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Family Interactions Seen Risked in Language Shift

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Williamsburg, Va.--Communication problems encountered at home by young children who are encouraged in school to abandon their native language may hinder their academic success, according to a California researcher.

"How can parents be the first and most continuous teachers if they cannot communicate effectively with their children?" asked Alma Flor Ada, a professor of education at the University of San Francisco who spoke here last week at a study-commission meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"Allowing children to lose their language cuts off their communication with parents who aren't comfortable with English," Ms. Ada said. In view of the guidance and support parents can offer in helping children succeed in school, she said, "when a child is made to abandon his home language, we may be dooming him to failure."

Ms. Ada, who is the director of the University of San Francisco's doctoral program in multicultural learn4ing, said her students' research has found that many Hispanic parents must use an older child or other person as an interpreter in order to talk to their own children.

To help Hispanic parents develop their children's native language and enrich their school experience, Ms. Ada launched a project in Pajaro Valley, Calif., two years ago that involves parents and their children in reading and writing about Spanish literature.

Discussing the role that early-childhood programs can play for children whose native language is not English, Ms. Ada said programs that provide most instruction in English without adequately developing the home language may result in "semi-lingualism"--a failure to communicate in either language.

Labels such as "non-English- speaking" or "limited-English-proficient" also convey the message that use of the mother tongue is bad, Ms. Ada said. She suggested that such references be dropped in favor of less value-laden terms--such as "beginner" or "intermediate" language student.

Such nonpejorative words, she said, are the types that would be used to describe an American student learning another language.

Ms. Ada also also urged educators to promote programs that treat students' home languages as a resource rather than a "deficit."

To illustrate the validity of research highlighting the strong emotional tie children form with their mother's language, Ms. Ada told of an experience she had while volunteering in an orphanage where she told children stories and fables in both English and Spanish.

When she began a story in English one day, a 3-year-old child of Hispanic parentage implored her to "talk the other way"--referring to Spanish.

When Ms. Ada asked why the child preferred hearing a language she could not comprehend, the child replied, "That's the way my mother used to sound."--dg

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