Fostering Second Language Development in Young Children (page 3)
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.
There Are Different Cultural Patterns in Language Use
Language minority children from different cultural backgrounds may experience culture conflict in school because their ways of learning and communicating are different from the routines of the classroom. Teachers can identify these differences through classroom communication patterns. For example, some children may not participate verbally in classroom activities because in their home culture calling attention to oneself and showing one's knowledge are regarded as overly assertive and even arrogant forms of behavior (Philips, 1972). Likewise, some children might be embarrassed by a teacher saying, "You should be proud of yourself"; more effective praise for them might be, "Your family will be proud of you."
By validating the students' cultures and using communication patterns familiar to them, teachers provide a much richer and more effective approach to culturally sensitive instruction than by focusing on occasional celebrations of the history and traditions of different ethnic groups. Children will feel validated in the classroom if they are encouraged to acclimate gradually through daily affirmation of their learning styles and communication patterns.
For Some Bilingual Children - Code Switching is a Normal Language Phenomenon
While some children acquiring a second language appear at first to confuse the two languages, code-switching is, in fact, a normal aspect of second language acquisition. Young bilingual children tend to insert single items from one language into the other (McClure, 1977), primarily to resolve ambiguities and clarify statements. Children over nine and adults, however, tend to switch languages at the phrase or sentence level, typically to convey social meanings.
Studies of code-switching in adults show it to be a sophisticated, rule-governed communicative device used to achieve goals such as conveying emphasis or establishing cultural identity. Children acquiring a second language are learning to switch languages in the sophisticated manner they hear in their homes and communities. Teachers should not hesitate to switch languages to accommodate the language and culture of their students. The goal must always be to communicate, rather than adhere to rigid rules about which language can be used in a given circumstance or at a given time.
Children Come To Learn Second Languages in Many Different Ways
Children become bilingual in different ways, the two most common being simultaneous acquisition of two languages and successive acquisition of a second language. A child under the age of three who is exposed to two languages usually experiences simultaneous acquisition. If the child is exposed to the second language at an older age, successive acquisition usually occurs. The rate of acquisition varies depending on the amount of exposure and support the child receives as well as on individual differences. Four types of bilingualism that fall into the two ways of learning languages have been identified.
For types 1 and 2, children have had high exposure to both languages at an early age.
- Type 1, Simultaneous Bilingualism, refers to children who have early exposure to both languages and are given ample opportunities to use both.
- Type 2, Receptive Bilingualism, refers to children who have high exposure to a second language but have little opportunity to use or practice it.
For types 3 and 4, children are learning the second language sequentially, after they have learned their first language.
- Type 3, Rapid Successive Bilingualism, refers to children who have had little exposure to a second language before entering school but have ample opportunity to use it once they enter.
- Type 4, Slow Successive Bilingualism, refers to children who have had little exposure to a second language and who have or avail themselves of few opportunities and have low motivation to use it.
While these four generally describe the second language acquisition process, the complexity of bilingualism can produce other variances.
Language is Used to Communicate Meaning
Children will internalize a second language more readily if they are asked to engage in meaningful activities that require using the language. For children who are learning English as a second language, it is important that the teacher gauge which aspects of the language the child has acquired and which ones are still to be mastered. Wong Fillmore (1985) recommends a number of steps that teachers can use to engage their students:
- Use demonstrations, modeling, role-playing.
- Present new information in the context of known information.
- Paraphrase often.
- Use simple structures, avoid complex structures.
- Repeat the same sentence patterns and routines.
- Tailor questions for different levels of language competence and participation.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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