language instruction and language minority students. In Charles Leyba, Ed., Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework. Los Angeles, CA: Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center.

Diamond, Jared. (1993). Speaking with a single tongue. Discover. Feb. 1993.

Hakuta, Kenji. (1986). Mirror of Language. New York: Basic Books.

Krashen, Stephen. (1981). Bilingual education and second language acquisition theory. In California State Department of Education, Ed., Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework. Los Angeles, CA: Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center.

Lopez, Richard. (1995). Bilingual education: Separating fact from fiction. Washington, D.C.: National Association for Bilingual Education.

NABE Report: Bilingual education: Separating fact from fiction

Ramirez, David. (1991). Final report: Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit and late-exit transitional bilingual education programs for language minority children. Washington, D.C.: National Clearing House.

Thomas, W. & Collier, V. (1997). School effectiveness for language monority students. Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.




Publication of this web page has been made possible by a grant from the Hawai'i Community Foundation and support from the Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawai'i at Manoa. This web page was edited by members of the Hawai'i Council on Language Planning and Policy and staff of the Center for Second Language Research, the English as a Second Language Department at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.


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