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March 26, 2002

The Consequences of English-only Education Over Bilingual Education is Explored in Contexts, ASA’s Newest Magazine

The long war between English-only and bilingual education appears to have been settled, with English-only education winning. But its costs are high for immigrant families, the communities in which they reside, and society as a whole. These conclusions are drawn by Alejandro Portes of Princeton University in a feature article “English-only Triumphs but the Costs are High” in Contexts, the newest journal of the American Sociological Association.

In this article, Portes explores the costs to society of English-only policies and the implications of the bilingual language debate for education. The strong assimilationist bent of American society, supported by the militant advocacy of nativist organizations warning of cultural disintegration, has rendered preservation of foreign languages a near impossibility in the United States. Studies have shown that in a comparison of 35 countries, in no place did foreign languages fade as swiftly as in the United States.

Based on data from the Children in Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS), Portes and his colleagues found that overwhelming majorities of immigrant children lost fluency in their parental tongue by the time they graduated from high school. Portes argues that the result is a massive loss of a cultural resource that should be the birthright of immigrant children.

The loss of fluent bilingualism also threatens a vital cultural asset for society as a whole. Research demonstrates that fluent bilinguals outperform limited bilinguals and English-only in standardized tests and grade point averages. The CILS study showed that children who were fluent bilinguals in the early high school years had significantly higher academic aspirations and self-esteem three years later.

Portes says that true bilingual education for immigrant students involves vigorous instruction in English with efforts to preserve the native tongue through selected teachings in that language. For native English speakers, bilingual education starts early, and it includes regular teaching of certain subjects in the chosen language. Portes argues that maintaining bilingual fluency in high school requires a modest investment of one or two hours per day rather than half of the total class time.

Further information on Contexts can be found on its webpage at Media interested in a copy should contact Johanna Ebner, ASA Public Information Office, at (202) 383-9005 x320 or e-mail

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About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.