Guest Post: Mainstream Media Coverage of Multilingualism Growing

Blog Post
Feb. 18, 2015
Conventional wisdom in the United States has almost always framed multilingualism as a disadvantage, one that hindered children’s academic and intellectual development and served as an obstacle to cultural assimilation. In 1998, California passed Proposition 227, which imposed wide-reaching restrictions on bilingual education, effectively banning it. Arizona and Massachusetts followed suit soon afterwards. Supporters of these bills insisted that English immersion instruction was the best, quickest way for English learners to learn English and succeed academically. Mainstream media coverage generally tracked the debate at the time and focused on the assumed downsides of diversity—the low achievement and high dropout rates of immigrant children and the additional costs of providing services in other languages.

However, in the years since these ballot measures, there’s been a mass of academic research suggesting that growing up multilingual has many advantages beyond being able to converse in more than one language. Recent studies and popular reports have shown that learning and developing in multiple languages confers distinct advantages to the developing brain. This new evidence also challenges the assumption that speaking a foreign language is an obstacle to assimilation.

Mainstream media sources have caught this wave and correspondingly increased their coverage of multilingualism’s advantages. In January 2015, The Washington Post and The New York Times featured articles on the expansion of dual-language programs in public schools in their respective regions, discussing the structure of the programs and the advantages of dual-language instruction.

[pullquote]Factors driving the expansion of dual language programs: parental interest in giving children a competitive edge in a global economy, a desire for increased cultural awareness, and the knowledge that students who study more than one language do better academically.[/pullquote]

Similarly, the New Yorker’s January 22nd issue included an article titled “Is Bilingualism Really An Advantage?” This piece covered both sides of the discussion: it highlighted the positive cognitive effects of multilingualism, based on the findings of psychologist Ellen Bialystok, but also included researcher Angela de Bruin’s caution that the bilingual advantage is sometimes overstated. (The article notes that de Bruin does not refute that there are advantages to being bilingual, simply the notion that these advantages are global and pervasive.) Finally, an article in The Huffington Post last month titled, “Students Should Retain Their Bilingual Heritage for Its Economic Value” noted the importance of being able to speak two languages in today’s society.

The trending discussion of multilingualism and its effects has also been a popular subject on talk shows. Just last month, The Kojo Nnamdi Show, an NPR program that highlights news, political issues, and social questions, featured a one-hour segment titled “Surging Demand for Dual Language Education.” Nnamdi and his guests discussed dual language learning and the increasing demand for bilingual education programs in Washington, D.C., its suburbs, and across the country.

Nnamdi explored the factors driving this surge, which according to guest Kavitha Cardoza, Special Correspondent for NPR’s Washington, D.C. station, include: parental interest in giving children a competitive edge in a global economy, a desire for increased cultural awareness, and the knowledge that students who study more than one language do better academically. On the show, listeners learned about varied language education opportunities, as well as about the importance of exposing children to additional languages at an early age. Georgetown University linguistics professor Alison Mackey noted, “What we know is that rich, meaningful input and plenty of it is the key to successful language learning.” The show raised the question as to whether public schools should use their resources on dual language programs and discussed the future of dual language education in schools across the region.

Multilingualism was also featured on another recent NPR program, The Diane Rehm Show. In an episode titled ‘The Latest Research On Bilingualism And The Brain,” Diane Rehm and her guests (including Bialystok) looked at recent research on the impact of bilingualism on the brain. Rehm opened the show with the question: “Why is there so much attention today on the bilingual brain?” Bialystock, Penn State’s Judith Kroll, and Georgetown’s Michael Ullman noted that bilingual brain research as having exploded in recent years due to recent technological developments in neuroscience. This has allowed scientists to look at cognitive development during every stage of life and resulted in what they described as “coherent,” “converging,” and “exciting” results. In fact, studies have shown that the brains of bilinguals actually develop differently than those of monolinguals, which in turn creates different and often positive cognitive abilities. Rehm’s guests went on to highlight major findings related to the bilingual brain. For instance, speaking two languages can improve children’s multitasking ability and may even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by four to five years.

What does this mean for the residual policies left from the last few decades’ English-only push? California’s Proposition 227 was back in the news again last year as State Senator Ricardo Lara proposed—and passed—legislation designed to make multilingualism widely available in California classrooms. But the law will only take effect if voters approve it in a November 2016 referendum.

California may be poised to be the leading edge of language policy reform yet again. Similarly, we can expect that media coverage will continue to echo this shift in conversation as we move towards a new multilingual future within an increasingly globalized world.


--Lara Burt is a Metro DC Reading Corps tutor in Washington, D.C. Lara’s undergraduate work at the University of Michigan included an honors thesis, “Immigrants in Germany: the Role of Intercultural Education in Facilitating Integration,” which explored intercultural education as a means to lessen the achievement gap between German students and students from immigrant backgrounds and to facilitate integration in Germany."