In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bilingual Education and Bilingualism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Defining Bilingualism
  • Key Terms
  • Bilingualism and Cognition
  • Defining Bilingual Education
  • Effectiveness of Bilingual Education Programs
  • Pedagogy
  • Translanguaging as a Pedagogical Issue
  • Assessment
  • Politics of Language and Bilingual Education

Education Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
Stephen May, Lincoln I. Dam
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0109


This article presents a selection of the key literature on bilingualism and bilingual education and gives readers access to the international research on the multiplicity of topics that make up these fields. While the term “bilingualism” is consistently used throughout this article, it should also be taken as incorporating multilingualism. The question of what constitutes bilingualism has been the subject of much debate, with definitions ranging from minimal to maximal competency in more than one language. Similarly, the links between bilingualism and education have also been widely debated. Prior to the 1960s, for example, research on bilingual students in schools attributed bilingualism with detrimental effects on thinking. From this, early researchers often claimed that bilingual education had few, if any, benefits. In contrast, the consensus of research since the 1960s strongly suggests the opposite, highlighting the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and, relatedly, that bilingual education is an effective approach for language learning when it is designed and implemented appropriately. A comprehensive review of the literature on bilingual education also suggests that it is a highly political issue on many levels. For instance, some have noted that bilingual education policies are seldom actually assessed on the basis of educational research and theory alone, but are instead shaped and determined by external influences such as political ideology. Added to this are the challenges associated with assessment measures for students undertaking bilingual education. Not only is testing a political act, but bilingual institutions and programs are confronted with significant complexities. These include how best to examine student learning and capabilities in ways that take aspects of their bilingual and cultural backgrounds into consideration while simultaneously meeting the requirements of often-monolingual assessment schemes. The themes presented here are but a sample of the topics that are considered vital to the progression of research encompassing bilingualism and bilingual education.

General Overviews

While there is an abundance of literature on bilingualism and bilingual education, two introductory texts stand out. These two texts were selected for their clarity, usefulness, and endurance in the field, as well as for the academic credentials and the long-standing reputations of their authors. Written as an entry-level reader from a cross-disciplinary assessment of the field, Baker 2011 (now in its fifth edition) thoroughly reviews all of the pressing issues and underlying concepts in bilingual education and bilingualism, at both individual and societal levels. Baker 2011 also takes a balanced approach to the efficacy of bilingual education, highlighting both its significant accomplishments, as well as the ongoing challenges bilingual education programs face, particularly in relation to their pedagogical and assessment practices. Undergraduate students, especially those new to the field, will find Baker 2011 thoughtfully and accessibly structured. Those with specific interests in the frameworks, principles, and practice of bilingual education should also refer to García 2009. Unlike Baker 2011, García 2009 takes a more technical approach to the topic, spending less time defending bilingual education and more time expounding and elaborating on it. The text is written from a bilingual practitioner’s perspective and comprises chapters on bilingual education policy, practice, pedagogy, and the assessment of bilinguals, with particular (although not exclusive) reference to the US context. García 2009 offers readers a thorough examination of the different types and frameworks of bilingual education, as well as their theoretical foundations, objectives, and pedagogical practices. García 2009 also provides an invaluable chapter on the notion of “translanguaging,” which highlights the often complex and hybrid language use of bilinguals (pp. 42–72), an emerging field of research in the field. Following from this, García argues for the need to mirror the translanguaging characteristics of bilinguals in bilingual education. For an accessible article-length overview of key research underpinning bilingual education, see also May 2008. For older but still highly useful contributions, see Baker and Prys Jones 1998 and Cummins 2000. The latter is of particular significance, given the author’s long-standing influence on the field and the summary and updating of his key arguments with respect to bilingualism and bilingual education in the text. Issues of the appropriate assessment of bilingual students also feature prominently (see also Assessment).

  • Baker, Colin. 2011. Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    This revised and updated best-selling textbook (now in its fifth edition) provides readers with a comprehensive introduction to bilingual education and bilingualism. It covers all of the critical issues related to bilingualism and also offers useful summaries, recommended further reading and study activities that supplement each chapter.

  • Baker, Colin, and Sylvia Prys Jones. 1998. Encyclopedia of bilingualism and bilingual education. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    This comprehensive 500,000-word encyclopedia comprises four key sections: individual bilingualism, languages in society, languages in contact in the world, and bilingual education. Each section offers numerous textboxes, photographs, and graphics for those who are new to the area. Cross-referencing also allows the reader to access other information in the encyclopedia, while “Further Reading” sections at the end of each topic and a bibliography at the end of the encyclopedia lead the reader to information elsewhere.

  • Cummins, Jim. 2000. Language, pedagogy and power: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    This volume reviews the research and theory relating to instruction and assessment of bilingual pupils, focusing not only on issues of language learning and teaching but also on how wider power relations affect patterns of teacher-pupil interaction in the classroom.

  • García, Ofelia. 2009. Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    This valuable contribution to the literature provides a comprehensive examination of the principles and practice of bilingual education. It is written from a practitioner’s perspective, strongly endorsing bilingual education and informing readers on how best to implement it.

  • May, Stephen. 2008. Bilingual/immersion education: What the research tells us. In Bilingual education: The Encyclopedia of Language and Education. 2d ed. Vol. 5. Edited by J. Cummins and N. Hornberger, 19–34. New York: Springer.

    This article-length overview of key research underpinning bilingual education is an excellent introduction to the field. May outlines what research has to say about the most effective bilingual education approaches; however, he also highlights how this research is regularly ignored, particularly by opponents of bilingual education in wider public and policy debates.

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