Here’s What We’re Stuck With

Below is a paper I wrote a couple of years ago about my views/understanding of bilingual education up until that point. I have already progressed from this in terms of my understanding of the area, but it’s kind of fun to look back and see my thoughts from when I was first dipping my toes into this:


I first began researching how English is taught to non-native speakers when some of my in-laws recently enrolled in formal English as a Second Language (or ESL) classes. After a few classes, I asked them how it was going, and I got mixed reviews. The teacher was patient and nice, they told me, and she even spoke Spanish – but she refused to speak it with them. The general consensus was that they could have learned twice as many things in their classes if someone could explain the subject material to them in Spanish, instead of gesturing at pictures and hoping for a connection. As a native English speaker, I had never thought of how difficult the ESL style of teaching must be for both sides when the student has no prior knowledge of English. My family looked to me for a rational explanation as to why language is approached in this manner – I had no answer.

As this is going to be my field of study, I did some research, and I have found that although ESL is the type of teaching English to speakers of other languages (or TESOL) that most people are familiar with, it is, in fact, the least effective out of the three styles that I found. The styles of teaching English to non-native speakers that I will be examining here, in order of least cognitively effective to most, are; ESL, transitional, and maintenance. There are a variety of reasons for this inversion of most implemented versus most effective styles of teaching including politics, socioeconomic circumstances, and the reigning superiority of English in America. Regardless of these reasons, the general understanding needs to be achieved that not only do bilingual children and adults deserve to maintain their native language and identity in tandem with the English they must learn, but also it is cognitively detrimental to force them to do otherwise.

Bilingualism and multilingualism are beneficial to the cognitive growth of children. This is not an opinion; it is a fact that has been proven through numerous studies across cultures and systems of education. Unfortunately, this fact is frequently ignored in favor of the superiority of English when formatting the education of American bi- and multi-linguals. According to De Houwer (1995), bilingual children build two separate linguistic systems. This creation of two systems where a monolingual child only has one has proven to provide advantages in other areas of cognitive development as well. Studies have shown that bilingual children who are fluent in both their first language (or L1) and their second language (or L2) routinely out-perform monolingual children at a variety of tasks. These tasks range from consistently out performing on standardized tests (Senesac, 2002), to higher ability to filter sensory input (Marian, 2012), to even higher performance in episodic and semantic memory tasks (Kormi-Nori, 2008). This is the type of bilingualism that the education system should aspire to provide to its students.

The facts state that bilingualism is without question beneficial when the child is equally proficient in his or her L1 and L2. The problem with this is that this is not the type of bilingualism that students of the American education system generally achieve. The type of education that bilinguals receive here operates under the assumption that English is superior, and fluency in English must be achieved to the exclusion of anything else. The issues with this scenario begin to arise when the child’s understanding of the L2 eclipses and even replaces the L1. This bait-and-switch concept is first introduced by Cummins’ (1976) research, in which he categorizes the children with equal L1 and L2 understanding as ‘balanced.’ Cummins attributed studies where cognitive benefits were not found for the bilingual students to what he called the “balancing effect,” where the child’s L1 understanding has suffered to pay for his or her level of competency in his or her L2 (Cummins, 1976). This is the type of cognitive breakdown that American bilinguals generally end up with. A bilingual going through the American education system ends up with none of the cognitive benefits of being bilingual, coupled with the detrimental practice of learning their core education in a code they don’t understand.

If the research suggests such issues with this approach to teaching and learning, why is it the most common approach in public education?  The fact is, this style of teaching is the most convenient and cost effective – not for the students, of course, but for the administration. Teachers bilingual in multiple languages are not necessary because ESL is taught entirely in English. The class where I am currently doing my observation is an ESL class composed of one Japanese student, one South Korean student, one Chinese student, and four Latino students. Nearly half of the students do not have a common language other than English, so the class is taught in English, and everyone learns. Whether they are learning to the full extent of their cognitive ability is another story.

The problem with this style is largely based on Cummins’ concept of a bilingual student becoming ‘unbalanced’ in his or her L1 and L2. Generally, graduates of the ESL program are more fluent in English than their L1. This leads to an elimination of all of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism that the student could have reaped because the child can no longer be considered ‘truly’ bilingual. This is compounded with the fact that in many ESL programs, the students are encouraged to speak English at home as well to speed their progress. In encouraging this practice, the last remaining support system for the L1, the home, has been destroyed for the child. Proctor (2010) compared ESL, transitional, and maintenance techniques, and found that the ESL students performed overall the worst in the standardized tests given to all of the students in both their L1 and their L2. Evaluating these students in both of their languages serves to control the results of the experiment to ensure that the performance being evaluated is in fact the student’s true cognitive ability and is not mitigated by language limitations.

In contrast, the transitional style is where the teacher begins teaching in the L1 and as more and more understanding of the L2 is achieved, slowly switches over to the L2 completely. In a classroom, this would look like a class of students who all speak the same L1, and a teacher also fluent in their L1. The first year would start with most of the activities taking place in the students’ L1. As they gained competency they would graduate to some directions being given in English and then explained further in the L1. Finally the transitional experience would culminate in all classroom interactions taking place in English as the students achieve fluency.

This style slows the eventual eclipsing of the L1 with English, but in the end the goal is still to make English the most important language. This is a style that would be most effective in a school with a small group of bilingual students or a recent influx of students who all speak the same language, but not English. For example, if there were not enough children in the whole school to warrant a separate academic track for them, but there are perhaps enough to warrant a small class in one or two grades, this style is advantageous. Furthermore, going back to our Proctor 2010 study, students taught in the transitional style outperformed the ESL students when given standardized tests in both their L1 and L2. Following this style, bi/multilingual students can learn English in an environment most advantageous for their cognitive growth while also being eventually filtered into the mainstream classroom, thereby limiting the amount of resources spent on them. Purely from a political and economic standpoint, this style is preferable, and even from a cognitive standpoint this style has proven to be more advantageous than ESL.

The one style of teaching non-native English speakers that is the most effective across the board, especially in the light of Cummins’ premise, is the maintenance style. The maintenance style is when equal time is spent in the classroom using the child’s L1 and L2. According to Schmitt (1985), maintenance is typically used “with students who have recently arrived in the United States and understand no English at all.” This teaching style is by no means limited to such a demographic in its benefits, and in recent years there has been an increase in such schools especially in New York City, where sometimes entire city blocks all share an L1 other than English. Instead of focusing on Americanization and the superiority of English, this teaching style provides the cognitive benefits of true bilingualism. It should not just be another means to segregate the non-native English speakers from the native English speakers. It should be used to raise the cognitive abilities of all American students.

The reason pairing L1 and L2 education works is because they can build off of each other. In the maintenance style, the L2 is not being approached as a different code in which the child can translate into from the L1, but instead both linguistic systems are being catered to simultaneously. Cognitive growth in both linguistic systems is concurrent. The object is to teach students the fundamental reading and writing skills in the L1 first, and then teach the same curriculum in English, falling back on the L1 as need be. As Schmitt states, this “method aims to foster parallel learning development in both languages” (Schmitt, 1985). This method is therefore the most likely to promote ‘balanced’ bilinguals because both linguistic systems are growing at an equal rate instead of one eclipsing the other.

Finding a teacher with enough qualifications to cover all of the needs required by this role is a daunting task, and apparently one that many districts are reticent to take on. However, this method is so effective that any cost would be outweighed by the benefits to the students. Even students with other environmental factors stacked against them (for example detrimental socioeconomic conditions) outperform students of other teaching styles when tested. Proctor (2010) mentions that “a relatively high percentage of mothers of the bilingually instructed children had less than a ninth-grade education,” and that “the [transitional] and [maintenance] instruction groups had the lowest family incomes on average.”  These socioeconomic factors are frequently ignored in the education of children with English as their L2, and yet they remain incredibly important across races in the US school system. Studies have shown that lower income and lower level education of parents is connected to hindering a child’s academic growth. That being said, in Proctor’s study, the students in the maintenance group out-performed the other two groups by a landslide, even though they had the additional disadvantages of being both the poorest group and the group having parents with the lowest levels of education. That is how effective this teaching style is. However, because of costs and politics, it is only limitedly implemented, and therefore it is difficult to come across a study in which all of the students are of the same socioeconomic background, and therefore evaluate exactly how much better it is.

In summary, although ESL is the most widely known form of TESOL, it is also the least effective when compared to the transitional and maintenance styles of teaching. This is due to the fact that the student’s L1 is completely ignored and marginalized in the classroom, and in some cases at home as well. While the transitional method does not ignore the student’s L1, the moral behind the method ends in the same way; with the superiority and preferential treatment of the English language. The maintenance style is the only one of these three that does not treat one language in any way differently than the other. Not only does this ensure the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, but it can also ensure, if done properly, that the students with English as their L2 do not get segregated from the students with English as their L1 in any way in their education. So, in a world where a child’s right to maintain his or her cultural identity is superseded by the right of a native English speaker to get the best/better education, this method could still be viable if implemented correctly. However, the education system still clings to the ESL style because it is easier – not for the students, but for the administration. In the end, although there are several other avenues in which teaching English to speakers of other languages can proceed to the benefit of American students, there are politics at work that impede the progression of education. In the end, this is what we are stuck with. It needs to change.



Cummins, J. (April 1976). The Influence of Bilingualism on Cognitive Growth: A Synthesis of Research Findings and Explanatory Hypotheses. Working Papers on Bilingualism, No. 9. ERIC. Bilingual Education Project, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.


De Houwer, A. (1995). Bilingual language acquisition. In P. Fletcher & B. MacWhinney (Eds.), The handbook of child language (pp. 219-250).Oxford, UK: Blackwell.


Kormi-Nori, R. (2008). The Effect of Childhood Bilingualism on Episodic and Semantic Memory Tasks. National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine.


Marian, V. (2012). The cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual. National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine.


Proctor, C.P., August, D., Carlo, M., & Barr, C. (2010). Language Maintenance versus Language of Instruction: Spanish Reading Development among Latino and Latina Bilingual Learners. Journal of Social Issues, 66 (1), 79-94. Doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.2009.01634.x


Schmitt, E. (1985, November 10). The 3 Teaching Methods In Bilingual Classes. Retrieved October 30, 2014, from


Senesac, B. (2002). Two-Way Bilingual Immersion: A Portrait of Quality Schooling. Taylor & Francis. Bilingual Research Journal: The Journal of the National Association for Bilingual Education, Volume 26, Issue 1.






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