Second language acquisition and
Early Childhood Education
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Dr. Gilberto Lara
The population of young dual language learners (DLL) in the United States has increased substantially in the last several decades and now accounts for 25% of all children in the United States (Migration Policy Institute, June 2014). Many of these children are exposed to multiple languages in the home and the early childhood setting, and the vast majority are U.S. citizens. Regardless the amount of research documenting the great capacity of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to learn several languages and the cognitive, social, and linguistic benefits of early bilingualism, most young DLLs in the United States do not receive enhanced ECE that supports their emergent bilingualism. The purpose of this research is to show the importance of second language acquisition and how educators can promote literacy and language development in the early childhood classrooms.
According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1995), approximately 6 million American children speak a language other than English in the home. In California today, this is true for one out of every four preschool children (California Tomorrow, 1988). It is estimated that by the year 2035, 50% of California’s kindergarten children will speak languages other than English at home (García, McLaughlin, Spodek, ; Saracho, 1995). There are numerous advantages of people that speak a second language which include communicating with more people while also increasing their educational, professional, and social opportunities. There are also many benefits that children can gain when they learn a second language. Children who have learned a second language at a young age demonstrate cognitive advantages. They also tend to increase their curiosity about the culture and traditions of the languages that are being brought into our classrooms and as a result allows them to feel a sense of value and comfort as our society is increasing and culture and languages play a crucial part in how we view our learning of a new language as we have seen that in the U.S that English is the dominant language of instruction in our schools. It is important to understand that even though children of every age benefit from learning a second language, research studies particularly support starting bilingual education at the preschool level. Early childhood children (ages 0-8) are able to acquire learning through the implementation of play and small group activities that promote language development. Young children simulate sounds easier than older students and it is important to understand how this impacts literacy and language development so that as a result can increase academic achievement. The purpose of the study is to research the benefits of maintaining a child’s native language while acquiring their second language in the early years to increase literacy and language development and how educators can promote this in the classroom.
The following research question will guide the study: How are young bilingual students able to acquire literacy and language development? Are there any implications of second language acquisition for What can educators do to promote literacy development for young dual language learners?
Definition of second language acquisition
Second Language Acquisition (SLA) refers to the study of how students learn a second language (L2) in addition to their first language (L1). Although it is referred as Second Language Acquisition, it is the process of learning any language after the first language whether it is the second, third or fourth language. Therefore, any other language apart from the first language is called a second language (SL) or also referred to as a target language (TL). To distinguish between Second Language and Foreign Language, The Collins Dictionary defines Second Language as the language that a person learns after his or her native language and Foreign Language as a language that is used in a country other than one’s native country (2013). There are different ways to acquire second or foreign languages either formally or informally. In our society today, radio stations, television, newspapers provide us opportunities to increase the development of our target language. In our classrooms, children acquire a more formal academic language in the target language to increase their content and academic language By being actively involved in the learning environment, the learner is constantly in contact with the target language through normal daily routines. It is extremely important in second language acquisition to look at the learning environment and investigate if the age factor has any effect. For DLLs, the development of language and literacy involves the integration of component skills (e.g., sound-symbol awareness, grammatical knowledge, vocabulary knowledge), as well as more sociocultural variables. Bilingual learners can and do develop second language literacy while acquiring second language oral proficiency. Furthermore, bilingual learners’ oral, reading, and writing skills interact with one another, creating complex relationships of mutual support (Brisk & Harrington, 2007). For example, children are exposed to language through listening and reading, which are receptive language uses, and this exposure leads to developments in speaking and writing, which are productive. Moreover, reading is important for developing oral vocabulary, which in turn promotes speaking and can enhance writing. Research with DLLs indicates that instruction should focus on developing oral language skills by providing rich and engaging language environments while simultaneously building early literacy skills. A recent research review concluded that instruction in the key components of reading, as identified by the National Reading Panel (2000)—including phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension—benefits DLLs (August & Shanahan, 2006). Research examining the precursors to literacy has also shown the significance of phonological awareness and print knowledge, in addition to oral language proficiency, in supporting second language development. Investigations with DLLs indicate that phonological awareness skills transfer from the first to the second language (Chiappe & Siegel, 1999; Cisero & Royer, 1995). However, this transfer varies according to similarities and differences between the two languages. Studies examining these relationships among bilingual children from different language groups (e.g., Chinese, Spanish, Hebrew) found that the extent of transferability of these skills depends on the relations between languages and between writing systems (Bialystok, Luk, & Kwan, 2005). Also, seeing that texts written in different ways can have the same meaning gives DLLs insight about the invariance of print. Therefore, for DLLs, acquiring print knowledge in either language may facilitate the development of these abilities in the other language (Bialystok, 2007). We need further research to advance our understanding about how young DLLs from different language backgrounds develop language and literacy skills. Nevertheless, there is already some knowledge that can guide the development of interventions for these populations. We know, for example, that oral and written language experiences for DLLs should be regarded as an additive process, to ensure that children are able to maintain and develop their first language while learning to speak and read English. We also know that there are specific language and literacy practices that can promote learning during the early years.
Language and Literacy Development of Young Bilingual Children
Infants’ earliest language learning exposure begins by listening to the sounds of their mothers speaking even before birth, during the last trimester of pregnancy. (Byers-Heinlein, Burns, ; Werker, 2010). There are several factors and environments that play a role in the development of a child’s language, which include interactions with peers and adults, homes, communities, and early childhood settings. These language learning environments that are formed at a young age can differ tremendously, as interactions at home are produced in the native language and exposure to the English language is being provided through social interactions within the communities. In hindsight, interactions at home in English to the exposure from older siblings and formal settings, which include early childhood classrooms are providing their instruction in both languages. Thus, the amount of exposure to English can vary enormously across settings from almost none to all language interactions conducted in English. These earliest language learning opportunities are important for ECE providers to understand, as both the amount of exposure to and opportunity to learn a second language contribute to the overall language development of young bilingual children (Castro et al., under review). All young children in bilingual environments have the potential to become fully bilingual (i.e., learning two languages at the same time, and developing a similar levels of proficiency in each language), (Albareda,-Castellot, Pons, & Sebastián-Gallés, 2011; Pearson, Fernandez, Lewedeg, & Oller, 1997), however, successfully becoming a balanced bilingual will require sufficient exposure and high quality learning opportunities in both languages. Although we know that emergent bilingual children require sufficient exposure in both languages to achieve proficiency and to experience the bilingual advantages described above, in the United States this is rarely the case (Hoff et al., 2012; Marchman et al., 2004). A secondary analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B) conducted by the CECER-DLL indicated that in the United States DLL infants and toddlers are more likely to be in bilingual care when they are 9 months old, less likely at 24 months and unlikely to receive bilingual ECE services once they are 52 months of age, when they are more likely to attend center-based ECE (Espinosa, Burchinal, Tien, Castro, Peisner-Feinberg & Winsler, 2013). This large nationally representative study shows that in the United States young dual language learners who attend ECE programs have fewer opportunities to develop proficiency in both of their languages as English-only instruction is the most common language offered in preschools. This means that young emergent bilingual children in the United States are unlikely to benefit from the cognitive advantages of balanced bilingualism.
There are several implications based on the research for United States’ educational policy at the federal, state, and local level are clear and have been summarized well by Castro ; Espinosa (2014) and Espinosa (2013):
1. ECE programs in the United States should purposefully and openly promote both the English language development of young Dual language learners and also support continued development of the native language of the dual language learners. If dual language learners are provided with the tools to learn a second language while being given the opportunity to maintain their native language, then they will increase their cognitive, linguistic, and academic abilities.
2. All state early learning and development standards (ELDS) should be reviewed to determine if they are appropriate for DLLs. The standards should be reviewed and studied to reflect the current research on young dual language learners’ language development and remove any linguistic or cultural bias to guarantee all ECE standards are fair, unbiased, and appropriate for young DLLs.
3) ALL ECE programs and professional development systems need to systematically integrate the topics of meeting the instructional, academic, social-emotional, and linguistic needs of young DLLs. In addition, programs will need support in meeting the needs of DLLs with special needs and designing appropriate assessment and accountability systems.
4) Explicit policies that support bilingualism for all children whenever possible will promote a globally prepared student population should be adopted. Dual language programs have proven to be an effective language approach for DLL children while also providing many benefits to native English speakers.
5) Early childhood programs should adopt family engagement practices that recognize the unique linguistic and cultural strengths of dual language families and learn specific school-home strategies that foster important bilingual and biliteracy goals.
6) Young DLLs should be assessed in each of their languages because assessing the DLL child only in English will underestimate the child’s knowledge, linguistic competence and true abilities. This may require investment in recruiting and retaining both a workforce and assessment specialists who are qualified to conduct bilingual assessments. In addition, linguistically, culturally, and developmentally appropriate assessment tools for young DLLs across all domains of development will need to be developed
How can educators promote literacy and language development?
There are several general recommendations for promoting language and literacy development among DLLs. Research has shown that these include keeping consistent routines and classroom organization so that children can follow activities, feel comfortable, and become socially integrated; creating language- and literacy-rich environments and using supportive methods: visual aids, gestures, emphasizing important words in a sentence, keeping the message simple, and repeating key vocabulary words; and using a curriculum that helps DLLs actively participate by providing concrete experiences and materials, and being responsive to cultural and linguistic differences (Dickinson ; Tabors, 2002; Tabors, 1998). Additionally, research has shown that the following general strategies can enhance and tend to be associated with improved language learning for all children. These strategies include extended talk on a single topic, opportunities to converse with teachers, exposure to sophisticated vocabulary, and intellectually challenging group discussions (Dickinson, Flushman, ; Freiberg, 2009). To be effective with DLLs, the implementation of these strategies should take into account children’s proficiency in English, using children’s first language as needed.
Discussion of the Findings
Amongst the basis of the evidence, benefits of knowing two (or more) languages, there are other reasons for supporting DLLs’ home language development. Children who become proficient in more than one language experience the advantages described above as well as certain social and economic advantages well into adulthood. In addition, there are developmental risks associated with loss of a child’s first language. Children who do not develop and maintain proficiency in their home language may lose their ability to communicate with parents and family members and risk becoming estranged from their cultural and linguistic heritage language learners who are proficient in their first language are able “to establish a strong cultural identity, to develop and sustain strong ties with their immediate and extended families, and thrive in a global multilingual world” (Espinosa, 2006, p. 2). Thus, there are compelling reasons to actively support the development of young DLLs’ first language as well as the acquisition of English.
In conclusion, there is fascinating evidence in the United States that young DLL children are quite capable of learning several languages during the early childhood years. In fact, they benefit socially, linguistically and cognitively from the language processing skills inherent in acquiring two or more languages. Also, learning a second language during the preschool years— typically English in the United States– should not come at the expense of continued first language development. Research highlights the importance of sufficient exposure to both languages in order to benefit from bilingualism.
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