Education Opinion

A Question for Early-Childhood Programs: English First orFamilies First?

By Lily Wong Fillmore — June 19, 1991 9 min read

Let me turn first to its main recommendation: “Nae recommends that overall research funding for education be increased from roughly one half a percent of total expenditures for U.S. educational institutions at all levels (about $150 million).”

In her June 5, 1991, Commentary, Rosalie Pedalino Porter challenges the stand taken by the National Association of Bilingual Education against these programs (“The False Alarm Over Early English Acquisition”). Ms. Porter attempts to discredit as a “false alarm” the conclusion drawn from a study I recently completed in collaboration with over 300 members of the education community from across the nation. This study found substantial and alarming evidence that English-immersion preschool programs frequently lead to children losing their primary language, and, with that, the ability to communicate with their parents.

Is this a false alarm, or is it an early warning to the communities whose children are targeted for such programs? In our eagerness to promote English, are we undermining the fundamental relationship between parents and children? Could we actually be increasing the educational, social, and psychological risks that these children already face?

Ms. Porter identifies three issues in this controversy. The first is: “Which early-childhood interventions best help limited-English speakers overcome the language barrier to equal educational opportunity?”

Early childhood is hardly a period in which one can speak of “the language barrier”! We’re off to a bad start if we believe that a child’s linguistic accomplishments by this period constitute a barrier to otherwise available educational opportunities. The purpose of early education is the total development of the child--cognitive, social, emotional, and physical as well as linguistic. The foundations for intellectual and social functioning and for schooling are laid in the early years. Research in child development has shown that primary-language development and cognitive and social development occur in tandem and are inseparable. Research has also established that well-developed primary language is essential to future success in second-language learning. Three- to 5-year-old children are at a critical juncture in development--everything is in place, but not much is stable.

Can children learn a second language during this vulnerable period? They can--easily, in fact--but not without disruption to their developing sense of self, especially when the second language is promoted in a way that suggests that it is more socially desirable and valued than their primary language.

Can children lose a primary language? Ms. Porter asserts that they don’t, but anyone who has studied children’s second-language acquisition in depth, as I have, knows differently. English often does replace the primary language of minority-background children. And the younger they are when they learn English under the conditions Ms. Porter is recommending, the more likely they are to lose their first language. When young children undergo this process, much can go awry. What is lost when English displaces the primary language? If that’s the only language the parents speak, children stand to lose much of what parents can teach them.

The early-education interventions that work best for language-minority children are the ones that work for all children. Children need the kind of early-education experiences, in a language they understand, that turn them into enthusiastic and independent learners. They need experiences that build on the linguistic and intellectual resources they already have.

What children don’t need are early educational experiences that destroy their confidence in themselves and their families--experiences that tell them: You are unacceptable the way you are. If you want to belong, you must change--or be left out. These are messages that get communicated to language-minority children in English-immersion programs. No language barrier impedes these messages. They come across loud and clear. Children want to belong, so they learn English to gain acceptance. And many eventually reject the language spoken at home--the language that made them unacceptable in the first place.

Ms. Porter’s second question is: “What are the main responsibilities of public education for these children, and to what extent should schools be concerned with the change of language use in the home?”

The responsibility of the society’s schools is not to supplant parents, but to assist them in preparing their children for the adult roles they must eventually take on. Yes, American schools must help children develop the English-language skills that will allow them to take full advantage of educational opportunities. And schools must provide access to the curriculum that will give children the knowledge, skills, and capabilities needed for jobs and other adult responsibilities.

But children need more than what schools provide to become responsible and productive adults. They also need what their parents can and must teach them--notions of justice and fairness, ideas about personal responsibility and honor, attitudes about work and effort, and beliefs about what is good and what is not. It is the parents’ job to socialize children in the values, beliefs, and practices that will enable them to become the kind of men and women they want them to be. All of this takes time, closeness, and communication.

What happens to this kind of teaching when children abandon the parental language? In our survey, 64.4 percent of the parents whose children attended English-immersion preschools reported negative changes in family communication patterns. Few of these parents spoke English, but their children were abandoning the parental language and communicating in English at home. These changes in communication patterns were clearly affecting parental authority and family closeness. Parents reported difficulties in talking to their children and in giving them the guidance they needed.

We give a lot of lip-service to the role families should play in the education of their children. Do we really mean it? The partnership between schools and parents is a cornerstone in the President’s new education agenda. The job of educating children for the world they will inherit is too big for the society’s schools to handle alone. It can be done only in cooperation with the children’s most important teachers--their parents. We mustn’t undermine a family’s ability to educate its own children. But that’s precisely what we do when we put parents in the untenable position of accepting early education that may very well alienate their children from them. They seldom realize how dangerous these programs are until it’s too late. How can parents support the educational development of their children when they don’t speak the same language? When we adopt programs that damage the family’s ability to do the job it is supposed to do, who picks up the slack? Who’s going to offer children the moral support and guidance that they’re supposed to be getting from home?

Ms. Porter’s third issue is the validity of the NABE study. The study was conducted without funding by educational researchers, practitioners, university students, community workers, children’s advocates, and parents--people who got involved because of their concern for the welfare of language-minority children and their families. This was deliberate. The problem we studied needed to be the concern not only of researchers but of the education community at large. We saw the study as an opportunity to shed at least “a thousand points of light” on the problem.

Over 300 volunteers turned out to interview a total of 1,100 families across the country. The families included Latinos, Asians, American Indians, Arabs, and Europeans. The families had all had children in early-education programs. Ms. Porter charges that the study was flawed because the children were “not randomly assigned” to their programmatic treatments. The study was a survey, not an experimental treatment calling for random assignment. In most cases, the programs the children attended were the only type available to them. Low-income families generally don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to educational opportunities.

The study we conducted can and should be replicated. What would other researchers find if they were to look at children who have been in English-immersion programs such as the one Ms. Porter touts as a model for early education? I would bet that if such an investigation were conducted by trained language researchers and they were to examine family communication patterns several years after children have completed such programs, they would find essentially what we found in our survey. Two out of three families would be experiencing negative changes in communication patterns. One out of two children would be losing their primary language.

Future studies ought to focus especially on families with teenagers who lost their primary language through their preschool experiences. Our study suggests that early communication problems can lead to dangerous breakdowns in parental authority when children are older. Ms. Porter asserts that “the inevitable clash between generations, the desire of children to behave in ways that are not traditional or acceptable to their parents” is a natural occurrence, whatever language they speak. This is a fallacious argument. It’s true that inter-generational clashes occur, but they certainly aren’t inevitable. For most of the groups in our study, such problems are strictly an American phenomenon. They occur when a society invalidates rather than supports the role families play in the rearing of children. In tumultuous and dangerous times like ours, strong family ties are needed to keep young people out of trouble. It is plain bad social policy to support educational programs that destroy those ties.

Breakdowns in family communication sometimes figure in tragic events. After our study was completed, a news story provided a terrifying epilogue to the situation we have sought to warn the public about. In Sacramento, Calif., four Vietnamese youths took over a store, holding customers and staff hostage for nearly eight hours. The police at first brought in a Thai interpreter, since the boys didn’t appear to be speaking Chinese or Vietnamese. They were speaking their version of English.

The siege ended with six people killed, including three of the gunmen, and 11 wounded. Three of the gunmen were brothers. Their parents said in an interview later that they had not been able to communicate well with their sons in years. The boys spoke little Vietnamese--at the level of 3-year-olds, their mother said. They had abandoned Vietnamese years ago. The mother said her boys were in a “middle world"--caught between their family and the larger society. This was communicated through an interpreter since the parents speak little English.

Language-minority children must indeed learn English, and schools in this society must find appropriate and effective ways to help them do so. I have devoted several decades to investigating how best to support the linguistic and educational development of such children. From that vantage point, I can see clearly that English immersion for preschoolers is the worst possible solution to a complex problem. If we can’t educate young children without harming them, let’s leave them alone.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1991 edition of Education Week as A Question for Early-Childhood Programs: English First orFamilies First?