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Additive bilingualism versus subtractive bilingualism: Which one adds up?

Opposing forces: Additive bilingualism versus subtractive bilingualism
Opposing forces: Additive bilingualism versus subtractive bilingualism

In an increasingly diverse society, American schools are seeing an influx of second language learners. From pre-kindergarten to the college level, educators charged with teaching students who bring a multitude of languages to the learning environment must find effective ways to meet the needs of these linguistically diverse learners. Before schools can efficiently meet the needs of English Language Learners (ELLs), though, researchers and educators must agree on the best method for teaching them: an additive bilingual approach or a subtractive bilingual approach.

Additive Bilingualism

In additive bilingualism, teachers incorporate a learner’s first language (L1) into their instructional practices. Ideally, students learn the curriculum through their native language while simultaneously learning English. Described as complementary, additive bilingualism enables students to learn a second language, in this case it is English while reinforcing their first language. In essence, students are adding a language to their repertoire, thus the term “additive”.

Subtractive Bilingualism

Subtractive bilingualism contrasts additive bilingualism in that the student learns a second language at the expense of their first language. Proponents of this method view the two languages as opposing forces, believing the target language should replace the native language, resulting in monolingualism rather than bilingualism. Essentially, students lose an important facet of their cultural identity by negating the significance of their primary language.

Determining which approach to take will depend on the educator’s main objective. If they are looking to promote well-rounded bilingual students, additive bilingualism is the clear choice. In this case, May (2011) suggests educators teach English that complements rather than competes with a student’s native language (p. 236). To do this, educators must provide robust, holistic learning environments where students can actively practice both languages, preferably in a diverse group setting.


May, S. (2011, September). The disciplinary constraints of SLA and TESOL: Additive bilingualism and second language acquisition, teaching and learning. Linguistics and Education, 22(3), 233–247. Retrieved from

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