Fostering Second Language Development in Young
Children. ERIC Digest.
by ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics (no author credited)
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.
PRINCIPLE #1: 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
PRINCIPLE #2: 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.
PRINCIPLE #3: THERE ARE DIFFERENT CULTURAL PATTERNS IN
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.
PRINCIPLE #4: FOR SOME BILINGUAL CHILDREN, CODE-SWITCHING IS A NORMAL
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.
PRINCIPLE #5: CHILDREN COME TO LEARN SECOND LANGUAGES IN MANY DIFFERENT
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.
PRINCIPLE #6: 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.
PRINCIPLE #7: LANGUAGE FLOURISHES BEST IN A LANGUAGE-RICH ENVIRONMENT.
Teachers of children with limited English proficiency need to be good
models of language use. In particular, they should encourage children to
practice English as much as possible and provide reinforcement by expanding
on the children's vocabulary repertoire and by speaking coherently. It
is important for children learning English to interact with others in the
classroom as much as possible. Speaking with their peers will give them
a stronger reason for communicating.
Second language learners also need to be exposed to meaningful literacy
activities. This is especially important for children from homes where
literacy activities may be rare. It is vital for teachers to make reading
and writing appealing and significant to the children. They should encourage
students to write about people, places, or activities that are important
to them. Such topics will motivate students to take risks with the language
that they might not take with artificial or meaningless subjects.
PRINCIPLE #8: CHILDREN SHOULD BE ENCOURAGED TO EXPERIMENT WITH LANGUAGE.
Learning a second language is similar to learning a first language in
that a child needs to experiment and produce utterances that may be inaccurate
yet reflect normal language development. In this way, the child is attempting
to figure out the patterns and rules that govern the language. To correct
the child's speech, teachers should rephrase or expand on what the child
has already said. Feedback from peers will also help the children determine
which phrases are right and wrong. While children may appear to be making
more mistakes during experimentation, they are actually learning to internalize
chunks of appropriate speech. They test these chunks of language by using
them in situations that may or may not be appropriate. The feedback they
receive helps them determine whether they have guessed correctly.
If current demographic trends continue, more teachers will face culturally
and linguistically diverse students in their classrooms. These teachers
need to understand the process of second language acquisition and how to
alter their instructional styles to meet their students' needs. Adjustments
in instruction, however, should not include a lowering of standards for
these children. Instead, teachers should be encouraged to keep their standards
high and to develop methods that will promote the achievement of all their
students as they become competent, literate adults.
Hakuta, K., & Pease-Alvarez, L. (1992). Enriching our views of bilingualism
and bilingual education. "Educational Researcher, 21," 4-6.
McClure, E. F. (1977). "Aspects of code-switching in the discourse of
bilingual Mexican-American children" (Tech. Rep. No. 44). Cambridge, MA:
Berancek and Newman.
Philips, S. (1972). Participant structures and communicative competence:
Warm Springs children in community and the classroom. In C. B. Cazden,
V. P. John, & D. Hymes (Eds.), "Functions of language in the classroom."
New York: Teachers College Press.
Wong Fillmore, L. (1985). Second language learning in children: A proposed
model. In R. Eshch & J. Provinzano (Eds.), "Issues in English language
development." Rosslyn, VA: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
Wong Fillmore, L. (1991). When learning a second language means losing
the first. "Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6," 323-347.