Fostering Second Language Development in Young Children
As the number of linguistically and culturally diverse students entering American schools increases, more and more teachers are faced with the challenge of educating children with limited English skills. Many of these teachers, however, have had little or no training in second language development and need guidelines to help them understand the process young children undergo as they learn a second language. Teachers also need to be aware of how to help their students maintain their home language.
This Digest outlines eight principles, drawn from theory and research on second language acquisition and culturally sensitive instruction, to guide educators working with linguistically diverse students and to help them recognize that bilingualism is a process that occurs in stages.
Bilingualism is an Asset and Should be Fostered
Research increasingly shows the cognitive, cultural, and economic advantages of bilingualism (Hakuta & Pease-Alvarez, 1992). Children who have the opportunity to speak two languages should be encouraged to maintain both, so they can enjoy the benefits that may accompany bilingual status.
Children from homes where English is not the native language should be encouraged to cultivate their home language as well as English. In some cases, the parents of these children are unable to speak English. If the children do not maintain their home language, they risk losing the ability to communicate well with their family members (Wong Fillmore, 1991). Additional support for the home language can come from after school and Saturday classes
There is an Ebb and Flow to Children's Bilingualism; It is Rare for Both Languages to be Perfectly Balanced
The false argument is sometimes made that encouraging the native language at home prevents children from developing either language well. It is important to realize, rather, that as a child is learning a second language, one language may predominate because the child is using that language more than the other at a given time. Children showing a lack of proficiency in both languages are most likely undergoing a developmental phase in which limited use causes proficiency in the home language to decline, while the second language has not yet reached an age-appropriate level. Teachers should view this as a period of temporary language imbalance during which the child may not perform as well as native speakers in either language. This should be considered healthy and normal. It is rare for bilinguals to have both languages in balance. Yet, most bilingual children will reach age-level proficiency in their dominant language given adequate exposure and opportunities for use.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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