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Being Bilingual — Is it Right for Your Child?

I (right) was in a bilingual school from kindergarten until junior high. Here, I celebrate Cinco de Mayo in 6th grade.

When I was going through elementary school, my mom would always have me in a bilingual classroom. She’s bilingual (English and Spanish), and when I was a preschooler, so was I. (We lived in Chile then, and when we moved back to California, she wanted me to be able to maintain my Spanish). At the time, there were classes where the majority of students were English learners (ESL) with a handful of students, (such as me) that were Spanish learners (SSL). These days, more and more parents want to have their child learn a second language and as a result, we’re seeing the popularity of bilingual programs rise. Learning to speak a second language is a wonderful experience, but how can you tell if it’s right for your child? Breezy Mama turns to Corie De Anda, M.S., Bilingual Program Specialist for Carlsbad Unified, for the answers. –Alex

Part 1: Learning a second language before kindergarten
(For Part 2: Learning a second language in elementary school — click here)

What is the best age for beginning to teach my child a second language?
Ages 6 months to 4 years are the optimal age for beginning to acquire a second language. Children who receive early intensive exposure to two languages can quickly and almost effortlessly acquire both languages simultaneously. At young ages, children can grasp a new language in the same way as they acquire their first language and won’t translate from their first language, as do older children. Young bilingual children have a linguistic and a cognitive advantage over monolingual children (they develop more synapses in the brain and are cognitively more flexible).

Will teaching a second language confuse them? How will I know if it is a positive thing for my child?
I would say teaching your child a second language won’t confuse them unless they have a language disability. Do not be concerned if your child mixes two languages while in the process of learning a second language, that is to be expected. Not all children exposed to a second language, however, will acquire it well. That is because not all children have a facility for learning a new language easily. According to Dr. Howard Gardner, each person has unique set of intelligences. Not all children have strength in linguistic intelligence—they may be stronger in logical-mathematical reasoning or music, etc. If they do have strong linguistic intelligence, however, they will be able to acquire a second language with ease, as I did as a child. If you notice your child being able to remember new words easily or the lyrics of a long song (not a commercial) or being able to play word games with you, that is an indication that they may have strong linguistic intelligence. Of course, girls usually develop language skills before boys, so if your boy is still not interested in playing language games at 3, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t be able to pick up a second language. You can always expose your child to a second language and see if they like it. No harm can be done by exposing them!

How can I expose my child to another language?
For young children, exposing them to a new language needs to be done in a natural and fun manner with materials that are designed for use with young children. Having a playmate who speaks another language is an excellent way to expose your child to a new language. Do you have a neighbor or know another family who speaks another language and has a child near your child’s age? Arrange playdates or take turns caring for each other’s child in your own home.

How can I teach my child a second language if I don’t speak much of it?
Even if you don’t speak the language, you can provide your child with rich language input and you can learn along with your child until he/she gets to a point where they are ready for more complex language at age 5. Just because parents are bilingual doesn’t mean that they will raise bilingual kids—one needs to be intentional about it and kids need to be interested to continue speaking the language after they enter school. You can check out materials from the public library or purchase and download audio CDs, software and/or DVDs to show at home. (See next question for recommendations–Breezy Mama)

What programs or materials are available for teaching a second language to preschoolers? How can I get started?

For a review of programs, go to http://reviewcorner.com/foreignlang.html.

Part 2: Learning a second language in elementary school

My elementary school placed a big emphasis on Mexican holidays, especially Cinco de Mayo, which is pictured here.

What type of programs might be encountered in different school districts? Can you explain a little about each one, as well as the pros and cons of them?
Since the passage of California’s Proposition 227 in 1998, the options for parents [that live in California] who want their children to learn how to read and write in two languages have been somewhat restricted, especially for families who already speak another language and who are learning English. An interesting response on the part of English speaking parents has been to push for bilingual programs for their children! Within 3 years of the passage of Prop 227, the number of students who were learning English enrolled in a bilingual program dropped significantly and has continued to drop, while programs for English speakers to learn a second language rose. Thus, we are seeing fewer and fewer Transitional Bilingual Programs for students learning English and more “Dual Language” or “Dual Immersion” programs available in southern California that parents can select if they so choose.

In a dual language/immersion program there are two groups of students: those learning English and those learning a second language (usually Spanish) and each group receives instruction in both their native language and the new language (each district has a little different configuration of how it is done). In addition to this, there are a few immersion programs for English speakers to learn other languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, French or German. In an immersion program, more of the second language is taught earlier on and there is more emphasis on becoming academically proficient in the second language, whereas in a dual language program, the instruction in the second language is more gradual.

In California, there are a very few International Baccalaureate programs at the elementary school level and one requirement of those programs is that each student takes a foreign language. There is no requirement to become fluent in that language and each school addresses this issue a little differently. If parents are interested in their child enrolling in one of these programs, the best place to start is their county office of education; begin with the website and if you don’t find the information there, contact someone from the World Languages and/or Bilingual Dept. Once they find out which school districts offer the program they are interested in, they need to contact the specific school where the program is located.

How can we decide which program, if any, is fit for our child?
First, decide on the outcome you are looking for—do you want your child just to be able to speak another language or do you want him/her also know how to read it and write it (to be biliterate)? And which language are you interested in—that will limit your choices. Once your child begins a bilingual program, you’ll be able to tell after 6-9 months if he/she is going to be successful in acquiring a second language.

If the child is placed in a bilingual program, does that inhibit learning and put a child at a disadvantage if they have never had exposure to the language before?
Placing an English-speaking child in a bilingual program would best be done in kindergarten, thus giving him/her an advantage. One family I know placed their English-speaking child in a German-immersion program in San Diego at 3rd grade. This makes it very difficult for the child to ‘catch up’ to his peers who began the program in kindergarten, but since his father is bilingual in English and German and he spent quite a bit of time tutoring him that first year, he met with success by the end of the year. Many studies have been conducted on this topic and all the studies have concluded that placing an English-speaking child in a bilingual program at a young age in an English-speaking country serves as an enrichment; it never inhibits the child’s learning to read and write in English. Unless the child has a language or learning disability, he/she will easily keep up in English because it’s spoken at home and the child is literally surrounded by English through the media and in the community. Placing a non-English speaking immigrant child in a bilingual program is an immense help to their acquisition of English and the development of literacy skills, especially if he/she is fortunate enough to arrive in kindergarten.

If I’m not interested in bilingualism for my child and s/he is placed in a classroom with a large cluster of students who are learning English, is my child at a disadvantage for his/her education? Will s/he get as much focus from the teacher as the ESL students or will the curriculum be watered down? What advice would you give for a parent with these concerns?
If you do not want your child exposed to a foreign language at all in elementary school, your best bet is to place him/her in a private school, because there are so many languages spoken by the children in public schools now that they will be hearing children speaking other languages on the playground, if not in the classroom. In the spring of 2009, more than 55 languages were spoken by students in California and the numbers of children entering school speaking a language other than English; the top three were Spanish, Vietnamese and Filipino/Tagalog, with significant increases in languages from the Middle East. From 1995 to 2003 the number of English learners increased 21% (a total increase of 336,560) and then leveled off and then slightly decreased between ‘07 and ‘09. Every year about 8-95 of those students become fluent in English, but they are replaced by new students who are not fluent.

The reality is that teachers cannot speak those languages, nor can they learn them, so the instruction in most classrooms is English only. More English-speaking parents are interested in their children learning a second language now than ever, especially with the importance of international trade and companies doing business overseas with their own factories or through outsourcing. Parents realize that the job market is tough and they want their children to have an “edge” in the competition.

I do not believe parents need to worry about their child unwittingly being placed in a bilingual classroom—since the passage of Proposition 227, the school places children in bilingual programs only if their parents have so requested it in writing and permission has been granted by the principal. If parents are concerned about their child being in a classroom where there are students learning English and the instruction is in English (with possible clarification in Spanish by an adult or another student), the fluent English speakers will still get grade-level core academic instruction in English. Schools are under the gun to get students to master the standards so they will do well on the high-stakes annual standardized testing and they need each student’s score, so much effort goes into teaching in the most effective and efficient manner. If any child suffers, it is the immigrant child who does not receive the specialized help that he/she needs to learn English. I have spent 33 years working with teachers, helping them to provide instruction to English learners, but the strategies used actually serve to enhance the instruction for all students.

Parent volunteers are also a big help for working one-on-one with newcomer students, showing them pictures and pronouncing new words for the students in English and being patient with their attempts to speak the language. So, I recommend this type of volunteer work for interested parents because it always proves to be an enriching experience. In elementary school, teachers group students in small groups for instruction in language arts and often math, as well, in order to provide for the need of the above-grade level students, the average students and the below-grade-level students.

These days, it seems that a school’s number one focus is standardized testing–does being in a truly bilingual program impact test results?
The test results of each school is listed for all to see, so parents considering enrolling their student in a bilingual program can always refer to the school’s SARC (School Accountability Report Card) that they are required to produce each year, and that is usually posted on their website. Parents can also go to the Dataquest section of the CA Dept. of Education website and type in the name of a school district and can see the results for all students and for the English learners, Special Education students, etc. Since participation in a dual language program is an enrichment for English speakers and serves to develop a more flexible, synapse-rich brain, their test results can only be enhanced. If the test scores are low for the students learning English, then that is just a reflection of them learning English. If the school’s results for all students or for the subgroups of English learners or Special Education students do not meet the federal targets for three years running then the government puts them into a “Program Improvement” status and they have to inform parents they did not meet the test score targets and the parents are free to move their child to another school.

About Corie De Anda:
Corie is an accomplished bilingual/bicultural education specialist with 33 years of experience in the field of teacher training, assessment and instruction of English Learners and Special Education students. She is thoroughly versed in all aspects of state legislation regarding English Learners and Coordinated Program Monitoring for CDE and has experience with all grade levels–K-12 as well as at the university level. Corie is also a published author–in 1985 she wrote This Is My Country; This Is My New Country (revised 1990).

This article was reprinted with permission from Breezy Mama.

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