Language Burden of Bilingual Children Called False Belief

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Contrary to what some believe, children who are bilingual early in life do not have poorer vocabularies and less successful school careers than their monolingual peers.

D. Kimbrough Oller of the University of Miami presented the results of a long-term study of bilingual children last week during a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here.

Mr. Oller 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 about the same time as children growing up in a single-language home. In addition, the speech of 3-year-olds who use both Spanish and English is just as intelligible in both languages as 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. But taken together, their vocabulary shows that they understand at least as many concepts as the monolingual children do, Mr. Oller said.

By the time bilingual children reach school, he added, 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.

Mr. Oller said the "bilingual deficit hypothesis," which assumes that bilingual children face special burdens in learning both languages, is false. Studies that have supported that view used children from widely varying socioeconomic backgrounds, he said.

While bilingual students as a group score lower on the Scholastic Assessment Test than monolingual English speakers, Mr. Oller said, their grade-point averages in college are no different from those of students who speak only English.

"On the whole, the results of our research emphasize 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," he said.

Academic deficits are most often found in sequential learning of English, when the new language largely replaces the first. A better approach, he said, is when competence in the first language is maintained while the second language is being learned.

Mr. Oller, who heads the Bilingualism Study Group at the university, cautioned that relatively few children learn two languages simultaneously; most attain fluency in their native language at home and learn English by 1st or 2nd grade.

People who believe in creationism are unlikely to do so because of ignorance or mental disorder, but because they follow different "rules for knowing" than scientists do.

Raymond A. Eve and his associates at the University of Texas at Arlington's department of sociology and anthropology asked 330 undergraduates at the school to respond to a range of pseudoscientific beliefs. They found that students who responded positively to the beliefs formed two groups: those who were Biblical literalists and endorsed the notion that Earth was created by an act of God fairly recently in geologic terms, and those who embraced "fantastic science" beliefs, such as unidentified flying objects, the lost continent of Atlantis, and the Loch Ness monster.

The two groups were mutually exclusive, Mr. Eve said. The creationists tied their beliefs to tradition, faith, authority, or revelation. The followers of fantastic science rejected the teachings of religion and the canons of modern science.

School officials battling creationists over the content of the science curriculum should bear in mind that their opponents are working from a belief system that is both logical and valid to them, Mr. Eve suggested.

Children's television science shows are doing a good job of overcoming negative images of scientists but may be reinforcing gender stereotypes.

So conclude Jocelyn Steinke and Marilee Long, two researchers who presented their findings during a well-attended symposium on media images of scientists at the A.A.A.S. meeting.

Ms. Steinke, an assistant professor of communications at Ithaca College in New York, and Ms. Long, an assistant professor of technical journalism at Colorado State University, examined five 1994 episodes from each of four popular science shows: "Beakman's World," "Bill Nye, the Science Guy," "Mr. Wizard's World," and "Newton's Apple."

The researchers found that, for the most part, the shows projected the positive images that science is truth, that it is fun and a part of everyday life, and that science is for everyone--a mantra of the movement to reform science education.

They also found little evidence of the "mad scientist" stereotype, though there was an emphasis on the scientist as an eccentric, elite person who has the answer to everything.

On the whole, the researchers said, these findings might bode well for attracting youngsters to science careers.

However, they also found that most of the authority figures in the shows were men, and that most of the time female characters were students or lab assistants. Women were seldom cast as expert scientists.

"Newton's Apple," a public-television show, did an especially good job of including female experts, the researchers said.

Scientists are concerned about the underrepresentation of women in science.

"By providing more adult female role models," the researchers write, "these programs could serve an important role in encouraging women to pursue scientific careers."


Vol. 14, Issue 23

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