By Karen Nemeth, M. Ed.
NEW!! This letter is available in English and Spanish, along with a simplified handout in both languages for purchase here:
Time after time teachers ask, “we believe in supporting the home language, but what should we do when parents ask us NOT to use anything other than English?” Parents who speak another language often enroll their child in a preschool program with the expectation that total immersion in English will speed their child’s progress in American schools. Research tells us this is the wrong way to go. You can help parents understand that you share their desire for their child to learn English well and to succeed in school. The best way to achieve this is to begin with strong support for the home language in the preschool years. Experts believe this approach will not only be effective in helping young dual language learners enter elementary school ready to succeed – but it will also prevent the tragic breakdown of family relationships that results from loss of the shared home language. Here is some information you can use to engage parents in a strong collaboration in support of each child’s growing ability to learn and communicate in their home language.
1. Children need time to continue strengthening the learning they’ve done in their first language, even while they are learning the second. The brain doesn’t have a problem growing up with two or more languages at the same time. Problems seem to occur when a new language overtakes the first and somehow interferes with language and content learning. The studies summarized by the National Literacy Panel (August & Shanahan, 2008) revealed no short term or long term advantages to total English immersion in preschool. Children who learn literacy skills first in their home language are likely to transfer those skills successfully to English (Paez & Rinaldi, 2006). Other researchers, such as Collier (1987) have made the case that it takes six years or more for children to achieve sufficient academic fluency in a new language to succeed in school. Clearly, preschoolers need more time to continue learning and experiencing the world in their home language if that is true. I believe that one drawback of too-quick immersion is that young children are forced to spend too much of their valuable early learning time struggling with new vocabulary when they could be actively learning concepts.
2. Children need to feel equally respected and loved. The home language is an integral part of each child’s identity. Their self-esteem will suffer if they attend a preschool that makes their language to seem less worthy than English. A study by Chang, et al (2007) found that Spanish-speaking children who do not receive support in their home language in preschool are more likely to be socially isolated, victims of bullying and viewed negatively by teachers. Children who are not supported in their home language are also likely to lose their expressive ability in that first language, which is so critical to their bond with their families (Wong Fillmore, 1991).
3. Children need adults who are able to form loving, nurturing relationships with them in order for their brain to develop to its full potential. That means they need to continue the strong bond and communication with their parents – which requires continued growth in their home language. It also means they need teachers who speak their language so they can gain the full benefits of human connectedness that make the best learning possible in those crucial early years.
Of course, educators need to understand and respect parental values. It is not respectful, however, to go along with a parent’s wishes if you know there is a better way and there’s research to back it up. It is up to teachers and administrators to make it clear that their language policy includes plans for each child to spend some of each day learning in their home language. Parents need to know that they should read to their child in their home language – and then talk about the books and share family stories and inside jokes and songs and rhymes and confidences and expressions of affection. Teachers and families can work together to share knowledge about the language and about the individual needs and progress of the child. “By supporting the home language of each child while scaffolding their English learning, educators (and society) have much to gain and nothing to lose. Being bilingual is surely an asset in today’s world.” (Nemeth, 2009)