Literacy PK-3

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Literacy PK-3 > Factors > Primary Language

Primary Language

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Primary Language is the language a person has been exposed to from birth. Being bi- 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 learning to read due to entering school with fewer oral language and early literacy skills in the school language. Bilingual learners typically follow a similar writing development pattern to native English speakers.

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/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 Vocabulary knowledge and early literacy skills in the language(s) they are learning at a later age than monolingual peers, who have only had to learn 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 children often learn each language more slowly than monolingual peers. However, it should be noted that other factors, such as SES, can lead to different trajectories that are sustained over time. 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 to learn the school-based language helps them achieve the same language and literacy skills as monolingual students.

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