Nuance Or Oversimplification? Making the Case for Multilingualism

In our recent report on the last half-decade of American early education policy and practice, we noted that dual language learners have received scant attention at the state or federal levels. A recent paper published in Social Policy Report by University of Massachusetts-Lowell Professor Allyssa McCabe and her co-authors, further explains that state of affairs—and why it’s worrisome.

If you've been watching NBC interview Olympic athletes from across the globe in English, you know that American unease regarding multilingualism is relatively unique in the world. In their paper, the researchers note that “roughly ⅔ of the world’s population [is] estimated to understand and speak two or more languages.” Despite America’s plural past and (justly) vaunted racial and ethnic diversity, not quite 20 percent of Americans are multilingual. While that number is growing via ongoing immigration and shifting national demographics, it’s not yet risen enough to demand sustained attention from education administrators and policymakers.

It’s not as though we lack compelling reasons to care about young dual language learners. As Baby Boomers retire and the United States’ tax base shrinks, we need to be sure that we’re preparing all children to succeed in the American—and global economy. In the 21st century, that means ensuring that all children are fully proficient in English by the time they graduate. For dual language learners that come from homes that speak languages other than English, it means treating their native tongue as an asset to be fully developed.

The report cites the growing evidence that early language supports lead to “enhanced child language outcomes across each of the languages” a dual language learner is acquiring. As anyone who’s tried to learn a second language in high school, college, or later knows, it’s much more difficult to start this process later in life.

For a college sophomore laboring to decipher the Spanish subjunctive, this is personally frustrating. For an education system with limited resources, it’s a critical insight about efficiency. It is easier—and cheaper—to effectively support dual language development in the early years.

This doesn’t mean, however, that dual language learners need English immersion as quickly as possible. In fact, the report notes, immersion approaches do not produce more rapid English acquisition than programs that offer continued native language supports. It does, however, undercut native language development. In other words, a 3-year-old native Spanish speaker will learn English just as quickly in an effective dual language program as in an English immersion program. The only difference? Their Spanish language development will be relatively weaker in the English immersion program than in the dual language program. Thus, the report insists that dual language learners need early exposure to English, but “continued support” in both languages.

Parents sometimes express concern that exposure to a second language will undermine children’s development in their native tongue. This concern has some merit: there is evidence that, in the early years, dual language learners have smaller vocabularies in each of their languages than native-speaking peers (though their combined vocabulary across both languages is usually of similar size to the vocabulary of monolingual peers). But this isn’t the entire story. The report cites evidence from Welsh-English multilinguals in the United Kingdom—by age 10, dual language learners can “perform on par with multilingual children in both languages.” Done right, dual language programs can support second language acquisition without costing students their native tongues, and they can do this without harming linguistic development.

Encouraging as those findings are, it’s important not to oversimplify linguistic development. The report notes that “multiple language learning seems not to proceed in a uniform or universal fashion, but is moderated by multiple factors of setting condition, person, language, time, mechanism, and outcome.” While there are some general contours for multiple language learners’ development, factors such as gender, recency of immigration, pedagogical strategies at school, and parent attitudes at home all influence the process.

Of course, this adds to the difficulty for improving policies surrounding language learners. Policy is a blunt tool; it’s difficult to set rigorous expectations that are also nuanced and flexible. It’s relatively easy to ask a lawmaker to provide dual language learners with a standardized level of support—e.g. a guarantee of three years of native language support before transitioning into content instruction in English. It’s much more difficult to ask lawmakers to provide targeted programs for various types of dual language learners—e.g. drafting legislation to require that male and female dual language learners receive distinct treatment.

This could be an opening to polemicize about education reform or federalism or any number of elements of our education policy system (ahem, “system”), but I offer it here simply as an observation. Advocates for reforming American policies on dual language learners have always struggled to balance the subtlety of research findings with the simplifying nature of politics and the limited promise of policy reform. The paper make clear just how challenging it’s going to be to thread that needle in the future.

With these challenges in mind, the researchers suggest a four step “Policy Action Plan” for improving alignment between research on multilingual children and the policies that affect them:

1) Cross-disciplinary collaboration between researchers, educators, and policymakers;

2) Strategic crafting of public rhetoric coupled with comprehensive communications planning;

3) Federal support for further research on multilingual children’s linguistic development; and

4) Strategic reflection on implementation challenges for research-based recommendations.

While all four of these steps are critical, the second—designing a public relations strategy for lawmakers and education stakeholders—is particularly important. Certainly, more and better research should always be welcome in policy debates. And yes, collaboration and better attention to implementation challenges are too often neglected. But implementation isn’t a problem that needs solving until new reforms are in place. And at present, advocates for better dual language learners supports need to focus on making their message more compelling to legislators and other education policymakers. More challenging still, they somehow need to do that without falling prey to oversimplification. Ironically, this is a task that will require considerable mastery of political rhetoric—a language as frustrating and idiosyncratic as it is important."


Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice.