How many people are bilingual in this world? Any idea? In the US? Me either… therefore, I did some checking. It turns out, this number is a bit harder to track down than one may have thought. In the 2006 census, a lot of countries started trying to track their populations language abilities, however it is still a work in progress.
The US currently consists of about 20% bilinguals, according to Francois Grosjean, a leading expert on bilingualism who currently writes for Psychology Today and has quite a bit of klout on the subject. We’ll trust him.
Mr. Grosjean goes on to state that the concentration of bilingual speakers of certain languages in the USA can be broken down by location, generally speaking:
- Hispanics – Southwest and Florida (shocker, huh?)
- Chinese – California and New York
- Slavic – Illinois, New York, and New Jersey
- German – The Dakotas and Pennsylvania
The number of bilingual children in the United States is rising… which is a great thing if you ask me. This will help foster diversity as well as help the children currently learning multiple languages by giving them various other benefits in addition to just another language. (this site confirms it)
While this doesn’t give us exactly how many people are bilingual, this trend seems to be a good one if you ask me. Bilingualism is growing in the United States, however, I feel we need to break it down a bit more…
First off, we need to define “bilingual.” That, as easy as it appears, is very difficult. “You start off with something like “someone who can speak two languages.” Fair enough? Sure.
but then…What does it mean to “speak” two languages? I can say Hello in about 8. I can spell hello in maybe 5? I am native in English, speak Spanish at a pretty fluent level, and am a high-beginner or low-intermediate in German. Am I trilingual? Bilingual? Who knows. Who cares.
The point is, bilingual is hard to define because language is hard to define. It isn’t super-easy to really put pen to paper and say person X speaks language Y at level Z. Various systems out there try this… You have the European Framework, sites like CTB, and various others.
The below is a quote from an article from the Latino Voices section of the Huff Post
In Miami, for example, one of the questions is what’s the student’s first language. But as Coral Way’s principal, Josephine Otero, pointed out, that doesn’t necessarily mean a child isn’t fluent in his or her second language.
Ok… I think I have belabored that point enough.
That same article states that 2/3 of the nations 4.7 million elementary school English learners (people who’s first language/dominant language was not English) were actually born within the United States.
This was surprising to me. That number is a lot higher than I would have thought. This means that immigrants are holding on to their minority languages… at least for one generation. While these kids should be taught the fundamentals of English, and it does put strain on our education system (hot topic!) I am still glad kids are being brought up bilingually and not overwhelmingly being told to give up one language because it will “hurt them” as they have been in the past.
That covers the US, but now what about the world?
Many countries exist in which bilingualism is the norm as opposed to the rule. How many people are bilingual in Asian countries? European countries? In India, for example, children consistently grow up with two or three languages. This is very normal. Singapore is another country where this practice is completely common; English generally being one of the languages. It seems that other countries do quite a bit more to promote bilingual education while raising bilingual children than the United States does. This can be understood better by understanding that the most common second language in the world is English.
Over half of the worlds seven billion people speak more than one language (bilingual/trilingual/polyglot) and around 25% of the world’s countries have two or more official languages.
The United States enjoys the status of being a world leader. English is the language of business, trade, travel, and Hollywood. This means everyone else has to learn English. Lucky for us! I feel like the average American, especially in rural America, is missing out on the great gift of being bilingual. While we may not have drilled down exactly how many people are bilingual, we have certainly established that it is more common outside of the US.
With new research consistently pointing to the benefits of being bilingual, I think we as a country need to invest a bit more in our bilingual education. Language immersion programs are becoming more and more popular, and I believe this will continue, and strengthen, as we go further into the 21st century.
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