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The Bilingual Blur

Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism

by Kenji Hakuta
Basic Books, 268 pp., $18.95


Today there are perhaps four thousand spoken languages, about thirty times as many languages as there are countries in the world. Over half the world’s population is at least to some extent bilingual. These facts help to insure that bilingualism remains—as it has long been—an intellectually provocative and a socially charged issue. Why do human beings have so many mutually incomprehensible tongues? Should citizens be allowed to maintain their native language in an alien culture? Both questions have always been controversial. Thus, even before the United States came into existence, Benjamin Franklin complained about the prevalence of German in the province of Pennsylvania:

Few of their children in the country know English. They import many books from Germany…the signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages and in some places only German…. I suppose in a few years [interpreters] will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our legislators what the other half say. In short, unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies…they will so soon outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, will, in my opinion, be not able to preserve our language and even our government will become precarious.1

Similar alarm has been expressed by many national officials including Chief Justice Marshall, the two presidents Adams, and the two Roosevelts. Most recently, Secretary of Education William Bennett called bilingual education a “failed path”; sharply criticizing the practice of providing non-English-speaking students with schoolwork in their native tongue, he urged local school systems to experiment with various methods that would help students master English as quickly as possible.

The same intellectual and social themes have recurred across the centuries. A rationalist strain, dating back to René Descartes and strongly expressed in the contemporary linguistic analyses of Noam Chomsky, has argued for the existence of universal grammar, while minimizing “surface” differences among languages. Against this “unitarian” perspective Giambattista Vico in the early eighteenth century, Johann Gottfried von Herder a century later, and Benjamin Lee Whorf in our own time celebrated the multiplicity of languages. In their romantically tinged accounts, each language has its own peculiar “genius” which strongly colors the thoughts and sentiments of its users.

As for the debate within the United States, for every spokesman who urged that immigrants absorb the American language and the dominant national culture, there have been others, usually (but not always) drawn from the immigrant population, who have argued for maintaining one’s foreign heritage and its distinctive linguistic and cultural values. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson declined an invitation to call for “national uniformity in Language.”2

In recent years, scholars have undertaken several lines of study in an effort to resolve controversial aspects of bilingualism. Biological and cognitive scientists have been investigating the nature of languages, the ways they are represented in the human brain, and the connections between linguistic and thought patterns. When considering the bilingual mind, such investigators have asked, In what ways are two languages different and what difference do these differences make? At the same time, educational and sociological researchers concerned with public policy have examined life in bilingual communities and the effects of programs that encourage or discourage the coexistence of two linguistic and cultural traditions. Typically these scholars ask, Is it useful and valuable to provide a significant amount of education in their native tongue to those who will live in an alien society?

While these two general approaches, cognitive and sociological, generally are pursued independently of each other, it is important to try to combine them. Decisions about the merits of bilingual education ought to be made in the light of the most reliable information about language, mind, and society. We can hope that cognitive studies will reveal whether the differences among languages are superficial or deep, and whether such differences affect the ways in which one thinks and learns. Sociological studies should indicate the ways in which bilingual people handle both their languages, the costs and benefits of maintaining a bilingual community, and the effects on children of enrollment in monolingual or bilingual programs.

No single study can by itself resolve the vexed issues surrounding bilingualism. However, it seems possible that explorations of the “degree of relatedness” between languages, or of the “transfer” of knowledge gained in one language to activities carried out in the second language, could provide links between usually disparate kinds of inquiry as well as offering suggestions about public policy. Suppose that it turns out that languages differ chiefly in superficial ways and have relatively little differential effect on basic thought patterns; the transition to a new language might then present relatively few problems. By contrast, suppose that both the differences among languages and imprints of each language on mental processes are deep ones. In that case, the risks of abandoning a native language would be higher and making a successful transition to an unfamiliar language would be more difficult.

It would be cheering to report that investigators of bilingualism have illuminated these questions. Unfortunately, as Kenji Hakuta writes in his new book,

What is remarkable about the…transfer of skills [from one language to another] is that despite its fundamental importance, almost no empirical studies have been conducted to understand the characteristics or even to demonstrate the existence of the transfer of skills.

Moreover, other scientific investigations have yielded meager results. Indeed, in the case of the most urgent issues—for example, the effectiveness of programs of bilingual education—there is a depressing consensus among critics that the research has been of poor quality. In a comprehensive review of the major studies of bilingual education, Ann C. Willig concludes:

A major result of the current synthesis has been the revelation that bilingual education has been badly served by a predominance of research that is inadequate in design and that makes inappropriate comparisons of children in bilingual programs to children who are dissimilar in many crucial respects.

…The overwhelming message from these data suggests that most research conclusions regarding the effectiveness of bilingual education reflect weaknesses of the research itself rather than effects of the actual programs.3

In Mirror of Language, Kenji Hakuta tries nonetheless to assess what we know about the cognitive and social aspects of bilingualism. Bilingual himself in Japanese and English, and currently associate professor of psychology at Yale University, Hakuta has in recent years emerged as one of the most thoughtful scholars of the subject. As an active researcher on bilingual education in the New Haven public schools and a national spokesman in favor of bilingual education, he has a personal stake in the issues.

When reviewing research of indifferent quality, one faces a number of unsatisfactory choices. One may simply overlook the large mass of inferior work and dwell on the few good studies. This sometimes leads to strong conclusions, though at the cost of oversimplification or misrepresentation. One may limit oneself to the disparate lines of inquiry that have yielded consistent findings, but this would give a very fragmented view of such a subject as bilingualism. Or one may survey the entire field of bilingual research, conceding that it is largely inadequate, and then report the modest results that have been achieved.

From appearances, it would seem that Hakuta has flirted with each of these approaches, but he has, for the most part, chosen to review all the available studies as best he can and to resist going beyond the data. Oddly, however, where the evidence is weakest—on the case for bilingual programs—he ends up drawing the strongest, and least warranted, conclusions. The result is a work that ends up by revealing rather less about the nature and consequences of bilingualism than one would like and much—both advertently and inadvertently—about the workings of contemporary American social science.


Hakuta’s mastery of the relevant literature is impressive, but the reader in search of a firm conclusion or at least a provocative hypothesis will be disappointed. Time and again, he builds up our hopes that research will lead somewhere only to undermine it with a sharp criticism or with an equally credible presentation of the opposing line of analysis.

Consider, for example, his study of the effects of bilingualism on measured intelligence (usually IQ). He describes how psychologists earlier in this century went to great lengths to document the intellectual inferiority of immigrants (particularly those who were neither Nordic nor Anglo-Saxon)—a familiar story. What is less well known is that the same prejudicial attitudes were reflected in comments on bilingualism. Ignoring the obvious fact that most standardized tests depended on mastery of English, leading researchers of the period like Carl Brigham, Florence Goodenough, H.H. Goddard, and Kimball Young consistently interpreted the poor performance of immigrants as evidence that they came from inferior stock. Their very failure to learn the language instantly was held as proof of their low IQs.

More recently scholars have provided evidence that bilingual people often outscore monolingual ones on intelligence tests, especially those that require the subjects being tested to reorganize patterns or concepts, rather than simply retain them. One might want to conclude that bilingualism contributes to a more flexible use of mental capacities, but Hakuta devotes several pages to a discussion of the weaknesses of even the best studies in this “liberal” tradition. The researchers have had difficulty matching groups according to crucial variables, such as the attitudes of parents toward bilingualism; they have found it virtually impossible to “control” for the respective influences of home and school environments; the tests used are inadequate; and so forth. Having called such investigations into question, Hakuta then concludes that, as it is now conceived, the question of the intellectual implications of bilingualism is largely a spurious one. It will, he believes, evaporate as deeper issues about language and cognition are explored. Having arrived at this cul-de-sac, one wonders whether the historical journey itself was worth making.

Hakuta turns to such “deeper issues” in a section on the bilingual mind. First he reviews the major theoretical debates between those, like Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky, who minimize the importance of differences among languages, and those, like Lev Vygotsky and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who stress the effects of language on thought as well as the ways that specific languages mold perceptions. Reviewing the different theories he reaches a conclusion that sounds weak:

If one’s orientation is toward the view that bilingualism influences thought, one will tend to believe that there are general capacities common to language and thought…. On the other hand, if one believes that language and thought are autonomously structured…one will find the influence of bilingualism on thought trivial.

It should be possible to go well beyond this bland conclusion. For the last few decades, researchers in various disciplines have been attracted by the intriguing hypothesis of Benjamin Whorf:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.4

  1. 1

    Letter to Peter Colinson, May 9, 1753, in Jared Sparks, ed., The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Volume VII, (Boston, 1840), pp. 66–73, quoted in Stephen T. Wagner, “The Historical Background of Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the United States,” in Martin Ridge, ed., The New Bilingualism (University of California Press, 1981), p. 30.

  2. 2

    Sigmund Diamond, Historical Aspects of Bilingualism in the United States: Final Report (Center for the Social Sciences at Columbia University, n.d.), p. 1.

  3. 3

    Ann C. Willig, “A Meta-Analysis of Selected Studies on the Effectiveness of Bilingual Education,” Review of Educational Research, Volume LV, no. 3, pp. 269–317 (1985).

  4. 4

    Benjamin Lee Whorf, in John Carroll, ed., Language, Thought, and Reality (MIT Press, 1956), p. 213.

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