Dual Language SchoolsSchools and Congress are in Session! Time for Biliteracy!

Author Photo: Dr. Bill Rivers

By: Dr. Bill Rivers

Executive Director of Joint National Committee for Languages

Photo for: Schools and Congress are in Session! Time for Biliteracy!

With schools now in full swing, advocates around the country are pushing for more dual language programs and more dual language teachers. Just this past week, Representatives James Langevin (D-RI), Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), and Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) introduced the Supporting Providers of English Language Learning (SPELL) Act, which would provide teachers of English Learners, to include Dual Language teachers, up to $17,500 in student loan forgiveness. When we take account of the Reaching English Learners Act and the House of Representatives’ appropriation of almost $1 billion for Title III of the Every Student Succeeds Act, we see that there’s genuine support for Dual Language Immersion in the Congress. Our elected representatives recognize and value bilingualism and biliteracy, and I’m humbled to be in a position to promote them here in DC.

When I’ve reflected over the years on why it is that we have bipartisan support in Congress, and why parents and business and community leaders across the country increasingly value and support our linguistic and cultural diversity, I find myself framing the arguments for bilingualism and biliteracy concretely on the individual learner because it’s easy to point to language learning as a force for good in society. The report of the Commission on Language Learning of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences lays out a clear case at the national level: languages matter to national security, job growth, and social justice.

Having said that, I am often struck by how hard it is for me personally to understand the perspective of someone who is monolingual. Speaking French since early childhood, learning French and then Russian at school and in college, working as a translator, interpreter and teacher, and living and working overseas have all changed how I view the world. But when I talk with monolinguals, I am never sure that I’m reaching them. I don’t have a monolingual brain and I don’t know how one works.

Because, why wouldn’t you learn another language? The benefits of bilingualism on an individual level are nearly unbelievable. As part of the Commission’s work, two colleagues of mine, Professors Judy Kroll and Paola Dussias, summarized these benefits in a concise white paper. I would like to list just a few here:

Being bilingual and using your languages throughout adulthood delays the onset of the symptoms of dementia and improves multiple areas of mental ability, compared to monolinguals.

Bilinguals earn, on average, 2% more than their monolingual peers, based on data from the U.S. Census going back at least to 1980; compounded annually over a 45-year career, that’s 244% more than monolinguals.

Bilingual high schoolers (however, whenever, wherever they acquired their language skills) graduate at higher rates, matriculate to college at higher rates and graduate there sooner.

But as we break down the benefits of bilingualism and language learning, I think we miss a much bigger point about how we make our case to America at large.

When I was eighteen, or twenty-five, I thought it would be easy to see another point of view, to understand the feelings of someone whose background and experiences are very different from mine. But at this point of my life, at fifty, I am at least aware that others’ experiences, values, and worldviews can be, and indeed often are, very different than mine. The long pathway to that understanding was unlocked for me by being bilingual. And that’s why I fight in Congress and the Administration for Dual Language Immersion and for all of America’s languages.