Sunday, June 2, 2013

How Many People Are Bilingual? Quick Facts!

Louisiana state welcome sign Panneau de Bienve...
Louisiana state welcome sign (Wikipedia)
by Jeffrey D Nelson

How many people are bilingual in this world? Any idea? In the US? Me either ... therefore, I did some checking.

The US currently consists of about 20% bilinguals, according to the Department of Education in the US; at least school aged children.

It goes on to state that the concentration of bilingual speakers of certain languages can be broken down by location, generally speaking:

  • Hispanics - Southwest and Florida
  • 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!

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.

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.

There are various systems out there try this ... you have the European Framework, sites like CTB, and various others. It's easier to find the benefits of being bilingual than the actual description of it ... go figure.

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 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."

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+ official languages.

The United States enjoys the status of being the leading country in the world. English is the language of business, trade, travel, and Hollywood. This means everyone else has to learn English. Lucky for us!

However, I feel 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.

Our goal at LivingBilingual is to educate people on bilingualism and raising bilingual children.

Debunk myths, highlight benefits, and take the "scary" factor out of it. Stay tuned for more info, as this is what we will do here regularly through guest posts, research-based posted, personal anecdotes, and anything else we can come up with!

Keep on Living Bilingual! - Jeff

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Thanks for taking the time to read my article. We have a comprehensive site full of information on bilingualism in the United States and the rest of the world at the below link.

Jeffrey Nelson

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