Bilingual Education second Language Acquisition

Bilingual education is an inherent function of a society’s political ideology and the various forms it takes reflects the basic philosophies and politics in society. Lambert (1974) distinguishes between additive and subtractive bilingualism. An additive bilingual situation occurs when the addition of a second language and culture is unlikely to replace or displace the first language and culture. It therefore stands as an expansion to the linguistic repertoire in which both languages are considered useful and valued. In contrast, subtractive bilingualism reflects a situation where the learning of a majority second language may undermine a person’s minority first language and culture. This form of subtractive bilingualism occurs in a society where one language is valued more than the other. When the second language is considered more prestigious and powerful, the minority language tends to be perceived as of low status and value. Instead of addition, there is subtraction. The latter form of bilingualism fosters a negative attitude towards the minority language. In contrast, additive bilingualism encourages a positive attitude towards both languages.

The aim of second language instruction for language minority students may be assimilationist and subtractive. The objective of second language learning in this case is to integrate language minority students into mainstream society. There is no attempt to maintain and preserve the minority language, but rather to replace it by the more dominant and prestigious second language. Furthermore, in such circumstance, a negative attitude towards the minority language is often encouraged by teachers and school personnel. This assimilating view of second language teaching was adopted by the United States when an increasing number of immigrants went in search of the American Dream. Language diversity became a cause for concern, and it was held that the widespread use of the English language epitomised a unified nation. In 1917, Roosevelt urged all immigrants to adopt the English language:

“We must have but one flag. We must have but one language. (…) We cannot tolerate any attempt to oppose or supplant the language and culture that has come down to us from the builders of the republic with the language and culture of any European country. The greatness of this nation depends on the swift assimilation of the aliens she welcomes to her shores. Any force which attempt to retard the assimilative process is a force hostile to the highest interest of our country”. (quoted in Baker, 2001: 196)

In order to rapidly integrate language minority children submersion programmes were provided. Skuttnab-Kangas defines a submersion programme as “a programme where linguistic minority children with a low-status mother tongue are forced to accept instruction through the medium of a foreign majority language with high status” (1988: 40). Language minority children were taught all day in the majority language alongside native speakers of English. The ‘sink or swim’ metaphor associated with these types of programmes expresses the difficulties that language minority children encountered, as well as the social and psychological results. Submersion programmes may involve the addition of withdrawal or pull-out classes where language minority children are given additional lessons in the majority language in order to facilitate their integration. However, such programmes tend to give less importance to the academic curriculum with the result that language minority children may fall behind in order to attend the pull-out classes. Submersion programmes may also involve “Structured Immersion”. These programmes contain only language minority children and no language majority children, they are conducted in the majority language, and the first language is not developed but is replaced by the majority language. Such programmes differ from submersion programmes in that the teacher tends to use simplified vocabulary. The variations of submersion programmes all aim for the assimilation of language minority students to the majority language. It is a subtractive language learning situation where the school becomes a melting pot of cultures to produce one ideology. As Cummins observes, “the approach is totally assimilationist and children’s home language and culture are viewed either as impediments to educational progress or as having no functional significance” (1984: 75).

Things started to change in the sixties, in Kennedy’s era. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 called to establish general equality of opportunity and stated that: “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (quoted in Romaine, 2000: 224-225). The Civil Rights Act is an important marker in the development of bilingual education in the United States. Nevertheless, it took a lawsuit to promote awareness of the inequality and injustice that language minority students were subjected to. In 1970, a lawsuit on behalf of Chinese public school students against the San Francisco Unified School District raised the issue of the disadvantages that language minority students faced when taught in a language they do not understand. As a result of this case, known as Lau versus Nichols, submersion programmes were outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1974 stating that: “There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education”. (quoted in Baker, 2001: 186)

Transitional bilingual education resulted out of the sought for “Lau Remedies”. These programmes allow language minority students the use of their native language, and they are taught in their native language until they are deemed able to cope in mainstream education. As Cummins observes, “Transition Bilingual programs attach considerable significance to the initial culture and linguistic mismatch between home and school and use the child’s L1 in the initial stages to allow curriculum content to be assimilated while L2 is being learned” (1984: 77). There are two major types of transitional bilingual programmes, early exit and late exit. Early exit involves two years teaching using the native language, while late exit allows forty per cent of classroom teaching in L1 until the sixth grade. Although transitional bilingual programmes were an improvement on the submersion programmes, the underlying aim of transitional bilingual education is still assimilationist and subtractive. As Baker points out, “social and cultural assimilation into the language majority is the underlying aim” (2000: 192).

In contrast to the subtractive function of bilingual education and its aim to assimilate minority language children into mainstream society, additive bilingual education sets out to add a second language at no cost to the first language. According to Cummins, “education successful forms of bilingualism tend to be “additive” in that the individual adds an L2 at no cost to L1 proficiency. The bilingualism of minority language groups is termed “subtractive” in that the child’s L1 skills are replaced or “subtracted” in the process of acquiring L2” (1984: 83). In Maintenance bilingual education, children learn a minority language to cultivate and preserve the minority language and culture. This provides an additive situation, where a second language is acquired at no cost to the first language. A different aim of bilingual education, other than assimilation or maintenance, is to foster increased harmony between language groups – the type of situation we find in Canada.

“Drip-feed” language programmes are widely used in school curriculums around the world for the teaching of a second language. The aim of these programmes is for educational purposes and to provide students a proficiency in the second language. The second language is taught for half an hour or forty-five minutes per day and the rest of the teaching is provided in the majority language. Although the aim of such programmes is to supply an additive language, few students become fluent in the second language, since they are not exposed to it apart from the brief time stipulated at school. Such programmes in Canada are called “core programmes”. In Canada, unlike the United States, second language learning and bilingualism are considered as crucial to obtain harmony between the French and English speaking Canadians. Bilingualism and biculturalism promote an integrated society and aid political and economic affairs. The unsatisfactory results of the drip-feed language programmes were disconcerting to the English speaking Canadian parents. Their concern was a stimulus for the introduction of Immersion Bilingual Education. The immersion movement started in St. Lambert Montreal in 1965 as an experiment, with the aim to provide bilingual education without loss of academic achievement.

The experiment was an astounding success, which spread rapidly across Canada and influenced bilingual education throughout the world. Immersion programmes aim for an additive bilingual situation in two prestigious majority languages unlike the submersion and transitional programmes. An important characteristic which distinguishes immersion programmes is that it is optional; parents opt for such an education for their children and their commitment is a motivation for the students. As Shapson rightly observes, “an immersion program involves a switch of languages between the home and the school (…) the opportunity that immersion provides for children to learn language through its use rather than through explicit instruction is its distinguishing feature” (1984: 5). Research has demonstrated that students in immersion programmes acquire a high level of proficiency in French with no lowering of performance elsewhere in the curriculum. In their experiments, Lambert and Tucker conclude that:

“Experimental pupils appear to be able to read, write, speak, understand, and use English as competently as youngsters instructed in the conventional manner via English. During the same period of time and with no apparent personal or academic costs, the children have developed a competence in reading, writing, speaking, and understanding French that English pupils following a traditional French-as-a Second-Language program for the same number of years could never match”. (1972: 152).

Immersion programmes come in different forms. Early Total Immersion has been the most well known type of immersion programme in Canada. There are three phases in early total immersion. The immersion phase begins in kindergarten or grade 1 with children receiving their first two or three years of schooling with French as the only language of instruction. Eventually the proportion of time in which English is used is increased so that by the end of the elementary school the curriculum is balanced between English and French instruction. This corresponds to the bilingual phase. At the secondary school there is the maintenance phase in which select courses are taught in French. Children in early immersion acquire the second language in an unconscious way; students are allowed to use their home language for classroom communication and among their peers, rather than having their native language denounced. Late immersion starts at secondary level and involves either a one-year or two-year total immersion. Similarly this is followed by the follow-up phase in which select courses are taught in French. Partial immersion provides fifty per cent immersion in the second language throughout infant and junior schooling. Students in immersion programmes experience the same curriculum as students in a core programme with the added result of becoming successful bilinguals. Studies indicate that immersion education not only results in native-like performance in the second language but tends to heighten achievement across the curriculum.

Although submersion, pull-out classes, and transitional programmes are referred to as bilingual educational processes, they do not have bilingualism as an intended outcome. This counts as a ‘weak’ use of the term bilingual education, as such programmes aim to assimilate bilingual children to the majority language. In contrast, the underlying aim of immersion programmes is bilingualism and biculturalism, and thus represents a “strong” use of the term bilingual education. Immersion education promotes both first and second languages for academic purposes without loss of academic achievement.



Baker Colin, 2001, Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (3rd edn). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Cummins Jim, 1984, ‘The Minority Language Child’. In S. Shapson and V. D’Oyley (eds), 1984, Bilingual and Multicultural Education: Canadian Perspectives. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 

Ellis Rod, 1997, The Study of Second Language Acquisition (5th edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lambert W. E., 1974, ‘Culture and language as factors in learning and education’. In F. E. Aboud and R. D. Meade (eds), 1974, Cultural Factors in Learning and Education. 5th Western Washington Symposium on Learning, Bellingham, Washington.  

Lambert W. E and Tucker G. R., 1972, Bilingual Education of Children: The St. Lambert Experiment. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Romaine Suzanne, 2000, Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (2nd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Shapson Stan, 1984, ‘Bilingual and Multicultural Education in Canada’. In S. Shapson and V. D’Oyley (eds), 1984, Bilingual and Multicultural Education: Canadian Perspectives. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Skuttnab-Kangas T., 1988, ‘Multilingualism and the education of minority children’. In Skattnab-Kangas and Cummins (eds), 1988, Minority Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.