top of page

One language, two languages, three languages - how many can you speak?

Let’s start with a statistic that might surprise you, 65% of the population is bilingual or multilingual today (Potowski, 2013). There are more people that know at least two languages than monolingual people. Before going into detail, let’s define the concepts: “By definition ‘monolingual’ means the ability to speak only one language, ‘bilingual’ two languages and ‘multilingual’ several languages” (Khan, 2011). In this reflection I am going to discuss the issues raised in the “No Child Left Monolingual” Ted talk by Kim Potowski.

Potowski brings an example that the United States ‘both exhibits and promotes monolingualism in English’ (Potowski, 2013) even though the US does not have an official language. Some reasons for this could be prevalent myths regarding multilingualism and perhaps the need to assimilate. English has become very powerful in the US as it is used by the government and in all official documents, it is also needed to be successful in a working career. But, what are the immigrants doing to preserve their native languages? According to the studies presented by Potowski (2013), only about 20% of people speak a language different to English in their homes. Similarly, in the UK “in 2018, about half of foreign-born adults had English as their first language at home” (Fernández-Reino, 2019). This means that English is becoming more dominant and therefore it is becoming increasingly difficult to preserve immigrants’ native languages. Potowski (2013) mentions an already happening, one generational shift, where the first language is lost through the second generation of migrants. I am somehow surprised by this as from my social context this was never the case. Having moved to the UK at the age of 16, one year after my mother, I could not imagine losing my first language to English even though I immersed myself in English-only education. Back in 2004, when the UK started opening its borders to job seekers from central and eastern European countries, I was not aware of a system in place for bilingual or multilingual education. As a result, I took a year ‘out’ of the compulsory schooling system to improve my English and pass relevant examinations to be able to continue my education in the UK. Although English was predominant in my everyday life I continued to speak Polish with my mother. On the contrary, I did not make a conscious effort to keep up with Polish music or literature as a result of which I find gaps in my first language which are becoming more apparent. Nevertheless, I agree with Potowski that the perseverance of heritage languages is important.

In fact, an effort to promote linguistic appreciation (Potowski, 2013) is being introduced to schools by inviting other languages in an English classroom. This has given way to plurilingualism or translanguaging, when a person has the ability to switch between languages depending on the situation. I find this skill to be very useful as it encourages the use of several languages at the same time. Having studied Spanish at university to an advanced level, I saw a decline in the language of some of my peers years after they hadn’t had the opportunity to practice. I like the idea of “English plus nation where other languages are promoted” (Potowski, 2013). It is, however, very difficult to achieve as we cannot put pressure on teachers to simply speak or ‘know’ several languages and actively use them in multilingual classrooms. Other approaches are needed to preserve home languages. A lot of this goes back to educational programs available to children.

Two-way immersion programs seem to be successful in the US as reported by Potowski (2013). Children receive instruction in one language and perform their activities in English. This has helped many pupils achieve better results in English. In this case, the programme focused on 50% Spanish and 50% English, therefore it is a so-called bilingual program in which both, children with Spanish as their first language and English as their first language are present. It is important to support both languages, especially in the US where English and Spanish are the most spoken. These programs are designed mainly with the migrant population in sight. What’s more, “The researchers, who studied data from Spanish-speaking students in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, found that bilingual education can help promote bilingualism without significantly sacrificing English proficiency” (Goldenberg, Wagner, 2015). It seems as though there are many positives behind these programmes and I am also a big fan of them. They not only help acquire knowledge in both languages but also help understand linguistic concepts, which leads to many beneficial cognitive factors. However, as Goldenberg and Wagner mentioned, anti-migrant movements which do not agree with using languages other than English at school believe it can lead to damaging national identity (Goldenberg, Wagner, 2015). I find this idea unreasonable considering that immigrants help a country's economy and try to assimilate through their acquisition of the English language and new culture.

Bilingualism or multilingualism is very advantageous, not only according to Potowski (2013) but also Polinski (2015) confirmed this by saying we have better executive control of language. This is to say, our attention and distribution of tasks are superior to a monolingual individual. As teachers we are unfortunately constrained to language policies however, we can only promote multilingualism by inviting it in our classrooms and beyond. I also learn a lot from my students’ languages and cultures by doing this. I treat each of my lessons as ‘experiences’ where students feel safe to learn but also compare aspects of their culture with lesson concepts. Potowski’s talk is very inspiring and I hope it will change the vision of others in the future where all languages will be seen as beneficial to English language acquisition.


Cognitive Advantages of Bilingualism - Maria Polinsky. (2015). [YouTube Video]. In YouTube.

Fernández-Reino (2019, July 29). M. English language use and proficiency of migrants in the UK. (n.d.). Migration Observatory.

Goldenberg, C., & Wagner, K. (2015, September 30). Bilingual Education. American Federation of Teachers.

Khan, F. (2011). Being monolingual, bilingual or multilingual: pros and cons in patients with dementia. International Psychiatry : Bulletin of the Board of International Affairs of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 8(4), 96–98.

TEDx Talks. (2013). No child left monolingual: Kim Potowski at TEDxUofIChicago. In YouTube.

2 commentaires

06 nov. 2023

Interesting article!

Teacher Weronika
Teacher Weronika
18 nov. 2023
En réponse à

Thank you

bottom of page