Academic achievement, college aspirations and employment potential are all enhanced for those who are fluent in more than one language — particularly the emerging Latina/o population, according to Patricia Gándara, a research professor of education in the Urban Schooling Division of the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyectos Derechos Civiles at UCLA, described this and related research findings in her book, “The Bilingual Advantage: Language, Literacy and the U.S. Labor Market” (Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2014), co-authored with Rebecca Callahan of the University of Texas, Austin. 

Although her research included other ethnic groups, what was unique to Spanish-speaking students, Gándara said, was the fact that they were more likely to attend four-year colleges if they maintained their bilingualism through high school.

“That, I think, is a very interesting finding,” she said. “As I wrote about in [the book] ‘The Latino Education Crisis,’ we have this horrendous problem that we’re not getting many Latinos through college with a degree. A lot of them are going somewhere — usually to community college or a non-selective college. But very few ever graduate and get a degree.

“The research shows that the best chances of getting a degree are if you go to a four-year university and don’t have to transfer. That’s associated with being bilingual and biliterate at the point of graduation.”

Studies for “The Bilingual Advantage” also showed that bilinguals were more likely to be hired than those who spoke only one language. Gándara said that in the past, U.S. economists had shown that not only did bilinguals not have an advantage in the labor market, but that they often suffered a penalty for being bilingual.

In the past, she noted, studies have generally been done with census data, which is inadequate to determine a person’s degree of fluency or literacy in more than one language.

"In the census, people will tell you if they speak another language, but you won’t know if they write or read it. Even if a person said they speak two languages, if they speak one poorly, and the other with an accent, they may have a very different experience in the labor market than someone who is very fluent and reads and writes in both languages," Gándara said. "Our researchers in several cases used different data sets to assess how well subjects spoke two languages and whether they were biliterate or not.”

Gándara also underscored the fact that the changing American demographic has a direct influence on the value of bilingualism today.

“Thirty years ago, if you were entering the labor market as a bilingual, it may not have been as valuable,” she said. “Today, with the demographic shifts in our society, it has become increasingly so.”

Growing acceptance of bilingualism and multilingualism in the United States could potentially help speakers of other languages achieve more equity and economic mobility in society. Rather than viewing children whose primary language isn’t English as a problem, Gándara said, in a bilingual world they can be viewed as having an asset they can share and build upon.

“This will ultimately lead them to graduate high school at higher rates, go to college at higher rates, and with certain groups of students, go on to four-year colleges at higher rates,” she said.

Among Gándara’s many research interests are educational equity and access for low income and ethnic minority students, language policy, and the education of Mexican origin youth. For several years, she has been directing Secondary Online Learning (SOL) a project dedicated to producing bilingual, online, open access and common core-aligned secondary curriculum so that high school students in both English- and Spanish-speaking contexts can complete the courses they need to graduate high school prepared for post-secondary education.

Gándara also chairs the University of California’s Mexico Working Group on Education, a UC systemwide group dedicated to forging closer ties with Mexico around shared issues in education.

Learn more in the original version of this story published in Ampersand, the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies news magazine.