by Frank Gonzales, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 1995

The recent Oscar-nominee movie, Nell, with Jodie Foster in the title role, depicts an example of how children acquire language in an isolated environment. Twin girls were raised in an isolated mountain region by a mother who had suffered a stroke and had lost most of her speaking ability. The girls developed a sound system (phonology), a word-forming system (morphology), a phrase and sentence forming system (syntax) and a vocabulary (lexicon). Their language, while not understood by others, allowed for communication. The film portrays the interaction between Nell, a physician and a college researcher after Nell becomes the sole survivor of her family. Ultimately, all three individuals learn to communicate, value and respect each other.

Spanish-speaking students in public schools are very much like Nell. They have developed a language system for efficient communication. They have developed all four parts of a language system: phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon. They function within their homes and communities in Spanish, their primary language. When they enter school, they are confronted with English and they must learn this new language in order to be successful in school (Zamora, 1979).

Children can learn an additional language, and they can become bilingual. However, while children are learning English, most schools place them in a deficit mode of learning. The educational system values the monolingual, English-speaking student and behaves as if the Spanish-speaking or bilingual student brings a language burden to the school that the school must eradicate before the student becomes an accepted learner. From this perspective, being bilingual or being monolingual in Spanish is not a blessing. Schools send the message that Spanish is not a language that is good enough for learning. This concept is commonly known as subtractive bilingualism. Children become bilingual at the expense of loosing their first language.

Another approach is currently in use in developmental bilingual programs where maintenance of the students’ first language is encouraged as they learn a second language. This concept is called additive bilingualism. Monolingual English-speakers are taught Spanish, and monolingual Spanish-speakers are taught English in an “additive” program. Simply stated, another language is added to the child’s existing language capability. The primary objective is for the child to become a balanced bilingual at the end of the instructional program.

Problems with the Bilingual Deficit Hypothesis

Too many schools continue to operate out of the bilingual deficit hypothesis. A recent study conducted at the University of Miami Department of Psychology destroys this hypothesis (Oller, 1995). Contrary to popular belief, children who are bilingual early in life do not have poorer vocabularies and less successful school careers that their monolingual peers. Children are truly blessed with bilingual brains if they are exposed to Spanish and English simultaneously during the time they are acquiring their language systems

Dr. D. Kimbrough Oller, who heads the Bilingualism Study Group, and his associates have been studying the linguistic and academic performance of hundreds of children who speak Spanish and English. They have found that children in a bilingual home begin to form words at about the same time as do children in a single-language home. In addition, the speech of three-year-olds who use both Spanish and English is just as intelligible in both languages as is that of their monolingual peers in either tongue:

At the same age, bilingual children may know fewer words of English or Spanish than their monolingual peers in either language. By the time children reach school, children who learn Spanish and English simultaneously know more words in English than their peers who hear only Spanish at home, while their Spanish vocabulary is similar to that of their monolingual peers (Oller, 1995).

The bilingual deficit hypothesis, which assumes that bilingual children face special burdens in learning both languages, is false:

On the whole, the results of our research emphasizes the advantages of bilingualism because they show that in most cases of appropriate comparison, children learning two languages simultaneously acquire the ability to function effectively in two cultures (Oller, 1995).

Points to Remember

This research has several implications for bilingual education instruction in public schools.

All children should be taught in more than one language. Children can acquire as many languages as they are exposed to in a meaningful way. To acquire a language, children must have social and academic interaction in that language (Cummins, 1981).

All children should be exposed to meaningful language experiences. The development of communicative competence is dependent upon meaningful interaction with other speakers of that language. Students should be engaged in listening, speaking, reading and writing activities in both languages.

Acquiring a second language requires time. Transfer from one language to another will not occur within three years of instruction. Results from V.P. Collier and W.P. Thomas show that children who were between seven and 12 years of age when they arrived in the United States and who had at least two years of schooling in their native country reached the 50th percentile on reading, language arts, science and social studies tests five to seven years after their arrival (1988). Children between four and six years of age who had received little or no schooling in their native language had not reached the 50th percentile after six years and were expected to reach it after seven to 10 years.

Bilingualism, like any other talent – i.e. playing a musical instrument, dancing, painting, singing, drama – does not occur instantly. It requires, time, practice and exposure to all forms of language in meaningful and gratifying personal experiences.

IDRA believes that any person, child or adult can acquire another language if he or she has the desire to become bilingual, if he or she has meaningful experiences in the language and if his or her attempts in using the language are encouraged and rewarded. To be able to express thoughts and feelings in more than one language is an advantage; one that is becoming a necessity in our multicultural, global society. Throughout its history, IDRA’s professional development has guided educators in creating classrooms that demonstrat this concept.

“Blessed with bilingual brains” is a fact that is more true today than ever before. How well I remember the admonition of my parents, although I did not believe them at the time, “Ser bilingue es muy importante. El que habla dos idiomas, tiene dos almas.” [To be bilingual is very important. He who speaks two languages, has two souls.]


Collier, V.P. and Thomas. W.P. “Acquisition of Cognitive-academic Second Language Proficiency: A Six-year Study.” Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana (1988).

Cummins, J. “The Role of Primary Language Development in Promoting Educational Success for Language-Minority Students.” Schooling and Language-Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework. (Los Angeles, Calif.: California State University, Evaluation Dissemination and Assessment Center, 191).

Gonzales, F. First and Second Language Acquisition Processes. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1988).

Oller, D.K. “Language Burden of Bilingual Children Called False Belief.” Presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference, Atlanta, Georgia. Reported in Education Week (March 1, 1995), 14(23).

Zamora, G. “Understanding Bilingual Education: A Texas Perspective.” IDRA Newsletter. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1979).

Dr. Frank Gonzales is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at

[©1995, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1995 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]