Bilingualism: language differences in the classroom
Although monolingual speakers often do not realise it, the majority of children around the world are bilingual, meaning that they understand and use two languages (Meyers-Scotton, 2005).
In the United States, which is a relatively monolingual society, more than 47 million people speak a language other than English at home, and about 10 million of these people were children or youths in public schools (United States Department of Commerce, 2003). The large majority of bilingual students (75 per cent) are Hispanic, but the rest represent more than a hundred different language groups from around the world.
It is therefore common for a single classroom to contain students from several language backgrounds at once.
In classrooms as in other social settings, bilingualism exists in different forms and degrees.
There are students who:
• Speak two languages fluently
• Speak only limited versions of two languages
• Speak their home (or heritage) language much better than the instructional language at their school, e.g. English
• Have partially lost their heritage language in the process of learning a second language (Tse, 2001)
It is also common for a student to speak a language satisfactorily, but be challenged by reading or writing it—though even this pattern has individual exceptions. Whatever the case, each bilingual student poses unique challenges to teachers.
Balanced or fluent bilingualism
The student who speaks both languages fluently has a definite cognitive advantage. As a teacher might suspect and as research has confirmed, a fully fluent bilingual student is in a better position than usual to express concepts or ideas in more than one way, and to be aware of doing so (Jimenez, et al. 1995; Francis, 2006).
The question: “What if a dog were called a cat?” is less likely to confuse even a very young bilingual child. Nor will the follow-up question: “Could the ‘cat’ meow?” confuse them.
Such skill of reflecting on language is a form of metacognition. Metacognition can be helpful for a variety of academic purposes, such as writing stories and essays, or interpreting complex text materials.
Unfortunately, the bilingualism of many students is “unbalanced” in the sense that they are either still learning the second language, or else they have lost some earlier ability to use their original, heritage language—or occasionally a bit of both.
Teachers are presented with a dilemma: how to respect the original language and culture of the student while also helping the student to join more fully in the mainstream language culture?
Programs to address this question have ranged from total immersion in the second language from a young age (the “sink or swim” approach) to phasing in the second language over a period of several years (sometimes called an additive approach to bilingual education).
In general, evaluations of bilingual programs have favoured the more additive approaches (Beykont, 2002). Both languages are developed and supported, and students ideally become able to use either language permanently, though often for different situations or purposes.
A student may end up using English in the classroom or at work but continue using Spanish at home or with friends, even though he or she is perfectly capable of speaking English with them.
What about the other kind of imbalance, in which a student is acquiring a second language, e.g. English, but losing ability with the student’s home or heritage language? This sort of bilingualism is quite common in the United States and other nations with immigrant populations (Tse, 2001).
Imagine this situation: First-generation immigrants arrive, and they soon learn just enough English to manage their work and daily needs, but continue using their original language at home with family and friends from their former country. Their children, however, experience strong expectations and pressure to learn and use English, and this circumstance dilutes the children’s experience with the heritage language. By the time the children become adults, they are likely to speak and write English better than their heritage language, and may even be unable or unwilling to use the heritage language with their own children (the grandchildren of the original immigrants).
This situation might not at first seem like a problem for which teachers need to take responsibility, since the children immigrants, as students, are acquiring the dominant language of instruction. In fact, however, things are not that simple. Research finds that language loss limits students’ ability to learn the new language as well or as quickly as they otherwise can do.
Having a large vocabulary in a first language, for example, has been shown to save time in learning vocabulary in a second language (Hansen, Umeda & McKinney, 2002).
But students can only realise the savings if their first language is preserved. Preserving the first language is also important if a student has impaired skill in all languages and therefore needs intervention or help from a speech-language specialist.
Research has found, in such cases, that the specialist can be more effective if the specialist speaks and uses the first language as well as the second language (Kohnert, et al., 2005).
Generally, though also more indirectly, minimising language loss helps all bilingual students’ education because preservation tends to enrich students’ and parents’ ability to communicate with each other.
With two languages to work with, parents can stay “in the loop” better about their children’s educations and support the teacher’s work—for example, by assisting more effectively with homework (Ebert, 2005).
Note that in the early years of schooling, language loss can be minimised to some extent by the additive or parallel-track bilingual programs mentioned earlier. For a few years, though not forever, young students are encouraged to use both of their languages.
In second level, in addition, some conventional foreign language classes— notably in Spanish—can be adjusted to include and support students who are already native speakers of the language alongside students who are learning it for the first time (Tse, 2001).
But for heritage languages not normally offered as “foreign” languages in school, of course, this approach will not work. Such languages are especially at risk for being lost.
Cultures and ethnic groups differ not only in languages, but also in how languages are used. Since some of the patterns differ from those typical of modern classrooms, they can create misunderstandings between teachers and students (Cazden, 2001; Rogers, et al., 2005).
• In some cultures, it is considered polite or even intelligent not to speak unless you have something truly important to say.
• “Chitchat”, or talk that simply affirms a personal tie between people, is considered immature or intrusive (Minami, 2002). In a classroom, this habit can make it easier for a child to learn not to interrupt others, but it can also make the child seem unfriendly.
Other aspects of language use that differ across cultures are:
• Eye Contact
• Social Distance
• Wait Time
• Asking Questions
Eye contact varies by culture. In many African American and Latin American communities, it is considered
appropriate and respectful for a child not to look directly at an adult who is speaking to them (Torres-
Guzman, 1998). In classrooms, however, teachers often expect a lot of eye contact (as in “I want all eyes on me!”) and may be tempted to construe lack of eye contact as a sign of indifference or disrespect.
Social distance varies by culture. In some cultures, it is common to stand relatively close when having a conversation; in others, it is more customary to stand relatively far apart (Beaulieu, 2004). Problems may happen when a teacher and a student prefer different social distances.
A student who expects a closer distance than does the teacher may seem overly familiar or intrusive, whereas one who expects a longer distance may seem overly formal or hesitant.
Wait time varies by culture. Wait time is the gap between the end of one person’s comment or question and the next person’s reply or answer. In some cultures wait time is relatively long—as long as three or four seconds (Tharp & Gallimore, 1989). In others it is a “negative” gap, meaning that it is acceptable, even expected, for a person to interrupt before the end of the previous comment. In classrooms the wait time is customarily about one second; after that, the teacher is likely to move on to another question or to another student.
A student who habitually expects a wait time long than one second may seem hesitant, and not be given many chances to speak. A student who expects a “negative” wait time, on the other hand, may seem overeager or even rude.
In most non-Anglo cultures, questions are intended to gain information, and it is assumed that a person asking the question truly does not have the information requested (Rogoff, 2003). In most classrooms,
however, teachers regularly ask test questions, which are questions to which the teacher already knows the answer and that simply assess whether a student knows the answer as well (Macbeth, 2003).
The question: “How much is 2 + 2?” for example, is a test question. If the student is not aware of this purpose, he or she may become confused, or think that the teacher is surprisingly ignorant! Worse yet, the student may feel that the teacher is trying deliberately to shame the student by revealing the student’s ignorance or incompetence to others.
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