Becoming Bilingual: Acquiring Two Languages (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Benefits of bilingualism

The American educational community is now more aware of the benefits of bilingualism. In the past, bilingualism was thought to be an educational handicap, especially prior to 1960. It was believed that children could not learn a second language while still maintaining and refining their first language. Thus, children were strongly discouraged from speaking their first language and in many instances were made to feel ashamed of speaking a language different than English (Cummins, 1995). For some children, learning a second language also meant that they would lose the ability to speak their first language (Evans, 1994; Wong Fillmore, 1991). This phenomenon has been termed subtractive bilingualism since the result of acquiring a second language results in the loss of the child’s first language. This result may have a negative impact on families as communication is disrupted. Transmission of cultural beliefs and parenting interactions require a shared language. Prior to the late 1970s, bilingual children’s academic failures were considered to be due to their bilingualism. Since that time, research has increased our understanding of the factors involved in second language acquisition, the ways in which second language acquisition can be facilitated and enhanced, and the ways in which the first language can be maintained. According to Wong Fillmore’s (1991) research, “the timing and the conditions under which they [children] come into contact with English” determine whether children will retain and continue to use their home language as well as influencing the acquisition of English (p. 323). Current approaches to bilingualism emphasize the acquisition of a second (target) language, with the continued development of the home language. This approach is also referred to as additive bilingualism because a child’s language skills are enhanced in both languages.

Children who have acquired a level of fluency in two languages have been reported to have higher levels of metalinguistic awareness, greater and earlier awareness of language structure, wider perspectives, and more social skills (Ben Zeev, 1977; Genesee, Tucker, & Lambert, 1975; Goodz, Legare, & Bilodeau, 1987; Ianco-Worrall, 1972). The acquisition of fluency in more than one language is accompanied by a greater awareness of the linguistic features of languages and the cultural ways in which the respective languages are used in various interactions (Thompson, 1999). This body of recent research supports the conclusion that children acquire language knowledge not only at the linguistic level, but at the metalinguistic knowledge level and level of metalinguistic knowledge verbalization as well. The following examples of the distinctions required of Spanish-fluent children learning English illustrates the complexity involved in second language acquisition.

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