Richard Light

The University at Albany

State University of New York




As we enter the 21st century, most educators agree that a major challenge facing American schools is the education of linguistically and culturally diverse populations of learners. Minority populations are increasing at many times the rate for the majority population. By one estimate, Hispanic and non- white populations in the United States will more than double by the year 2030. (McLeod, 1994). American schools are under considerable pressure to provide programs that respond effectively to this increasing diversity in school-age populations.

Although recent national educational reform documents such as the Goals 2000 statement articulate a message of reform for American education, there has been concern that the special needs of diverse student populations are not addressed in these documents. This concern has been articulated by August, Hakuta, and Pompa (1994), Campbell (1996) and The Center for Applied Linguistics (1993), among others. A central theme underlying these reports is that failure to provide minority-sensitive information on diverse school populations will mask differences which need the attention of educators if national goals and systemic reform are to benefit all children.

For the past two decades there has been widespread agreement among educators that linguistic and cultural differences among minority children in United States schools are important variables in their academic success (Cummins, 1991; Diaz-Rico and Weed, 1995; Garcia, 1994; Gaarder, 1967, 1977; Light, 1972; McLeod, 1994; Pease-Alvarez and Hakuta, 1992; Wong Fillmore and Valdez, 1986). There also seems to be widespread agreement that an understanding of minority childrens' linguistic and cultural backgrounds, the potential roles of their first and second languages in the schools, and the larger historical and social contexts of their education are crucial to the academic success of such children (Baker, 1993; Banks, 1994; Cazden, 1986; Collier, 1995; Heath, 1983; McGroarty, 1992; Nieto, 1992). A corollary to this is the view that misunderstandings about the linguistic and cultural characteristics of minority children will lead to misconceptions about appropriate educational interventions on their behalf (Collins, 1988; Cummins, 1991; Labov, 1972; Snow, 1992; Zanger, 1994).

Despite a considerable body of research on the nature of language, first and second language acquisition, and the roles of language in the schooling of language minorities in the United States, misconceptions about these topics remain prevalent. Research has suggested that such misconceptions have led to counterproductive classroom activities and attitudes (Collins, 1988; Labov, 1972; Zanger, 1994), to inappropriate curricular design (Cummins, 1991; Bartolome, 1994), and, in extreme cases, to placement of normal minority children in classes for the "educable mentally retarded." (Light, 1972; Oller, 1992).

The following explores some persistent myths about language as they relate to the education of minority children in United States schools. Implications of these myths for the education of such children are briefly examined


One of the most persistent myths about language minority children is that their first language (or dialect) and culture represent "deficits" or deficiencies" to be overcome by the school. This view holds that the language and culture of minority children are unsystematic, illogical, and sometimes even "unAmerican" obstacles to their education. This deficit view was widely promoted for non-standard English speakers by educators such as Bereiter and Engelmann (1966) and for speakers of first languages other than English by writers such as Hirsch (1987). Although Labov's (1972) critique of deficit views of non-standard dialects, and Peal and Lambert's (1962) classic study on the positive effects of-bilingualism have muted the stridency of its proponents, the deficit view is still commonly expressed. The deficit perspective is now often more subtly (and perhaps inadvertently) supported, but it is nonetheless still widely expressed by influential scholars and institutions. Examples of recent support for the deficit view of minority languages include the following.

Some of the myths supporting deficit views may disregard Labov's (1972) research, our intuitions, and even common sense about language in use, as this quote from Purves (1990) attests:

Even when we hear He don't have no potatoes we can infer that either the man has potatoes or... that the speaker is ungrammatical. (p. 32).

In addition to attributing a lack of logic to the language of minority children, deficit supporters may falsely attribute negative values to poor minority families as in this statement by the National Center for Family Literacy (1990) noted by Taylor (1993):

Undereducated parents usually do not pass on positive educational values to their children. (p. 551).

The negative educational consequences of such deficit perspectives on language minority children are documented in the research of Auerbach, (1995); Bartolome, (1994); Collins, (1988); Labov, (1972); Skutnabb-Kangas, (1994 and 1995); Swadener, (1995); and Zanger, (1994), among others.


Statements related to the education of language minority children may contradict the often-stated views of an entire profession. One educator, for example, clearly contradicts the widely-publicized views of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) organization regarding the importance of maintaining the minority child's first language, as emphasized in TESOL's (1987) Resolution on Lanounoe Rights. Thus, Garcia (in Banks, 1994) has suggested:

The TESL method (sic) assumes its purpose to be compensatory, that is, the student~s inability to use English is viewed as a deficiency that must be compensated through a submersion into English-only instruction. Another assumption (of the "TESL Method") is that the student's first language is a liability... Therefore the student's first language must be ignored. (p. 277).

The negative effects of such misconceptions on the education of minority children are difficult to measure. Yet it seems clear that school programs built on these and other misunder- standings will be less than effective for such children.


The Official English movement, while often reflecting the real fears and the good intentions of many Americans, also incorporates and magnifies myths about language and society.

These statements supporting Official English often distort the "threats" to English in America as in the following statement by U.S. English in Crawford (1992):

...English is under attack and we must take affirmative steps to guarantee that it continues to be our common heritage. Failure to do so may well lead to institutionalized language segregation and a gradual loss of national unity. (p. 144).

Others suggest dire consequences resulting from the "improper" use of English as in Simon (1980) quoted by Sledd (1990):

Abuse of English (will lead to) a deterioration of our moral values and standards of living. (p.10)

Such statements are clearly contradicted by the evidence that language change and language variation are normal features of any linguistic system and that English is in fact the overwhelmingly powerful and widespread language of prestige both in the U.S. and throughout the world. (Daniels, 1990).


Perhaps most widespread are the myths and misconceptions about bilingualism and bilingual education. Researchers have for decades refuted early notions regarding the "dangers" of bilingualism and the idea that bilinguals are mentally confused" (Seer, 1923, quoted in Baker, 1993). Perhaps most widely known is the study by Peal and Lambert (1962) which noted that "bilinguals performed significantly higher (than monolinguals) on 15 of 18 variables measuring IQ". Widely recognized also is the distinction between bilingualism (the psycholinguistic phenomenon within individuals) and bilingual education (the educational process). (Baker, 1993; Pease-Alvarez and Hakuta, 1992). Despite the widespread availability of accurate information on these topics in the educational literature, we still find statements by influential educators revealing profound misunderstandings of the nature of language, language acquisition, bilingualism, and bilingual education.

Such statements may, for example, disregard crucial distinctions among bilingualism, bilingual education, and "methods" as in the following quotes from Ravitch (1994):

...bilingualism is one pedagogical method, as subject to misuse as any other single method.

...bilingual education is one method of language teaching. (p. 214).

Other misleading statements may trivialize "success" in second language learning as in the following by Garcia in Banks (1994):

Success... requires that the curriculum be permeated with multilingual materials. Examples are: learning to count in Spanish... (p. 280).

Other myths may disregard the crucial effects of social contexts on the education of language minority children. Despite compelling evidence to the contrary (e.g., Irujo, 1991; Tucker, 1986), some continue to suggest, for example, that if immersion programs in French worked for Anglo children in Montreal, then immersion programs in English will work for poor minority children in the United States, as in Porter (1990):

My proposals for adapting Canada's immersion model for language minority children in the United States are presented (below). (p. 119)

Even high-level government education officials may misinterpret the nature of bilingual education as in this speech ffl William Bennett in 1985, quoted in Crawford (1991):

(Bilingual education has failed because i has) lost sight of the goal of (teaching) English (and has instead become) a way of enhancing students' knowledge of their native language and culture. (p. 70).

Such statements ignore the considerable body of research evidence supporting the value of bilingualism, bilingual education and second language learning (e.g., Pease-Alvarez and Hakuta, 1992; Diaz-Rico and Weed, 1995; Cummins, 1991).


As educators and scholars have argued for decades, misconceptions such as these about language and language learning are likely to have serious negative consequences for the education of language minority children in our schools. One task for advocates of such children is to insure that the abundant evidence which counters such myths is made available to everyone interested in improving the education of language minority children in our schools. Some sources of this information are noted in the references below.


Auerbach, E. (1995). From deficit to strength: Changing perspectives in family literacy. In Weinstein-Shr and Quintero (Eds.). Immigrant learners and their families. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

August, D., Hakuta, K. and Pompa, D. (1994). For all students: Limited Enalish Proficient students and goals 2000. Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Baker, C. (1993). Foundations of bilinqual education and bilinaualism. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.

Banks, J.A. (1994). Multiethnic education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bartolome, L. (1994). Teaching strategies: Their possibilities and limitations. In McLeod (Ed.). Language learning: Educating linauistically diverse students. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Bennett, W.J. (1985). Speech on bilingual education. In Crawford, 1991. Bilinqual education: History, politics, theory and practice. Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Service, Inc.

Bereiter, C. and Englemann, S. (1966). Teaching disadvantaged children in the pre-school. New Jersey, Prentice-Hall.

Campbell, D.E. (1996). Choosing democracy: A practical guide to multicultural education. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice- Hall.

Cazden, C. (1986). Classroom discourse. Chapter 15. In Wittrock, M. (Ed.). Handbook of research on teaching. New York: Macmillan.

Center for Applied Linguistics (1993). The national education goals: The issues of language and culture. Washington, D.C. Author.

Collier, V. (1995). A synthesis of studies examining long-term language minority student data on academic achievement. In Gonzalez, G. and Maez, L. (Eds.), Compendium of research on bilingual education. Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Collins, J. (1988). Language and class in minority education, Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 19, 299-326.

Crawford, J. (1992). Language loyalties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Crawford, J. (1991). Bilingual education: History, politics, theory and practice. Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services, Inc.

Cummins, J. (1991). Empowering minority students: A framework for intervention. In Minami, M. and Kennedy, B. (Eds.). Language Issues in Literacy and Bilingual/Multicultural Education, Series 22. Boston: Harvard Education Review.

Daniels, H. (Ed.). (1990). Not only English: Affirming America's multilingual heritage. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Diaz-Rico, L. and Weed, K. (1995). The crosscultural language and academic development handbook. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gaarder, A. B. (1977). Bilingual schooling and the survival of Spanish in the United States. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

----------(1967). Education of American Indian children. In Bilingual education programs: Hearings before the General Subcommittee on Education of the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Reoresentatives, (pp. 351-357). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Garcia, O. and Baker, L. (Eds.). 1995. Policy and practice in bilingual education. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.

Garcia, R. (1994). Language, ethnicity, and education. Chapter 14 in Banks, J.A. Multiethnic education. Allyn and Bacon: Boston.

Gonzalez, G. and Maez, L. (Eds.). 1995. Compendium of research on bilinqual education. Washington, D.C.: The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Hakuta, K. (1986). Mirror of language: The debate on bilingualism, New York: Basic Books.

Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in countries and classrooms. Cambridge (Eliot): Cambridge University Press.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston: Haughton Manufacturing.

Irujo, S. (1991). Review of Forked tongue. TESOL Ouarterly, 25, 150-156.

Labov, W. (1972). The logic of non-standard English. In Language in the inner city, (pp. 201-240). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Light, R. (1972). On language arts and minority group children. In Abrahams and Troike (Eds.). Language and cultural diversity in American education, (pp. 9-15). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

McGroarty, M. (1992). The societal context of bilingual education. Educational Researcher: Specia1 Issue on Bilingual Education. 21, (2), 7-9.

McLeod, B. (Ed.) (1994). Language and learning: Educating linguistically diverse students. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

National center for family literacy, and project literacy U.S. (PLUS), 1990. Why family literacy? (Publicity Flier). Pittsburgh, PA: PLUS.

Nieto, S. (1992). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. White Plains, N.Y. Longman.

Oller, J. (1992). Language testing research: Lessons applied to LEP students and programs. In Proceedings of the third national research symposium on LEP student issues: Focus on middle and high school issues. Volume I. (pp. 43-123). Washington, D.C.: Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs.

Peal, E., and Lambert, W. E. (1962). The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. Psycholocical Monographs, 76, 1-23.

Pease-Alvarez, L. and Hakuta, K. (1992). Enriching our views of bilingualism and bilingual education. Educational Researcher: Special Issue on Bilingual Education, 21, (2), 4-6, 19.

Porter, R. P. (1990). Forked tongue: The politics of bilingual education. New York: Basic Books.

Purves, A. (1990). The scribal society: An essay on literacy and schooling in the information age. White Plains: Longman.

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Saer, D. J. (1923). The effects of bilingualism on intelligence. British Journal of Psychology, 14.

Simon, J. (1980). Paradigms lost. New York: Clarkson, N. Potter.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1995). Multilingualism and the education of minority children. In Garcia, O. and Baker, C. (Eds.). Policy and practice in bilingual education, (pp. 40-62). Bristol, PA: Multilingual Matters.

__________(1994). Linguistic human rights and minority education. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 625-628.

Sledd, J. (1990). Anglo-conformity: Folk remedy for lost hegemony. In Daniels, H. (Ed.). Not only English: Affirming America's multilingual heritage, (pp. 87-95). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Sleeter, C. and McLaren, P. (Eds.). (1995). Multicultural education. critical pedagogy, and the politics of difference. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Snow, C. (1992). Perspectives on second language development: Implications for bilingual education. Educational Researcher: Specia1 Issue on Bilingual Education. 21, (2), 16-19.

Swadener, B. (1995). Children and families "at promise,': Deconstructing the discourse of risk. In B. Swadener and S. Lubeck (Eds.), Children and families "at promise": Deconstructing the discourse of risk. (pp. 17-49). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Taylor, D. (1993). Family literacy: Resisting deficit models. TESOL Ouarterlv, 27, (550-553).

TESOL (1987). Resolution on language rights. In Crawford, J. (1992). Language loyalties (p. 148). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tucker, G. R. (1986). Implications of Canadian research for promoting a language competent American society. In Fishman, J. A. (Ed.). The Fergusonian Impact, Vol. 2, Sociolinguistics and the sociology of language, (pp. 25-35). Berlin: Mouton Publishers.

Willig, A. C. (1985). A meta-analysis of selected studies on the effectiveness of bilingual education. Review of Educational Research, 55, 269-317.

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Wong Fillmore, L. and Valdez, C. (1986). Teaching bilingual learners. In M. Wittrock (Ed.). Handbook of research on teaching, (pp. 630-647). New York: Macmillan.

Zanger, V. (1994). "Not joined in": The social context of English literacy development for Hispanic youth. In B. Ferdman, R. M. Weber, and A. Ramirez (Eds.). Literacy across languages and cultures. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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