[lg policy] Mainstream Media Coverage of Multilingualism Growing

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Feb 19 16:33:44 UTC 2015

   5 mins read Guest Post: Mainstream Media Coverage of Multilingualism
February 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
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.

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.

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

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
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.*

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