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A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education

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A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education


The number of languages spoken throughout the world is estimated to be 6,000 (Grimes, 1992). Although a small number of languages, including Arabic, Bengali, English, French, Hindi, Malay, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish serve as important link languages or languages of wider communication around the world, these are very often spoken as second, third, fourth, or later-acquired languages. Fewer than 25% of the world's approximately 200 countries recognize two or more official languages, with a mere handful recognizing more than two (e.g., India, Luxembourg, Nigeria). However, despite these conservative government policies, available data indicate that there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual. In addition, there are many more children throughout the world who have been and continue to be educated through a second or a later-acquired language, at least for some portion of their formal education, than there are children educated exclusively via the first language. In many parts of the world, bilingualism or multilingualism and innovative approaches to education that involve the use of two or more languages constitute the normal everyday experience (see, e.g., Dutcher, 1994; World Bank, 1995). The results from published, longitudinal, and critical research undertaken in varied settings throughout the world indicate clearly that the development of multiple language proficiency is possible, and indeed that it is viewed as desirable by educators, policy makers, and parents in many countries.

Multiple Languages in Education

The use of multiple languages in education may be attributed to numerous factors, such as the linguistic heterogeneity of a country or region, specific social or religious attitudes, or the desire to promote national identity. In addition, innovative language education programs are often implemented to promote proficiency in international language(s) of wider communication together with proficiency in national and regional languages. In Eritrea, for instance, an educated person will likely have had some portion of their schooling in Tigrigna and Arabic and English, and will have developed proficiency in reading all these languages, which are written using three different scripts (Ge'ez, Arabic, and Roman). In Papua New Guinea, a country with a population of approximately 3 million, linguists have described more than 870 languages (Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1995). Here it is common for a child to grow up speaking one local indigenous language at home, to speak another in the market place, to add Tok Pisin to her repertoire as a lingua franca, and to learn English if she continues her schooling. Analogous situations recur in many parts of the world in countries where multilingualism predominates and in which children are exposed to numerous languages as they move from their homes out into surrounding communities and eventually through the formal education system.

Research on the Use of First and Second Languages in Education

A comprehensive review of research on the use of first and second languages in education, carried out for the World Bank (Dutcher, 1994), examined three different types of countries: (1) those with no (or few) mother tongue speakers of the language of wider communication (e.g., Haiti, Nigeria, the Philippines); (2) those with some mother tongue speakers of the language of wider communication (e.g., Guatemala); and (3) those with many mother tongue speakers of the language of wider communication (e.g., Canada, New Zealand, the United States). Several conclusions can be drawn from this study:

Success in school depends upon the child's mastery of cognitive/academic language, which is very different from the social language used at home.

The development of cognitive/academic language requires time (4 to 7 years of formal instruction).

Individuals most easily develop literacy skills in a familiar language.

Individuals most easily develop cognitive skills and master content material when they are taught in a familiar language.

Cognitive/academic language skills, once developed, and contentÐ'¬subject material, once acquired, transfer readily from one language to another.

The best predictor of cognitive/academic language development in a second language is the level of development of cognitive/academic language proficiency in the first language.

Children learn a second language in different ways depending upon their culture and their individual personality.

If the goal is to help the student ultimately develop the highest possible degree of content mastery and second language proficiency, time spent instructing the child in a familiar language is a wise investment.

Common Threads of Successful Programs

In the research review conducted for the World Bank (Dutcher, 1994), the following common threads were identified in successful programs that aimed to provide students with multiple language proficiency and with access to academic content material.

Development of the mother tongue is encouraged to promote cognitive development and as a basis for learning the second language.

Parental and community support and involvement are essential.

Teachers are able to understand, speak, and use with a high level of proficiency the language of instruction, whether it is their first or second language.

Teachers are well trained, have cultural competence and subject-matter knowledge, and continually upgrade their training.

Recurrent costs for innovative programs are approximately the same as they are for traditional programs, although there may be additional one-time start-up costs.

CostÐ'¬benefit calculations can typically be estimated in terms of the cost savings to the education system, improvements in years of schooling, and enhanced earning potential for students with multiple language proficiency.

Cross-Cutting Themes

Two cross-cutting themes that appear critical for policy or planning discussions within the domain of language education reform are discussed below.

Nurturing the first language. Despite decades of sound educational research, there still remains a belief in many quarters that when an additional language is introduced into a curriculum,



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