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By the 2030s, say demographers, English language learners (ELLs) will account for approximately 40 percent of the entire school-aged population in the United States. In some areas, that projection is already exceeded – in California, for instance, 60-70 percent of schoolchildren speak a language other than English as their primary language.

For the period 1995-2005, the Asian population is projected to be the fastest growing group in all U.S. regions, with the greatest gains expected in the West. The Hispanic population will be the second-fastest growing group.

These facts bear importantly on how children learn – and how speech-language pathologists (SLPs) perform their jobs.

In one common scenario, a child is referred for speech-language testing because she is struggling academically. In her teacher’s view, she is not learning English with the expected speed and her academic skills are lagging behind those of her monolingual English-speaking classmates. Does the student have a language-learning disability or is she merely manifesting the normal process of acquiring a second language?

Normal phenomena

It is imperative that SLPs understand the normal processes and phenomena of second-language acquisition to avoid making “false positive” identifications.

ELL children may manifest interference or transfer from their first language (L1) to English (L2). This means that a child may make an English error due to the direct influence of an L1 structure. For example, in Spanish, “esta casa es mas grande” means “this house is bigger.” However, a literal translation would be “this house is more bigger.” A Spanish-speaking child who said “this house is more bigger” would be manifesting transfer from Spanish to English. This is a normal phenomenon – a sign of a language difference, not a language disorder.

Children may also manifest a common second-language acquisition phenomenon called the silent period. When children are first exposed to a second language, frequently they focus on listening and comprehension. These children are often very quiet, speaking little as they focus on understanding the new language – much, in fact, as adults do when traveling in foreign countries. The younger the child, the longer the silent period tends to last. Older children may remain in the silent period for a few weeks or a few months, whereas preschoolers may be relatively silent for a year or more.

Many children who are ELLs also engage in a behavior known as codeswitching. This involves changing languages over phrases or sentences. For example, a Spanish speaker might say, “Me gustaria manejar – I’ll take the car!” (“I’d like to drive – I’ll take the car”). Or, a Filipino speaker might say, “With my teacher, I have utang ng loob [debt of gratitude] because she has been so good to me.” Again, this is a normal phenomenon engaged in by many fluent bilingual speakers worldwide.

Some children who are ELLs undergo the phenomenon of language loss. As they learn English, they lose skills and fluency in L1 if their L1 is not reinforced and maintained. This is called subtractive bilingualism, and it can be cognitively and linguistically very detrimental to children’s learning and to their family lives (especially if the parents speak only the L1 and no English). Ideally, children should experience additive bilingualism, where they learn English while their first language and culture are maintained and reinforced.

Benefits of bilingualism

Many research studies cite the cognitive-linguistic benefits of being a fluent bilingual speaker. Experts have found that children who are fluent bilinguals actually outperform monolingual speakers on tests of metalinguistic skill.

In addition, as our world shrinks and business becomes increasingly international, children who are fluent bilingual speakers are potentially a tremendously valuable resource for the U.S. economy. Most Americans are currently monolingual speakers of English, and are finding more and more that it would be highly advantageous to their professional lives if they spoke a second language.

How should students learn?

Many children who are ELLs are put into English-speaking classrooms where they understand nothing of what they are hearing. In this “sink or swim” situation, many flounder. Imagine traveling to Beijing and taking a social studies course taught only in Mandarin. Learning would be most difficult; yet we expect our ELLs to automatically decode English and succeed academically in an analogous situation.

This idea of “the more English the better” is fallacious and can actually slow down children’s learning considerably. Thomas and Collier (1998) state that the average native English speaker gains about ten months of academic growth in one ten-month academic year. ELL students must outgain the native speaker by making 1.5 year’s progress in English for six successive school years. Thus, in order to have skills that are commensurate with those of native English speakers, ELLs must make nine years progress in six years. It is no wonder that many ELLs flounder – not because they have language-learning disabilities, but because they are put into such difficult learning situations in our schools.

Under ideal conditions, ELLs would be taught in their first language 90 percent of the time and in English 10 percent of the time in kindergarten and first grade. Gradually, as they learned more English, they would be taught in the primary language 50 percent of the time and in English 50 percent of the time by sixth grade. Studies have shown that children who are taught in this manner outperform ELLs who are taught mostly in English from very early in their schooling. Children in this ideal bilingual learning situation do so well because they understand what they are hearing and are thus able to build their underlying conceptual-linguistic foundation.

Social and academic language

There are different timelines for learning social and academic language. Under ideal conditions, it takes the average second-language learner two years to acquire Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS). BICS involves the context – embedded, everyday language that occurs between conversational partners. On the other hand, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), or the context-reduced language of academics, takes five to seven years under ideal conditions to develop to a level commensurate with that of native speakers.

Many ELL students are thus in a catch-22 situation. They may develop conversational English that appears fluent and adequate for everyday communication. However, they still struggle with CALP and have difficulty in areas such as reading, writing, spelling, science, social studies, and other subject areas where there is little context to support the language being heard or read. This “BICS-CALP gap” leads professionals to falsely assume that the children have language-learning disabilities.

School language proficiency tests are often used to assess children’s level of proficiency in English. After children have been tested, they are given a label such as “Limited English Speaker” or “Fully Proficient English Speaker.” The problem of which many SLPs are unaware is that these tests only assess English BICS; CALP is not assessed. The child may be labeled as fully English proficient on the basis of his or her ability to answer a question such as “what are your favorite foods?” or respond to a request to “tell me about your family.”

SLPs and others who work with these children in the schools see the label of “fully English proficient” and assume that it is acceptable to give English standardized tests to these children – after all, they are fully proficient in English! In reality, however, the children are still striving to develop CALP and thus the use of standardized tests in English is biased against them. When these standardized tests are administered, the ELLs often score very low and are labeled as having language-learning disabilities. They are then inappropriately placed into special education.

SLPs will make fewer errors in labeling ELLs if we are aware of the normal phenomena and processes that accompany learning a second language. Ideally, we will support children’s first languages and cultures, and encourage them to become fully proficient bilingual speakers. Not only will they perform better in school, but they will have a much greater chance of growing up to become successful citizens who are invaluable assets to our society and our economy.

Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin is an associate professor in the department of speech pathology and audiology at California State University, Sacramento. She also works as an itinerant SLP in the public schools. Alejandro Brice is an assistant professor in the department of communication disorders at the University of Central Florida. Brice is the editor of Communication Disorders Quarterly.


This article republished with permission of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (opens in a new window) (ASHA). © 2005 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

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