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Education Opinion

The False Alarm Over Early English Acquisition

By Rosalie Pedalino Porter — January 20, 2017 10 min read
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The recent increase in funding for Head Start programs, designed to provide this crucial early-childhood opportunity to a greater number of disadvantaged children, has produced a curiously negative response from the National Association for Bilingual Education. This organization is mounting an aggressive campaign to keep language-minority children out of preschool programs unless the teaching is in the native language of the child and not in English. James Lyons, executive director of NABE, uses alarming terms: “The immersion of such children in English programs at the age of 3 or 4 presents the risk of grave psychological harm,” he says. “At root, they are being taught to disrespect their parents.”

To strengthen their argument against English-language learning in the preschool years, NABE produced a study, reported in Education Week’s May 1, 1991, issue, whose findings indicate that non-English speaking children will quickly lose their home language and be unable to communicate with their parents.

The serious concerns raised by these extreme statements need careful attention for they have education-policy implications for the large and rapidly growing number of children in our school population who do not know English when they begin school. The main issues are these:

  • Which early-childhood interventions best help limited-English children overcome the language barrier to equal educational opportunity?

  • What are the main responsibilities of public education for these children and to what extent should the schools be concerned with the change of language use in the home?
  • Are the NABE study’s findings and conclusions valid?
  • My own experience with limited-English students is direct and practical. In addition to being a Spanish bilingual teacher, and director of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs, K-12, for the city of Newton, Mass., I directed and supervised a multicultural preschool for limited-English 3- and 4-year-olds speaking a dozen different languages. What I observed and recorded during my 17 years of involvement in this field directly contradicts most of the contentions of the NABE study written by Lily Wong-Fillmore. As a child, I lived through the painful process of entering a 1st-grade classroom without knowing a word of English. The adjustments in home-language use that occurred during my growing-up years are experiences familiar to language-minority children and their families.

    In my judgment, the most urgent consideration for educators, policymakers, and parents is the limited-English child’s preparation for learning in the mainstream classroom. For the child who speaks Spanish or Khmer or Portuguese at home, learning English in an early-childhood-education program such as Head Start at age 3 or 4 is the greatest opportunity that can be offered. At this age, the natural and easy acquisition of fluency in a second language is assured. English-language enrichment, coupled with the development of learning readiness and social skills, will prepare these students to function at their highest capacity in a mainstream classroom.

    It is an undisputed fact that early immersion in a second language guarantees the highest level of fluency and literacy in that language. The longer the learning of a second language is delayed, the less thoroughly it will be learned. While older learners may make faster initial gains, children who start at a younger age will master the second language much more completely. Barry McLaughlin, who has written extensively on the schooling of limited-English children, states unambiguously that it takes about a year for the preschool child to acquire a second language in a naturalistic context. He further recommends that children start to learn a second language as early as possible, since young children have more time at their disposal and no variable is as important as time on task. Mr. McLaughlin points to the unfortunate misconception that learning a second language hurts the child’s development in the first language, as if there were only a single space in the brain and the second language would push out the first.

    One example of the kind of early-childhood-education program that works well for language-minority children is the Multicultural Preschool, which has been operated by the Newton school district since 1975. This English-immersion program for 3- and 4-year-olds employs teachers and teacher aides who are bilingual, but they do not use the dozen or so native languages in the classroom. Instead, through play groups, story telling, drama techniques, and a variety of methods, they help the children develop English-language skills in a comfortable, natural manner.

    From the skillful teaching of Ena Lorant and her teacher aides, the children quickly learn the social skills of cooperation, sharing, and taking turns; they learn the concepts of size and shape and color and counting and writing their names--and all of these activities are conducted with the maximum emphasis on natural language development. That these children speak comfortably in English with their classmates and the teacher and then switch easily to their home language when their parents enter the classroom is a daily occurrence.

    As in Head Start programs, parental involvement is critical. Parents help plan the topics of teacher/parent workshops, organize cultural events, and take on individual tasks in the classroom, if possible. In all cases, interpreters from the community are present, ensuring an understanding of the school program. The ultimate goal of these parent-outreach efforts is the early and crucial establishment of a strong home-school relationship.

    Long-term benefits to the students of the Multicultural Preschool were assessed in a three-year follow-up study completed in 1983, as follows:

    • No confusion was found between the home language and English--the two languages remained distinctly separate and were used appropriately in different situations.
  • These students were better prepared for kindergarten than limited-English students who had not attended a preschool in English.
  • Better reading performance in 1st and 2nd grade, in English, was consistently achieved by these students than by limited-English students who had not attended a preschool in English.
  • Head Start programs have had measurable success in promoting better school adjustment, better academic performance, less truancy, and fewer referrals to special education for disadvantaged children. These tangible improvements have led the Congress to substantially increase funding for this federal program that until now has only been available to 16 percent of the students who need it. There is no convincing reason why limited-English children should be warned away from benefiting from this opportunity. The dire predictions of NABE and Ms. Wong-Fillmore must be challenged before they begin to influence a policy change at Head Start to deny English-language programs to Spanish- or Chinese- or Vietnamese-speaking children.

    The NABE study itself has serious flaws, beginning with the self-selection bias. That is, children were not randomly assigned to the main sample or the control group. Their parents chose to enroll them either in an English- or Spanish-language preschool. One could surmise that the parents who chose the English-language preschools are themselves using more English at home. Without access to the list of questions asked of the parents or any information on how closely the volunteer data-collectors followed the same interview guidelines, it is difficult to accept the consistency of the results. The most glaring omission in the study is the lack of quantitative data on the language ability of the parents. There are a few anecdotes about misunderstandings between children and their parents, but there is no tabulated evidence on the extent to which these parents actually use the English language. Since 80 to 90 percent of the families are reported to have been in the mainland United States from 5 to 10 years or longer, we can also assume that these parents have not been frozen in a state of total non-English capacity all these years.

    The major contention of the study is that early learning of English, while beneficial for school success, makes children lose their native language rapidly. Non-English speaking children do not forget their first language during their growing-up years and do not lose their ability to understand their parents--if that language continues to be used in the home. To think that the language of instruction in the schools erases from the child’s mind the language being spoken at home is a misleading exaggeration. A natural phenomenon in families with a language and culture that are different from the mainstream, however, is the inevitable clash between generations, the desire of children to behave in ways that are not traditional or acceptable to their parents. This occurs no matter what languages are being spoken.

    Allowing NABE to influence educators against providing early-childhood programs in English, or to frighten parents from enrolling their children in such programs, will hurt children who need the earliest and best learning opportunities possible. A researcher at the U.S. Education Department, who asked not to be named, informed me that while he generally supports NABE’s positions, he is in strong disagreement with the study on early childhood. He was himself enrolled in Head Start and credits that experience with helping him reach a high level of proficiency in English while keeping his fluency in the language of his home. He earnestly believes that to promote bilingualism in this country we should encourage more people to start learning a second language in early childhood, especially children who need to learn English.

    Early immersion in a second language, between age 3 and 5, gives a child the best opportunity to learn native-like pronunciation, as well as the potential to read and write competently in that language. In 1985, Lily Wong-Fillmore wrote, “Until they learn English, these students will be unable to take full advantage of the educational and social opportunities that the school offers. Their teachers will have a difficult time teaching them the skills and information that must be taught in school without first helping them learn English.” Clearly, Ms. Wong-Fillmore recognizes the importance to these children of being ready to learn in English when they enter kindergarten or 1st grade. To use the specious argument that children may speak less Spanish at home as a reason for denying them a crucial component of their schooling that is essential to their future academic achievement is simply not acceptable.

    We must consider the rights of these children to an equal education ahead of the subsidiary concern for the maintenance of different languages in the home. It is a matter of priorities. Many things can be done by our public schools but they cannot all be done at the same time, nor is it desirable that they should be. Families themselves can promote the continued use of their home language in a number of ways: enrolling their children in two-way bilingual programs, which are growing in popularity across the country; starting after-school native-language classes in a local school or community center; requesting that secondary schools provide a language class for students who can speak their native tongue but want to learn to read and write it; and, most important of all, making it a strict rule that the language is spoken in the home.

    Unwittingly, Ms. Wong-Fillmore gives us the perfect metaphor for the value of the NABE study. She was quoted in this paper as saying she had been “running around the country like Chicken Little, warning of the dangers of English-based early-childhood programs.” This classic children’s story tells of the young chicken who, on having a nut drop on her head, alarms all the barnyard creatures with repeated cries that “the sky is falling.” Chicken Little turns out to have been not only impetuous but entirely mistaken.

    A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week


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