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Good intentions, bad advice for bilingual families.

Quite often, educators tell families of children who are learning English as a second language to speak only English, and not their native language, at home. Although these educators may have good intentions, their advice to families is misguided and stems from misunderstandings about the nature of bilingualism and the process of language acquisition. Educators may fear that children hearing two languages will become permanently confused and thus their language development will be delayed; this concern is not substantiated in the literature. Children are capable of learning more than one language, whether simultaneously or sequentially (Genesee, Paradis, & Cargo, 2004). In fact, most children outside of the United States are expected to become bilingual or even, in many cases, multilingual. Globally, knowing more than one language is viewed as an asset and even a necessity in many areas.

Also of concern, the misguided advice that students should speak only English is given primarily to poor families with limited educational opportunities, not to wealthier families who have many educational advantages. Since children from poor families often are identified as at-risk for academic failure, teachers believe that advising families to speak English only is appropriate. Teachers consider learning two languages to be too overwhelming for children from poor families, believing that the children are already burdened by their home situations. A workshop on Childhood Bilingualism: Current Status and Future Directions (Li, 2005) highlighted this stance as the significant difference between bilinguals in the United States and those throughout most of the world. In the United States, bilinguals tend to come from low socioeconomic groups, whereas bilinguals in most other parts of the world are from higher socioeconomic groups and have had more positive academic experiences. In the United States, the problems lie in the language learning environment, the educational opportunities, and the attitudes towards people who speak other languages, rather than in the individual child's ability to learn languages.

If families do not know English or have limited English skills themselves, how can they communicate in English? Advising non-English-speaking families to speak only English is equivalent to telling them not to communicate with or interact with their children. Moreover, the underlying message is that the family's native language is not important or valued.

Language Development for Bilingual Children

Language development for bilingual children is very similar to that of monolingual children. It is expected that bilingual children may be confused at times or may even go through a silent period, but this phase is temporary. Much of the bilingual child's development will depend on the language-learning environment, just as with monolingual children. Such factors as the context, who provides the language input, or when the second language is introduced affect the process of becoming bilingual. Some children are exposed to and learn two languages simultaneously prior to the age of 3. Other children learn one language first, beginning in infancy, and then are introduced to the second language at any time after the age of 3. Whether learning two languages is simultaneous or sequential depends on life circumstances. Frequently, the second language is introduced out of necessity. Either way, both methods of becoming bilingual can be effective.

Advantages of Being Bilingual

There are personal, cognitive, social, and economic advantages of bilingualism. It is important to recognize that learning a language also means learning about the culture of the people who speak that language. In the process of being bilingual, one is also becoming bicultural.

Bilingualism allows a person to interact with others from two language groups. This is especially important in families where the members speak more than one language. All too often, family relationships are strained because children, parents, and grandparents do not have a common language and communication among them is therefore limited. The wisdom of the ages is not passed down because the different generations cannot communicate.

In the United States, the reality is that many children of immigrant families learn English at the expense of losing their native language. Unfortunately, in many families, the native language is lost by the second or third generation (Oller & Eilers, 2002; Portes & Hao, 1998; Tse, 2001; Wong-Fillmore, 1991). In truth, there is no threat that immigrant groups' languages will supplant English (Crawford, 2004). Quite the opposite is true.

Since language and culture are so closely intertwined, knowing a language also fosters understanding of the culture of the people who speak that language. Therefore, bilingualism facilitates understanding of the underlying elements that are the essence of a culture and allows a person to function in more than one culture.

Bilingualism helps to promote cross-cultural understanding and appreciation of other cultures. It fosters examining situations from different points of view, and may motivate people to travel to foreign countries, enjoy foreign films, and read literature in the author's original language. Even though translations may be available, sometimes meaning does get lost in translation. Nuances of a language may be difficult to express in another language. Anyone who has had to translate knows that it is challenging. It is necessary to know more than just the words in the two languages. One must understand and appreciate cultural differences to translate accurately.

Cognitively, bilingualism appears to promote divergent, creative thinking. Several studies (reviewed in Baker, 2001) have found that fluent bilingual children are better at being able to think creatively and come up with original solutions to problems. They examine situations from different perspectives and are better divergent thinkers. In addition, bilingual children seem to have better metalinguistic skills and a deeper understanding of how language works. Furthermore, studies of bilingual education programs (Oller & Eilers, 2002; Ramirez, Yuen, & Ramey, 1991; Thomas & Collier, 1997) that control for socioeconomic status and program quality, found that bilingual students perform academically as well as or better than monolingual students.

As adults, bilingualism seems to offer an advantage in performing cognitive memory tasks. In three research studies conducted by Bialystok, Craik, Klein, and Viswanathan (2004), bilingual adults outperformed monolingual adults on memory tasks often associated with mental decline due to aging. Their findings suggest that the flexibility and complexity required to negotiate two languages contributed to heightened mental agility among bilingual adults.

Although children learning two languages simultaneously sometimes get confused, this confusion is not permanent. Bilingualism does not cause language delays or emotional disorders. In actuality, even children with disabilities become bilingual if they grow up in a bilingual environment (Baca & Cervantes, 2004). Yet, families of children with disabilities usually are advised to speak only English to their children. Often, this recommendation is made for the convenience of the educational professionals and others in the school who speak English, not because it is necessarily best for the child. Bilingual children with disabilities often get short shrift, in terms of services they receive, both because of the limited number of bilingual special education professionals and the high probability of coming from a low-income family.

The economic advantage of knowing more than one language is evident by examining the job opportunities in local newspapers. The present information age makes knowing two languages fluently an advantage. Fradd (1996) examined the economic impact of Spanish fluency in metropolitan Miami and concluded that the city has maintained its bilingual status because of the continuous influx of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, not because second- and third-generation descendents of Spanish speakers have retained the language. Yet while English is the dominant language in the Miami area, Spanish is widely used as a language for conducting business. The native language loss is a disadvantage for those seeking positions that require bilingual language skills. The same dynamic is true in other areas throughout the United States where there is a need for bilingual personnel.

Not a Dichotomy

Learning a second language does not preclude maintaining a first language; this is not a dichotomous situation. No one denies the importance of having grade- and age-appropriate English language skills. It is a given that in order to be academically successful in school in the United States, students must be fluent in English, and especially proficient in academic English. However, forgetting one's native language or not being encouraged to develop it does not guarantee academic success. In fact, for many monolingual English speakers who struggle in school the problem is that their language skills are not developed at an age-appropriate level.

Researchers (Cummins, 2000; Thomas & Collier, 1997) have found that the best predictors of academic success for non-native English speakers are fluency and literacy in their native language. Skills transfer from one language to the other. As a case in point, a noun is a noun in any language. Educators should know that this transfer might not be automatic, however. Concept knowledge is also transferred, although students may need assistance in understanding, for example, that "photosynthesis" is the same whether the concept was originally learned in English or any other language.

Misconceptions about the nature of bilingualism run rampant. The problem is not that the child is incapable of learning two languages; rather, it is the language-learning environment that neither stimulates nor promotes learning two languages. One contributing factor is the scarce number of professionals who understand the nature of bilingualism and who are themselves bilingual. There is a shortage of bilingual professionals--teachers, administrators, speech-language pathologists, and school psychologists--who can interact, teach, assess, and provide support for bilingual children's education. All too often, education decisions are made based on the availability of personnel, rather than on the child's actual needs. Most legislative decision-makers lack a degree in education, and few possess any knowledge of bilingual pedagogy. Yet, these state and federal officials are the very people making education policies, which therefore reflect their own biases and lack of understanding about bilingualism. Therefore, in many states, limitations on funding for programs and services further diminish bilingual children's opportunities.

What Should We Tell Families?

Professional organizations, such as the Association for Childhood Education International, the International Reading Association, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages, Inc., and of course the National Association for Bilingual Education, recognize the value of knowing two languages and offer recommendations for promoting bilingualism. Furthermore, business leaders recognize the need for having bilingual employees to work in international venues, thereby expanding their markets.

Family literacy programs can promote family involvement. Families should be encouraged to promote learning in whatever language they feel most comfortable with. Activities can include singing songs, telling jokes and riddles, playing games, reading in different languages, hearing stories from the family elders, and teaching about their native culture.

Teacher education programs can incorporate content on bilingualism and include courses that call for knowing two languages. Educators must develop an understanding of bilingualism and second language acquisition processes in order to examine existing and proposed policies, recognize policies' impact on all learners, and consequently improve the current situation of children from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Therefore, bilingual research should explore these issues and disseminate the findings to audiences beyond the professional organizations.

Better Advice

If a basic concept of sound educational pedagogy is to build on prior knowledge, then we should apply this concept to language learning for children of families from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Instead of telling families to stop using their native languages and speak only English, we should offer myriad opportunities for language and cognitive development in both languages.

Every bilingual person has a story to tell about how knowing two languages has affected him or her. Language and culture makes us who we are. The life of Charles Chibitty, a Comanche Code Talker who died in 2005, exemplifies the importance of remembering one's native language (Holley, 2005). During World War II, he was one of several Native Americans who created a code using their native languages to send messages that could not be deciphered by the enemy from the front lines to military headquarters. During an interview in 2002, he said, "It's strange, but growing up as a child I was forbidden to speak my native language at school. Later my country asked me to. My language helped win the war, and that makes me very proud. Very proud" (p. B06).

Why not encourage children to become bilingual? Instead of viewing bilingualism as a burden, think of it as a golden opportunity, a chance to communicate beyond borders. Then, bilingualism will truly be a gift that lasts a lifetime.


Baca, L. M., & Cervantes, H. T. (2004). The bilingual special education interface (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed.). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F.I.M., Klein, R., & Viswanathan, M. (2004). Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: Evidence from the Simon Task. Psychology and Aging, 19, 290-303.

Crawford, J. (2004). Educating English learners: Language diversity in the classroom (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services.

Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power, and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Fradd, S. H. (1996). The economic impact of Spanish-language proficiency in metropolitan Miami. Miami, FL: The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the Policy Center of the Cuban American National Council.

Genesee, F., Paradis, J., & Cargo, M. B. (2004). Dual language development & disorder: A handbook on bilingualism & second language learning. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Holley, J. (2005, July 26). Comanche code talker Charles Chibitty dies. The Washington Post, p. B06.

Li, R. (2005, April). Childhood bilingualism: Current status and future directions. Childhood-Bilingualism_2005.pdf

Oller, D. K., & Eilers, R. E. (2002). Balancing interpretations regarding effects of bilingualism: Empirical outcomes and theoretical possibilities. In D. K. Oller & R. E. Eilers (Eds.), Language and literacy in bilingual children (pp. 281-292). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Portes, A., & Hao, L. (1998). E pluribus unum: Bilingualism and loss of language in the second generation. Sociology of Education, 71, 269-294.

Ramirez, J. D., Yuen, S. D., & Ramey, D. R. (1991). Final report: Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit and late-exit programs for language-minority children. Report submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.

Thomas, W. P., & Collier, V. P. (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Tse, L. (2001). "Why don't they learn English?" Separating fact from fallacy in the U.S. language debate. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wong Fillmore, L. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6, 323-346.

Oneyda M. Paneque is Assistant Professor, Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida.
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Author:Paneque, Oneyda M.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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