Literacy 4-6

Systems Change
Literacy 4-6 > Factors > Primary Language

Primary Language

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Primary Language is the language a person has been exposed to from birth. Being bilingual or multilingual has cognitive advantages. However, when measured with assessments normed for monolinguals, students learning multiple languages can appear to experience slower acquisition of Vocabulary and Syntax knowledge in each language since these are spread across two or more languages. Students who attend schools that teach in a language other than their Primary Language can also have unique challenges developing their reading and writing skills due to entering school with fewer literacy skills in the school language.

Main Ideas

There are many terms for students in the United States whose native language is not English (e.g., Dual Language Learners, English Language Learners). For our work, we use the terms bilingual and multilingual.

The number of students who are learning more than one language is growing rapidly every year. Bilingual and multilingual students can experience different language acquisition patterns:

  • Simultaneous Bilingualism/Multilingualism is when a child acquires two or more languages simultaneously from birth. Simultaneous bilingual children often initially have less Vocabulary and Syntax knowledge in each language when compared to monolingual children since they are learning much more.
  • Sequential Bilingualism/Multilingualism is when a child acquires their native language from birth but has meaningful exposure to additional language(s) (typically after the age of 3) after their first language has been established. Research shows that children who learn languages sequentially typically acquire literacy skills in the language(s) they are learning at a later age than monolingual peers, who have only learned one language, and compared to simultaneous bilinguals/multilinguals who have had exposure to each language from a young age.

Since they are mastering more than one complex language system, bilingual/multilingual students often learn each language more slowly than monolingual peers. It should be noted too that other factors, such as SES, can lead to different trajectories that are sustained over time. For example, a disproportionate number of bilingual students in the United States come from lower-SES homes, which is also associated with weaker reading and writing outcomes. Nonetheless, students' Primary Language, and accompanying cultural knowledge, can be considered Background Knowledge that can support their academic learning. Providing bilingual and multilingual students with educational support and motivation to learn to read and write in the school-based language helps them achieve.

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