Portrait of a Learner 4-8

Systems Change

Primary Language

Factor Connections

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A student's Primary Language is the language or dialect they have been exposed to from birth which often does not match the language of instruction, creating multilingual classrooms. Being bilingual or multilingual can have cognitive and cultural advantages, opening up forms of Communication and an ability to understand different perspectives and cultures. 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. Bilingual/multilinguals will sometimes even code-mix, meaning they switch languages in the middle of or between sentences, which may support their ability to use Vocabulary across both languages. Unfortunately, since bilingual/multilingual learners' language development in the early grades is typically less well understood, these learners are paradoxically both less likely to be identified as in need of special education services where they may need them. It is important for educators to distinguish between difficulties that stem from learning disabilities and differences that stem from their language skills, or a combination of both, in order to provide the most appropriate support.

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, etc.). For our work, we use the terms bilingual and multilingual which highlights their strength of knowing multiple languages or dialects. Importantly, being bilingual/multilingual is not a binary state, but rather a spectrum of language use and knowledge. For example, a bilingual speaker may have stronger comprehension or a larger vocabulary in one language than the other, which can shift over time.

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 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.

Although bilingual/multilingual students may not always have the academic vocabulary knowledge in all of their languages, they may still understand the concepts. Accordingly, students may prefer to use one language over another when solving problems or communicating in different situations to support their knowledge, experience, and understanding. The selection of the language typically depends on their language experience, as well as the language used by the person communicating with them.

In the US, many children do not speak English at home, or may speak a dialect of English like African American English at home. Unfortunately, due to social pressures to speak only Mainstream American English at school, children can come to devalue these other languages or dialects, losing them in favor of English. This is a problem because students' Primary Language often serves as an important tool to communicate with their families, and connect with their culture and Identity. In addition, requiring students to speak only Mainstream American English in school can communicate that other dialects are devalued and don't belong in school; instead, educators can encourage students to speak in home dialects, communicating that all languages and dialects belong. In addition, teaching about different dialects may increase children's dialect awareness (and thus, an ability to flexibly use different dialects).

It is helpful for educators to understand their students' prior experiences and Background Knowledge, particularly with their Primary Language and current language of instruction. Other factors, such as Stereotype Threat, can lead to different trajectories that are sustained over time, particularly since bilingual or multilingual students may be labeled less competent than their monolingual peers due to educators' lack of awareness. Educational systems can play an important role encouraging children to maintain other languages or dialects they speak, and the cultural connections and Social Supports they provide. Specifically, students' Primary Language and rich cultural backgrounds should be considered learning assets that can extend opportunities for students to deeply engage in school and support their academic learning. Further, it is important that that screen and assessment tools are culturally and linguistically appropriate for bilingual/multilingual learners. Finally, providing bilingual and multilingual students with inclusive educational support using a variety of modalities and supporting hybrid language practices, or translanguaging, puts them on the path to empowered learning.

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