Report Faults Preschool English for Language-Minority Children

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Language-minority children who attend preschools where English is spoken--even as part of a bilingual program--are far more likely to abandon their primary language and to have difficulty in communicating with their families, according to a study conducted by the National Association for Bilingual Education.

The study, released to Education Week in late April, challenges a widely held belief among education policymakers that English instruction during early childhood helps language-minority children adjust better to school.

While acknowledging that children tend to learn English quickly when exposed to it at ages 3, 4, and 5, the study warns that preschool English instruction appears to accelerate children's loss of their primary language and to threaten their ability to benefit from the parental guidance needed to keep them on track during their school years.

"The likelihood of children forfeiting and losing their primary languages as they learn English under the conditions we have described is very great--great enough to pose a major problem to the school and society whose policies and practices created the problem in the first place," according to the study, written by Lily Wong Fillmore, an associate professor of education in language and literacy at the University of California at Berkeley.

"We believe," the study says, "that the consequences of losing a primary language are far-reaching, and can affect the social, emotional, cognitive, and educational development of language-minority children, as well as the integrity of their families and the society they live in."

The NABE study, slated for future publication in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly, was based on surveys of about 1,000 language-minority families conducted last year by NABE volunteers.

James J. Lyons, executive director of NABE, said the study shows that "an English-only preschool for 3- and 4- and 5-year-olds who come to school speaking a language other than English is both anti-education and anti-family."

Advocates of English instruction in the early grades, however, argue that the findings demonstrate the effectiveness of English instruction in preschool and highlight the need to provide more English instruction to adults to ease their families' assimilation into American society.

Ronald E. Saunders, executive director of the advocacy group U.S. English, noted that preschoolers are at "the optimum language-learning period," and asked, "Why make the choice of denying them English?"

"The barrier I see is that the parents do not have English skills," said Mr. Saunders, whose organization is dedicated to making English the nation's official language.

"The solution, it would appear to me, is to expand the opportunities for parents to acquire English skills, rather than denying the opportunity to the children to acquire English skills," Mr. Saunders said.

Administrators of the federal Head Start program and within the U.S. Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs declined last week to comment on the study, saying they wanted more time to examine its findings.

Officials at NABE dubbed the year-long study "The No-Cost Study on Families" because it was undertaken without outside funding.

Hundreds of NABE volunteers surveyed more than 1,000 families representing various language minorities and divided the responses into two groups.

The main sample consisted of 690 families--two-thirds of them Spanish-speaking and the rest from other language minorities. These families had children who were enrolled in or had attended preschools that were taught in their primary language, were bilingual, or were taught exclusively in English.

The comparison sample consisted of 311 Spanish-speaking families whose children were enrolled in preschool programs conducted entirely in their primary language.

Although the study failed to establish a direct causal relationship between the language used in preschool and changes in the pattern of language use at home, it did reveal "dramatic and significant differences" between the two samples.

For example, nearly 51 percent of parents in the main sample said that their primary language was being displaced by English at home; just over 10 percent of the parents in the comparison sample reported that occurring.

Similarly, within the main sample, parents of children enrolled in primary-language programs were 15 times more likely than those of children in English-only programs to report increased use of their primary language at home. The figures were 42 percent for the primary-language group, 18.6 percent for the bilingual group, and 2.8 percent for the English-only group.

"In every case," the study says, children in the main group used their primary language less often, and English more often, than those in the comparison group to communicate with their parents and siblings.

"English is clearly becoming the language of choice in well over 50 percent of the main-sample homes," the study says. Even in the comparison group, 20 percent of children used English and "they tended to use it less in talking to their parents."

About 12 percent of parents in the main sample, but only 1.6 percent in the comparison sample, said their children spoke their home language poorly or not at all.

In asking parents open-ended questions about their concerns, the study found anecdotal evidence that home-language loss "can be highly disruptive [to] family relations." Parents, many of whom want their children to learn English, often do not understand the damaging consequences until language loss and family breakdown have occurred, the study says.

The NABE study recommends teaching language-minority children English only after preschool, asserting that "the problem is timing, not English."

"The children have to learn English, but they should not be required to do so until their native languages are stable enough to handle the inevitable encounter with English and all it means," the study says.

Nevertheless, Mr. Saunders of U.S. English asserted that "children are going to have the same cultural adjustment problems later on."

"Should we then say we are not going to teach any of these children English until they get to high school?" he asked.

"The study implies that delay in acquiring English is the solution to adjustment problems," Mr. Saunders said. "I don't think you can make that case."

Critics also suggested that NABE had embarked on the study with the goal of finding evidence against preschool programs that do not use a primary language.

The NABE leadership launched the study at the organization's national conference last April, largely in response to a Bush Administration proposal to expand Head Start funding by $500 million with part of the new money going for English-language programs intended to prepare language-minority children for school.

Terming such programs a "grave threat," Mr. Lyons and other NABE leaders asked the organization's members at that time to mobilize against any expansion of Head Start and other early-childhood programs that, they said, could undermine the native-language skills of limited-English-proficient children.

Ms. Fillmore, in asking an audience of conference participants to volunteer for her study, said that she had been "running around the country like Chicken Little" warning of the dangers of English-based early-childhood programs.

Vol. 10, Issue 32, Page 11

Published in Print: May 1, 1991, as Report Faults Preschool English for Language-Minority Children
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