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Bilingualism: Is It Really a Problem?

Updated 7/30/2020

If Puerto Rico chooses statehood in the November Plebiscite, it will be one of only three states to have two official languages (Hawaii’s official languages are English and Hawaiian, while Alaska’s are English plus 20 languages indigenous to Alaska). Some discussion of the plebiscite has focused on the possible ramifications of this fact.

However, Caribbean Business reports that 20 percent of U.S. children currently live in bilingual or multilingual homes. Spanish is spoken in up to 25% of homes in some states. Bilingual ballots have been ordered in at least states. Many cities in the United States have bilingual or even multilingual street signs. It may simply be too late to avoid bilingualism in the United States.

Is bilingualism a problem? A number of recent reports suggest that bilingualism may in fact be good for cognitive development:

In fact, we don’t hear suggestions that bilingualism is a problem in discussions about French lessons in private schools, corporate training in Japanese, or Hebrew School. The concern tends to focus on communities where families speak other languages — and particularly Spanish — at home.

The other side of the coin is concern in Puerto Rico about encouraging English. During the first half of the 20th century, high school courses were taught in English in Puerto Rico. Returning to Spanish language instruction was associated with cultural pride. For some Puerto Ricans, focusing on English brings negative associations.

In both cases, the issue may be more emotional, and more about cultural stereotypes, than it is a rational concern about the “problem” of bilingualism.

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