The Bilingual Advantage

Next month we are publishing Rebecca Callahan and Patricia Gándara’s book The Bilingual Advantage. Here, we have a short interview with Rebecca and Patricia which gives further insight to the themes of their book.

Why did you feel this was an important book to write?

We were driven by two very strong interests: what we perceived to be a strong need to revisit the existing research on bilingualism in the labor market, and if that research yielded new findings, to frame it in such as way that it might capture the attention of policymakers.

We were both aware that the literature to date has shown that there is no real advantage to bilingualism in the US labor market, and in certain cases even a bilingual penalty, something that is counter-intuitive to most people, especially in an increasingly globalized world. This raised questions in our own minds about whether past research may have suffered from data and analytical problems, or if looking at the issue with younger cohorts, or in different geographic areas might yield different results. The studies in the The Bilingual Advantage draw on relatively new data, on longitudinal samples of young people, and attempt to more carefully define balanced bilingualism. And, indeed, we find very different outcomes for young balanced bilinguals, both in the labor market and in education.

If there are so many advantages to bilingualism, and if many of the young people in the US today who are most likely and able to achieve bilingualism are also those individuals who have little access to the rigorous schooling that would support biliteracy development, it seems that policy makers should be re-thinking these counterproductive education policies. However, we have seen that the research on the cognitive and social advantages of bilingualism has not been sufficiently compelling to motivate change in educational policies. It occurred to us that perhaps the economic arguments would be more compelling and bring the world of business in as allies in attempting to re-fashion policy.

The Bilingual AdvantageHow did the two of you come to collaborate on this book?

We had both discussed the importance of bilingualism, and the disconnect between what we saw as the value of bilingualism and the research suggesting there was little labor market advantage to mastering two languages. With the Civil Rights Project, Patricia had commissioned a series of studies to investigate the value of bilingualism. Once we decided that we wanted to do a book, Rebecca immediately came to mind as the ideal person to lead the shepherding of this set of studies toward a coherent volume.  She was familiar with the methods and datasets, she knew the area substantively, and had published in this area. Her background and interest in the value of bilingualism helped to shape the arguments at the core of The Bilingual Advantage.

Who do you hope will find your book interesting/useful?

Everyone from monolingual and bilingual parents and community members, to classroom educators and educational policy makers. The Bilingual Advantage is important to consider in the many decisions we make about how to educate the growing language minority, or more specifically, emergent bilingual population, as well as all other students who should be prepared for a global economy. To date, the educational policy that governs the instruction of this growing population is not aligned with the research.

What are three main points you hope readers of your book come away with?

Policy: There is a cost to not maintaining this national resource. An established base of effective instructional practices and programs exists to guide the successful education of the emergent bilingual population; failure to take advantage of the linguistic resources these students bring with them to the classroom will cost the national economy greatly in the long run.

Research: These studies make it clear that researchers in the field must carefully consider how they define ‘bilingualism’; most available data are not designed to answer questions about literacy and language proficiency in one, much less two languages. Lack of data in this area results in conclusions that may be inaccurate. Determining the true value of balanced bilingualism in the labor market is as much a question of measurement and empirical methods, as it is of the economy. Additionally, these studies point up the fact that the demographic changes occurring so rapidly in the US require that we revisit research findings based on data that reflect a different population in our schools and in the society.

Conventional wisdom: As we enter into a new era, the generations that have grown up in the information age are acutely aware of the new global economy. In this realm, everyone’s child really can benefit from proficiency in two or more languages.

Have you gained any surprising or unexpected insights from writing the book?

The impact of the methods was astonishing. Using appropriate measures, Santibañez and Zárate were able to show that balanced bilinguals were more likely to go to a four-year college, and were less likely to drop out compared to monolinguals. In addition, it was striking to note how clearly employers’ preferences drive the economic effects – which we see very clearly in the Porras chapter, but is also hinted at in the Alarcón chapters which allude to a muffled advantage, tempered by a context historically defined by its racial stratification. Also, Agirdag’s thesis that rather than just asking about economic advantages to bilingualism one should actually consider the costs of not educating students bilingually caused us to think of this issue in a whole different way!

What do you find rewarding about authoring and editing books?

Contribution to the larger field—shaping how we ask questions and having the opportunity to move the field forward. In addition, the whole process of getting to know other colleagues’ work intimately; forming what are really very lovely relationships with colleagues.

What other books on bilingualism have you enjoyed recently?

I really enjoyed Bialystok’s Bilingualism in Development, and we use Baker’s Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism in our graduate and undergraduate courses. I repeatedly draw on and refer students to Menken’s English Learners Left Behind, her seminal work investigating how standardized testing has resulted in a de facto language policy in K-12 schools. Some books you read once, others you go back to over and over. The Education of Language Minority Immigrants in the United States, edited by Wiley, Lee, and Rumberger, is one of those books. I recently re-read several chapters. The selection of works for that volume is exceptional.

What is your next research project?

Rebecca will be working on two projects, one which investigates the role of science efficacy in EL students’ middle to high school transition, and the other teachers’ use of an innovative engineering curriculum in the elementary age classroom. Patricia is working on bilingual, multinational open access secondary math curriculum to facilitate immigrant students’ high school completion and is about to launch a national survey on what teachers of English learners know, have been trained to do, and need support in doing to effectively educate EL/emergent bilingual students.

If you would like more information about this book please see our website.