D. Why Promote Bilingualism?

      For the first half of the twentieth-century, linguists and psychologists believed that bilingualism and cognitive development were incompatible. This conclusion was strongly influenced by the eugenics movement, which “considered the retention of a foreign language and the lack of fluency in English a further sign of the intellectual inferiority of immigrants[[.]” Members of the “nurture school” agreed, considering bilingualism a cause of immigrant children's alleged mental retardation, and framing bilingualism as a handicap “devoid of any apparent advantage.” In 1962, a landmark study by Peal and Lambert, which examined the cognitive correlates of bilingualism in French-Canadian children, addressed these misconceptions. In striking contrast to earlier research, the study found that “bilingual students outperformed monolingual students of the same [socioeconomic status] in almost all cognitive tests.” The positive association of bilingualism and intellectual development has since been confirmed by various large sample sociological studies.

      Bilingualism provides enormous benefits on both an individual and societal level. Indeed, a study by M. Tienda and L. Neidert found no basis for assuming that bilingual education programs, which encourage the retention of Spanish among Hispanics, retard their socioeconomic success, “provided that a reasonable level of proficiency in English is acquired.” As discussed in Section I(C), immigrant children learn English faster if they can take advantage of their heritage language skills while they are tackling the new language. Maintaining and building heritage language skills not only accelerates the rate of English acquisition, but also makes it possible for English language learners to continue learning other academic subjects in their native tongue while still improving English. Bilingual individuals not only have dual linguistic and literary skills but also possess additional cognitive skills and awareness about language.

      Academically, studies have shown that bilingual Latino students have “high[er] educational attainment and expectations.” Researchers suggest the reason for this bilingual advantage is that bilingual students “have more than one way of thinking about a given concept, making them more ‘divergent’ thinkers and more effective problem solvers.” Bilingual individuals also have access to multiple sources of information, which increases their social capital - their connections between networks - and their funds of knowledge, “the[] historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being.” Bilingualism also minimizes the generational gap within families and heritage language communities that is often exacerbated by language loss.

      These advantages translate into economic benefits, as bilingualism opens doors to more career options and higher paying jobs. “Latinos in Florida, for example, who speak English very well and who also speak Spanish have annual median incomes about 20% higher than Latinos who speak only English.” In Spanish-rich communities, such as Miami-Dade County, the pay difference was 50% more than monolingual employees.

      Bilingual individuals may serve society most prominently as “language brokers,” individuals who interpret and translate on behalf of others. Numerous studies have shown that immigrant children frequently act as language brokers, a task that requires and develops sophisticated linguistic, cultural, and cognitive skills. While this term usually references the translation that bilingual children conduct for their parents or other monolingual adult family members, language brokering skills are applicable to employment settings as well. Individuals who possess linguistic and cultural skills can play pivotal roles in domestic and international business, but businesses have a very difficult time finding individuals who are truly bilingual and bi-literate. A 1998 article in Hispanic Business highlighted this problem, citing the experiences of various large businesses in Miami, a city where about 75% of residents are Latino, 30% of all trade with South America takes place, and 43% of trade with Central America takes place. These demographics create a need for bilingual employees that the market does not currently fulfill. For example, Visa International's Latin American headquarters in Miami said they were unable to find bilingual employees who could give business presentations without grammatical errors. Managers of another $20 million company said they had to check correspondence drafted by “bilingual” sales associates due to past inaccuracies.

      The need for bilingual speakers is especially acute in fields such as diplomacy and national security. The government has invested substantially in building a multilingual international corps since 1946, when it opened the Defense Language Institute, the largest-foreign language school in the country. The institute was created specifically to develop multilingualism among government personnel. Despite these efforts, key government agencies, such as the CIA, report difficulty in meeting its needs for critical language skills, even with commonly spoken languages like Spanish.

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