This post is part of a 10-week series on research, policies, and practices pertaining to the education of dual language learners (DLLs) in U.S. public schools. Collectively, these posts constitute a DLL Reader that aims to provide a common, foundational base of knowledge to inform policy conversations about these students. Click here to read the introductory post.

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Children between the ages of zero and eight years old are the most diverse age group in the United States. Compared to other age groups, they are more likely to be racial and/or ethnic minorities, be born to immigrant parents, and speak a language other than English. Many of these young children are considered dual language learners (DLLs). Yet despite this fact, it is somewhat difficult to find a good estimation for just how many DLLs there are. At the early childhood education level, Head Start, Early Head Start, and some state-funded preschool programs keep track of DLLs, but most primary schools do not.

School and census data both provide accurate estimates of English language learners (ELLs) and immigrant children, respectively, but neither of these equate to DLLs. The number of ELLs refers to all school-age children, and does not account for the large number of DLLs between the ages of zero to four years old. And while Head Start does track DLLs, the program is not compulsory and therefore does not include all preschool age children. At the elementary level, some DLLs may not be officially designated as ELLs (for clarification on these terms, click here) if they do not test into ESL services or if their parents refuse this label. Likewise, U.S. Census data provides estimates of numbers of children born to immigrant parents, but this does not include children who may be third- or fourth-generation immigrants and grow up in a home where a language other than English is spoken. This figure also includes children of immigrants who live in households where English is the primary language (or families report it as such) and therefore would also not be considered DLLs.

Based upon 2015 Census data projections for children under eight, children with foreign born parents, and percentage of the population that speaks a language other than English, a reasonable estimate for the number of DLLs is somewhere between seven and nine million, or between 21-27 percent of children under the age of eight. These numbers are nearly double the most recent count of all K-12 ELLs (4.4 million or 9 percent of all students in the 2011-2012 school year). There is an important lesson from this estimate: since the majority of DLLs are U.S. citizens (roughly 9 out of 10) and will play an increasingly important role in the country’s economy in the coming decade, fostering their bilingual and biculturalism at school should be a national priority. However, given these numbers, it is safe to say that DLLs, who total a quarter of children under the age of eight, have language abilities that are likely not leveraged through their formal education.

While we don’t currently know the exact number of DLLs, we do know that there is substantial diversity in their ethnicities, linguistic backgrounds, and home environments. Overall, 40 percent of immigrant families in the U.S. come from Mexico, but the remaining 60 percent come from all over the globe—including the Caribbean (7%), Latin America (13%), and Asia (19%). While DLLs speak some 150 languages, the majority of them are Spanish speakers. In fact, about 73 percent of ELLs (again, these numbers are harder to calculate for young DLLs, but are likely similar) speak Spanish. That means that about a quarter of DLLs speak 149 other languages! The next largest language group after Spanish is Chinese, but less than five percent of DLLs are Chinese speakers. This has substantial implications for schools trying to instruct and assess DLLs in languages other than English or Spanish and for communicating with students’ families.

DLLs’ home environments are often framed as deficient in a variety of ways. For instance, it is commonly noted that DLLs, particularly those that are children of immigrants, are more likely than their monolingual peers to have parents who do not speak English fluently and/or have not yet completed high school. These factors may potentially influence parents’ job prospects as well as their ability to support their children in completing homework that is written in English.

However, there is also evidence that immigrant parents play important roles in supporting their children’s bilingual and bicultural development in ways that impact their success in monolingual school environments. Specifically, ECLS data show that home language exposure is associated with better English reading and math outcomes prior to Kindergarten entry (though more research is needed to fully understand the types of parent-child interactions that facilitate these outcomes). Moreover, there is substantial research (e.g. this, this and this) documenting immigrant parents’ high expectations for their children’s educational success.

Additionally, DLLs tend to have relatively stable home environments. In fact, most DLLs (about 56%) live with at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen and most (about 54%) live in family-owned homes. DLLs are also more likely than the general population to live in two-parent households and are also more likely to have other adults, such as grandparents or other relatives, living in their homes. These adults potentially play significant roles in caring for and supporting the education of young DLLs. And while some research notes that DLLs may lag behind their English-speaking peers in early language and literacy skills, a recent study notes that young Mexican American children demonstrate socio-emotional skills that are on par with their classmates. These skills are potential strengths to leverage when planning for academic interventions.

Historically, DLLs have tended to cluster in cities, and traditional immigrant enclaves (e.g. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago) continue to have the highest concentrations of DLLs. However, new immigrant communities are popping up across the U.S. For instance, the state of South Carolina experienced an 800 percent increase in their ELL subgroup between 1997 and 2008.

All of this is to say that DLLs, whether officially accounted for or not, represent a large, growing, and diverse sector of U.S. children. With regard to their schooling, they warrant more attention and specific linguistic supports that presently – at least in most of the U.S. – are not recognized.

Stay tuned for next week’s DLL Reader post on the identification of DLLs.


Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Click here for more information on the team’s work.