Multilingualism in the United States is at an all-time high. Due to recent immigration patterns, a fifth of the population (67.3 million people) speaks a non-English language at home. Immigrants make up more than half (56.7 percent) of the United States population that speaks a non-English language. Linguistic diversity is also at its highest, with over 350 languages spoken in the United States.

And yet, it’s hard to say that this moment marks the beginning of a new multilingual America—or is simply a brief exception before the country returns to its monolingual, English-only rule. Historically speaking, past immigration waves have yielded only temporary spikes in multilingual U.S. communities, ultimately surrendering to English’s hegemony across the country.

That said, without waves of immigration, the United States would see a sharp decline in multilingualism. Sociologist Calvin Veltman has concluded that without immigration, all non-English languages would die out due to living in a predominantly “English-only” country.

Go to school? Your teacher almost certainly instructs in English. Go to work or the hospital? The same. The United States’ society, culture, and economy are overwhelmingly English-dominant. English remains the language of power, wealth, clout, and maximum utility in almost every American experience. Is it any wonder that the country remains—to quote a 2017 American Academy of Arts and Sciences report—“stubbornly monolingual?”

So no matter the size of the immigration wave, the priority of English in the United States takes a toll on subsequent immigrant generations. According to researchers, by the third generation in America, an immigrant family’s heritage language is typically gone and exclusively replaced with English.

No matter the size of the immigration wave, the priority of English in the United States takes a toll on subsequent immigrant generations.

As today’s first-generation immigrant families move to their second and third generations, it’s time to consider how their heritage languages can survive in a country where these languages are not facilitated or accommodated outside of the home.

For some, the answer lies in creating and protecting spaces where non-English languages are valued and useful. That often looks like implementing the increasingly popular dual-language immersion (DLI) programs in schools. In this commentary, we’ll look at the case for DLI programs’ utility in these efforts, and at a New York City DLI program’s exceptional efforts in particular.

Dual-Language Immersion Programs and Heritage Language Retention

Students study grade-level academic content in two languages in dual-language immersion (DLI) programs. Students enter the program in their early years and develop reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills in a second language over time. For example, in a 50/50 model dual-language school, a student may spend 50 percent of the day learning exclusively in English and the other 50 percent exclusively in Spanish. These programs are becoming increasingly popular in various communities nationwide and for many reasons, including the following.

In Texas, educators have had some success establishing the fact that English Learners learn best in these settings. Using their native language allows ELs to access academic content better while simultaneously learning English. The state has even included extra funding for schools that adopt DLI programs in their funding formula.

In Utah, where roughly 60 percent of people are Mormon, DLI programs are growing popular as a preparation tool for Mormon missionaries before they take their two-year mission trips in different parts of the world. And Delaware, a state with just over 1 million people, has fifty-plus DLI programs, because the state believes DLI is essential for giving students an economic advantage in a more globalized twenty-first-century workforce.

Meanwhile, some school districts, typically in ethnic enclaves, use DLI programs to maintain heritage languages for second- and third-generation immigrants in communities where English’s cultural and economic dominance is putting them at risk.

For example, in Chicago, where Poles comprise 7.3 percent of the population, the Chicago Public School District established one of the first Polish Dual-Language Immersion programs nationwide in 2014. In the Koreatown neighborhood in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Unified School District has established five Korean Dual-Language immersion programs directly in the area. In New Orleans, where several immigrant groups speak French, there has been an “explosion” in French Dual-Language Immersion schools since 2019.

Yet, if second- and third-generation immigrant students attend these programs, public life beyond campus is still overwhelmingly English-only, which threatens to override any DLI program’s progress. So, can multilingual schools effectively maintain second- and third-generation immigrant families’ heritage languages and sustain America’s latest multilingual moment?

A Dual language immersion school in the Bronx, New York, says yes.

Case Study: Rafael Hernández Dual Language School

Off 167th Street in the Bronx, New York, stands P.S. 218 Rafael Hernández Dual Language School. In the 1990s, community leaders created the school to help second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans maintain Spanish.

From the 1940s to the mid-1960s, the Puerto Rican population in New York City exploded from 70,000 to nearly 900,000. This dramatic increase produced a profoundly productive moment for the city, as the Nuyorican community sparked artistic, musical, athletic, culinary, and cultural innovations that stretched far beyond its borders. And yet, as these Puerto Ricans settled into the United States and began to have kids, the next generation experienced a world much different from those of their parents in Puerto Rico—not least because, in America, the primary language used was English. As a result, the new generation of Puerto Ricans dealt with what’s known as “subtractive bilingualism,” the stripping of Spanish to elevate English. Puerto Rican parents and community leaders knew they had to do something about this language attrition; thus, Rafael Hernández Dual Language School was born.

NYC Public Schools approved the construction of Rafael Hernández Dual Language School in 1996. According to current principal Sergio Caceres, the school’s concept started in 1995 when a small group of politicians from the Bronx got together and said, “Hey, we need a magnet school so that our community can learn not English but Spanish.” When this small group brought it to the larger body of politicians, predominantly Puerto Ricans and African Americans in the Bronx, they concurred, saying, “Hey, we want the school to be a dual-language school so that people from all over the Bronx can learn Spanish.” This latter motivation was crucial for developing broader buy-in for the idea, but for those with whom the idea originated, heritage language preservation was and remained the primary goal.

The school was born of these discussions, and Rafael Hernández officially opened as a dual-language campus in 1999. Since its opening, the school appears to be succeeding in its mission to ensure that kids, particularly Puerto Ricans (and a more recent wave of Dominicans) in the Bronx, gain and maintain biliteracy in Spanish and English.

At Rafael Hernández, about 95 percent of students who enter the school will leave the school bilingual and graduate from NYC Public Schools with a New York State Seal of Biliteracy. This number is a far cry from the Puerto Rican population in the United States as a whole. As of 2021, 50.9 percent of people of Puerto Rican origin residing in the United States speak Spanish at home, a decrease from 84.6 percent in 1980. This drop in at-home Spanish reflects the language attrition of Puerto Ricans moving to their third and fourth generation since migrating to the mainland.

If Rafael Hernández students had attended another school, they might never have learned Spanish. Yet, because they enroll at Rafael Hernández, they can hold conversations with their grandparents over holiday meals and connect more deeply with parts of their family’s culture and history.

DLI works to maintain the Spanish-English bilingualism of Puerto Rican kids attending P.S. 218 Rafael Hernández in the Bronx, making a strong suggestion that it can work to preserve heritage language in other communities nationwide.

Moving Forward

The United States is approaching a multilingual crossroads borne of recent immigration patterns. Second- and third-generation Americans are growing in number, and heritage language loss is growing along with them. Additionally, anti-immigrant rhetoric is increasing, and because of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, immigration is slowing down as a result. Given what research shows about multilingualism’s cultural and economic value, now is the time to ensure there are systems to preserve and nourish the languages immigrants bring to the United States.

By making multilingualism core to academic instruction, DLI schools make both languages useful and valuable to students.

These support systems would do well to begin with bilingual education, specifically dual-language immersion programs. These programs set the goal of full bilingualism and biliteracy for their students, helping them develop in English and another language simultaneously. By making multilingualism core to academic instruction, DLI schools make both languages useful and valuable to students. The United States is known as a graveyard for non-English languages. Now is the time to turn it into a home for non-English languages, and it should start with increasing DLI programs nationwide.