7 Nov

NPR’s Morning Edition recently ran a story on Coral Way Elementary School, a bilingual immersion school in Miami ( According to one parent, the school teaches, “[b]eing truly bilingual… They call it being ‘biliterate.’ That’s a notch above — when you can read it, write it, speak it.” Students graduate with verbal and written fluency across academic subjects, and presumably in their extracurriculars, as well.

It seems like an obvious advantage: the ability to communicate academically and socially in two languages? Sign me up. 

Yet in “California, Arizona, Colorado and Massachusetts… bilingual immersion programs are banned because a majority of voters don’t think children can learn proper English and hold on to a foreign language and culture at the same time.”

Research regarding children’s almost superhuman ability to acquire language (versus the effort and rate of adult learners) can easily enough put to rest the inaccurate assumptions about children’s ability to become bi-, tri- or even more multilingual. However, the underlying fear about bilingualism–that speaking two languages means “holding on” to two cultures–is not so easy to shrug off. I think there’s some truth to it. 

The language of a group tells us about their worldview, their daily life, their values and their sense of reality and possibility. Those are not universals. As true as a belief is among a group of people, it is only a belief. Zero is a great example: globally, not all numbering systems have included a symbol for the concept of “0.” It seems crazy to me, since zero is part of the math I learned (and had to learn correctly, which only reinforced my sense of its absolute truth), and yet there you have it: zero is a cultural construct. It doesn’t mean it’s not real or doesn’t matter. If I want to do the math that our culture has and shares with other cultures, then I need to recognize zero. But just because it’s real to me here and now doesn’t mean it has been or is even today real for you.

Beyond math, we can find more examples of language as culture: while Inuit language talks about the myriad forms frozen water can take, the English language loves to name ways to fasten things. So learning a language is really learning a mindset, in which some things are worth naming, and others aren’t (or haven’t yet been considered). For another example, there is a concept in Pali and Sanskrit best translated into English as “self-compassion.” You can see how the best we could do was cobble together words we have to approximate an idea that exists as its own entity (karuna) in another culture. So when children or adults speak two or more languages, they do more than switch between vocabularies: they shift worldviews, assumptions, knowledges and imaginings.

A colleague of mine whose specialty is intercultural communication once summed up all that is involved in bilingualism: she said that sometimes knowing another language prevents you from communicating in it. What she meant is that having vocabulary and even syntax doesn’t mean we understand attitudes, beliefs, intentions and worldviews. But the power of being able to name things may fool us into thinking that we do. So I may be fluent, but not really literate because true bilingualism actually requires biculturalism.

Notably, notwithstanding the complexities and challenges of bilingualism and biculturalism, parents of the students at Coral Way do not echo critics’ concerns about their children being able to “hold on to a foreign language and culture at the same time.” In fact, they say that “being fluent in English and Spanish does not make you less of an American. It just creates more pathways to the American dream.” Imagine that.

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