Bilingualism and Bilingual Education

Bilingualism is the ability to speak two languages. Bilingual education is the use of two languages in school. In the United States, it is the use of English and a language other than English in classrooms.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011, more than 60 million people in America age five years and older spoke a language other than English at home. Altogether, more than 300 languages are spoken in the United States. In 2012 through 2013, the percentage of students enrolled in public schools who participated in English language assistance had increased to 9.2% from 8.7% 10 years earlier. The percentage is higher in urban areas and in some states than others.

By far, the largest population of minorities in the United States speaks Spanish. Although Hispanics continue to make up an increasingly higher percentage of the U.S. population, most of them (about 62%) either speak English or are bilingual. Bilingual education combines use of the native language of learners, such as children whose parents speak Spanish in the home, with English as a way to teach English, help students keep up academically, and help them blend cultures.

Organized opposition to bilingualism began in the 1980s. Influential English-Only lobbying groups were formed and by the mid-1990s, 22 states had passed measures aimed at making English their official language; many states still have laws stating that English is the official language of the state. Observers attribute the English-Only movement to backlash against immigration and affirmative action, spurred by fear of competition for jobs and resentment of government spending on bilingual programs. The National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) has stated that academic articles typically support bilingual education and that there is likely more public support than magazines and other media suggest.

Bilingual education has drawn fire because of the cost to taxpayers in federal funds and state and local expenditures. Bilingual education programs were first mandated by Congress in 1968. The constitutionality of bilingual education was upheld in a 1974 Supreme Court ruling affirming that the city of San Francisco had discriminated against 18,000 Chinese-American students by failing to make special provisions to help them overcome the linguistic barriers they faced in school.


Dual language program—
A program that teaches students to be literate in two languages.
English language learner—
A person who is learning the English language in addition to becoming fluent in his or her native language.

Early in the history of bilingual education, much of the emphasis was placed on the methods of teaching. For example, some methods emphasized immersing students in English right away so they would not rely on their native language and would have to learn English. Others used combinations of English and the student's native language so that the student would not fall too far behind peers in subjects such as mathematics simply because of problems reading or understanding English. Using both languages in classrooms requires that schools have bilingual teachers. In some cases, bilingual teachers also help the students improve their skills in their native language and learn about their ethnic heritage and its history and culture. Two-way or dual language programs enroll students from different backgrounds with the goal of having all of them become bilingual, including those who speak only English. For example, Spanish-speaking children may learn English while their English-speaking classmates learn Spanish.

Regardless of the method used, the goals of bilingual education usually include engaging the student in actively learning the new language, as in gaining English skills; making language development a part of the student's overall learning and academic growth; and improving both cultural knowledge and academic performance. Most programs emphasize a non-threatening environment that encourages students to participate and learn the language by using it in practical ways.



Baker, Colin. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingulaism. 5th ed. New York: Multilingual Matters, 2011.

Flores, Ana L., and Roxana A. Soto. Bilingual Is Better: Two Moms on How the Bilingual Parenting Revolution Is Changing the Face of America. New York: Bilingual Readers, 2012.


Sotelo-Dynega, Marlene. “What Is a Bilingual School Psychologist? A National Survey of the Credentialing Bodies of School Psychologists: Implications for the Assessment of Bilinguals.” Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment 33, no. 3 (2015): 247–258.


“Fast Facts. English Language Learners.” National Center for Education Satistics. (accessed July 29, 2015).

Krogstad, Jens Manuel, and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera. “A Majority of English-speaking Hispanics in the U.S. Are Bilingual.” Pew Research Center. (accessed July 29, 2015).


National Association for Bilingual Education, 11006 Viers Mill Rd, No. L-1, Wheaton, MD, 20902, (240) 4503700, Fax: (240) 450-3799, .