Who Are ELL Students? (page 2)

— U.S. State Department
Updated on Mar 13, 2010

Potential Problems in Second Language Acquisition

As much as we might wish it, not all ELL children come to us as "pure types," ready and confident to accept the challenges of a new environment and take appropriate risks in speaking English. Not all students come with the necessary competence already established in one language that will allow an easy bridge into second language learning. Many children in international schools come from multiple language backgrounds, where one or both parents mother tongue may be different from the practiced language of the family. In other cases, young internationalschool children may have moved numerous times to a variety of countries and continents and been in the care of nannies or other household help, each with a different mother tongue. In still other cases, second and third generation children of immigrants living in closed communities might have lost direct links with their country of origin and yet remain largely un-assimilated in their new host countries. For example, in the Chinese communities in Indonesia or the Indian communities in East Africa, second and third generation children may not have the resources to establish competence in either their so-called "mother tongue" or their new host country language. Each of these preceding scenarios offers the potential for poor language models and poor language development.

Children with such complex linguistic histories, who have not established adequate competence in a primary language, may continue to have difficulty with developing fully a second (or third, or fourth) language, despite sustained exposure to the target language. Difficulties in vocabulary development and syntax, impoverished or immature writing, and difficulty keeping up and participating in class may all be symptoms of an earlier lack of competence in a first language. Such children often resemble language learning disabled children and it can be difficult to assess whether it is poor exposure to language or a neuropsychological difficulty that is preventing adequate language development.

Areas of Language Use

There are several areas of importance that students must gain competence in when learning English as a second language in an international school. The first two areas of language use were labeled by Cummins (1979) as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), or the language of social interaction, and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), or the language required for success in academic disciplines. BICS is the language of the playground, of talking with one?s friends, of shopping, and will usually be acquired in informal settings, e.g. in the playground, school corridors, or with friends.

CALP, on the other hand, needs specific and direct teaching. According to Adamson (1993), students can gain a basic understanding of academic material by accessing three kinds of knowledge: universal pragmatic knowledge (basic-level concepts, image schemas), language proficiency (including the features of academic English, reading and listening comprehension) and background knowledge (knowledge of a specific content area as well as scripts for school). Academic competence is necessary for students to achieve at higher levels of cognition, and in order for students to think critically, a large degree of subject-specific background knowledge is necessary.

ELL students also have to learn the socio-cultural parameters of using English in an international school, e.g. when specific vocabulary and tone or other non-verbal gestures may be used, and what the expectations are for success within the environment. Adamson (1993) suggests that a high degree of acculturation into Western academic society is necessary for ELL  students to express critical thinking in the classroom. Students from authoritarian societies who are unused to the practice of challenging ideas openly may feel that academic freedom, expressed by student generated questions, challenge the teacher rather than the idea.

These three areas of language competence were recently identified as goals by the U.S. Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL Association) in their 1996 draft ELL Standards for Pre-K ? 12 students. Broad goals were outlined for ELL students in the United States to use English to communicate in social settings, to achieve academically in all content areas, and to use English in socially and culturally appropriate ways. According to TESOL, meeting of the goals is necessary to ensure the achievement of English language competence needed for academic success and for life in a literate culture (TESOL, 1999).

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