Which non English speaking immigrant child would be better off academically and in learning English, the student entering our school system in kindergarten, or one entering in fourth grade? The obvious common sense answer is the kindergartner, as they can begin their schooling and start learning English sooner. Like many things that seem obvious and just common-sense, it happens not to be true.
In reality it is a lot more complicated, with lots of factors that would influence which student would actually be better off—but all things being equal, the fourth grader is likely to be in a better position. Why, how could this be?
The main theory that explains this counter-intuitive reality is a concept called the Common Underlying Language Proficiency (CULP). This theory, developed by Jim Cummins, explains that languages are really not separate entities, but that when we learn language, we learn… language. That most of what we learn as we learn our first language is actually a base for any language we may end up speaking. And any concepts we learn in our first language we do not have to relearn in a second language, only the words that go with those concepts. In other words, the differences in languages are mostly superficial, but the underlying structures are mostly held in common.
In practice what this means is that those who have a solid base in their first language have an advantage in learning a second language. Five-year-olds do not yet have a solid base in their first language; nine- or ten-year-olds, much more so. And we are still developing our use of complex grammatical structures well into adolescence. Therefore, actually, the older you are the quicker you are likely to pick up a second language—again all other factors being equal. This means that, as Stephen Krashen has put it, the older students has had de facto bilingual education.
One thing that makes this appear not to be so is that five-year-olds only want and need to express 5-year-old ideas, which are fairly simple to express. Ten- or 20-year-olds want to express more complex ideas, and so, while they can express 5-year-old type ideas as quickly or more quickly than a 5-year-old, that does not seem adequate and makes them appear less fluent.
A second factor that can make it seem as if children learn language easier is that older second language learners are less likely to be in immersion situations. Children are more likely to be thrust into situations where there is a need to learn the new language—such as English-only schooling. Such children show early and quick language development at the basic conversational level. However they often plateau after that. Since their oral language appears fluent, when their school success starts falling it is seen as a problem of their intellect rather than language.
What the older child or adult has though, is a command of language and more sophisticated thinking. Language is our tool for that sophisticated thinking. The more developed our language is the better our tool for thought. This is one of the reasons that, in fact, schooling in a second language in the early grades is particularly difficult. Children are just trying to develop abstract thought. As Piaget showed, it is around the ages of 7 and 8 that children move into that stage of more abstract thinking. Along with that thinking is the language needed for those more complex ideas. We clearly can think, express ourselves, most easily in our first language. But much of schooling requires children to engage in decontextualized conceptual activities. This is hard enough in a first language, and even more so in one’s weaker language. This is particularly seen starting in third and fourth grade, which may explain why in many school serving immigrant students, there is a sudden test score drop at those grade levels. Up until then the tests tend to ask more concrete questions which they have the language to handle. When it gets to the more inferential and abstract questions that are asked of third and fourth graders, their language may not have developed to that extent.
All of these factors help explain the advantages of bilingual education. Bilingual education lets a student continue to use and build their primary language while developing the second language. The theory of English-only and immersion is that any time spent in the native language is time taken away from developing English. However the fact is that the two support each other, rather than compete with each other. The best and most successful bilingual programs have students still studying in their primary language into adolescence (as they simultaneously built the second language). Immersion works with adults who have already a firm foundation in their native tongue. (And even then we rarely expect them to be studying new academic content in that language as they learn it).
Another reason bilingual education is effective is the socio-cultural one, and in fact may be at least as, if not more, important (for an excellent full discussion of why and how this works read Jim Cummin’s Negotiating Identities). Many immigrant students are part of stigmatized groups—such as Mexican immigrants in this country, where the media portrays them as inferior. They get a clear and constant message from the dominant culture that their language and culture is less than desirable. This interferes seriously with feelings of self-worth which in turns interferes with learning. In some students it makes them not want to use their native language, which also interferes with their language development (not to mention with family communication!). Schools that have bilingual/multicultural curriculum can counteract this message. The most successful of these programs have students from the dominant culture learning side by side with immigrant students. This way, at least some of the time, the immigrant students are the “experts,” putting them on a more equal footing, a position rarely found in traditional schooling.
This is, of course, also leaving out the advantages of having a populous that is bilingual! Many people argue, “Well they can learn their native language at home.” Yet we do not expect English-speaking children to learn to read and write and develop sophisticated language at home! Many immigrant children actually lose their native language if schooled in English-only settings, and very few end up being literate in their native tongue. Being bilingual is advantageous in terms of intelligence, economics, as well as socially and culturally. Why would we not want to preserve that? (Oh, I know—that might give language minority students an advantage! Can’t have that. Am I being cynical?).
I have oversimplified many ideas here, and left out other factors as well, but I hope that in this short essay, I have clarified a few of the ideas behind language acquisition and bilingual education.
Is this just a nice theory? Well, if you read my previous post, the evidence backs it up.