There are many myths that you might encounter in the field about bilingual development (Espinosa, 2008). The truth is that most Americans know very little about bilingualism and unfortunately as a society we do not place much value in or have much experience with speaking more than one language. Outside the U.S. over half of the world’s population is bilingual (Grosjean, 2010). As diversity increases in the U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008) it is important that we get our facts right about bilingualism so that we can better serve one of the fastest and largest populations in the U.S. The following section will address three important “fictions” that influence how teachers might approach the education of young dual language learners (DLLs).
Fiction: Being bilingual causes language delay. Children who are bilingual will show signs of language delay because they are learning more than one language.
Fact: Children who grow up speaking two languages do not generally experience any language delays (Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2011). There are differences we need to be aware of, but differences are not delays. For example young bilinguals will have vocabulary distributed across both of their languages. Young children do not duplicate every experience in each language and they will know words in one language that they do not know in the other. For example a child may know all of their colors only in one language or know common household items in their home language and know words more associated with their classroom setting in English. This is perfectly natural, but points to the importance of measuring bilingual children in each of their languages. If measured in only one language the child may appear to have delays when compared to monolingual norms. However, if both languages are measured they will most often have the same size of vocabularies as their monolingual peers, based on a total vocabulary score across both of their languages (Pearson, Fernandez, & Oller, 1995).
Fiction: The best way to teach young children who are DLLs English and to prepare them for kindergarten is to simply immerse them in English-only preschool programs. Young children learn language very easily and need little support to learn a new language.
Fact: Birth to age 6 is an amazing period of language development that truly lays the foundation for much of learning later in life. However, young children who are learning English as a second language need specific supports in the classroom to achieve better academic outcomes. We often confuse basic conversational skills with academic language proficiency. Jim Cummins, an important researcher in the field of bilingual development and education, described this as the difference between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). Consider your own communication for a moment. What are the differences in your vocabulary choices and your level of formality when having a conversation with your close friend or family versus a professor in your college or while being interviewed for a job? We all have BICS and CALP, but the importance of having strong CALP cannot be underestimated in U.S. public schools. A strong academic vocabulary in English is essential for academic success. BICS develops more easily through naturally occurring conversation and most young children will learn basic communication in English fairly easily and rapidly in predominantly English environments. Unfortunately, we are realizing that these same children need much more instructional support to learn higher-level vocabulary that will prepare them for stronger reading comprehension in the third grade and for more success in key content areas such as math and science. So it is important in English-focused preschool programs to have an intentional focus on English vocabulary development that introduces young children to more vocabulary that is common in school texts in addition to basic vocabulary. For example teaching the word “required” versus “needed.”
Fiction: Teaching children in their home language will delay the acquisition of English. Parents that speak languages other than English should be encouraged to speak English at home.
Fact: A child’s first language (L1) acts as a resource for the development of their second language (L2). Therefore, children who have demonstrated strong L1 skills are found to also perform better in English. A significant amount of research has demonstrated that children who receive bilingual instruction outperform those children who have received English-only instruction (August, & Shanahan, 2006; Goldenberg, 2008; Rolstad, Mahoney, & Glass, 2005). It is important in early education that we move toward more evidence-based approaches to the education of young dual language learners. Parents should be encouraged to speak with their child in their home language and early education programs should move toward more bilingual approaches. Children will draw on their conceptual and vocabulary knowledge in their L1 as they learn English. It is also important that children maintain their connection to their culture and family through continued use of their home language. This is not something that can be replaced (Portes & Hao, 1998) and these strong family connections also support improved academic success.
There are unfortunately many myths when it comes to educating young DLLs and supporting their learning. The key to providing high quality services to young DLLs is acknowledging bilingualism as an asset and not a deficit. To be bilingual is a gift in this global age. Children who speak more than one language will have advantages over those who speak only one. We can support young DLLs to maintain their home language while they are acquiring English. These are mutually beneficial goals.
- August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.) (2006). Developing literacy in second language learners (Report of the national literacy panel on language-minority children and youth). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Espinosa, L.M. (2008). Challenging common myths about young English language learners. Foundation for Child Development Policy Brief Number 8. Retrieved on April 2, 2008 from http://www.fcdus.org/resources/resources_show.htm?doc_id=669789
- Goldenberg, C. (2008). Improving achievement for English language learners. In S. B. Neuman (Ed.). Educating the Other America (pp.139-162). Baltimore: Brookes.
- Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and reality. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA
- Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M.B. (2011). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning. 2nd Ed. Baltimore: Brookes.
- Pearson, B. Z., Fernández, S., & Oller, D. K. (1995). Cross-language synonyms in the lexicons of bilingual infants: one language or two?. Journal of Child Language, 22(02), 345-368.
- Portes, A. & Hao, L. (1998). E Pluribus Unum: Bilingaulism and loss of language in the second generation. Sociology of Education, 71 (4), 269-294.
- Rolstad, K., Mahoney, K. & Glass, G. (2005). The big picture: A meta-analysis of program effectiveness research on English language learners. Educational Policy, 19 (4), 572-594.
- U.S. Census Bureau. (2008). An older and more diverse nation by midcentury. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/population/012496.html