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Correcting Pernicious Myths About Dual Language Learners

Published:  September 8, 2013

Almost every discussion of dual-language learning students in the United States begins with statistics illustrating their growing numbers. This is understandable, since the number of districts that inadequately meet dual language learners’ needs dwarfs the number that adopt intentionally-crafted, research-based approaches. Language learning experts emphasize the size of the DLL population in order to demand attention.

But that’s only the first step. Administrators and teachers who recognize the need to address DLLs’ unique needs are often unaware of cutting-edge research studying how to do so. They often rely on bromides handed down uncritically from decades past. With this in mind, leading DLL expert Dr. Linda Espinosa recently published “PreK-3rd: Challenging Common Myths About Dual Language Learners.”

The report updates her 2008 paper on the topic, and is the 10th in the Foundation for Child Development’s PreK-3rd Policy to Action Briefs Series. It shows how recent research puts the lie to seven myths about dual language learners.

For example: everyone who’s worked with young children learning multiple languages is familiar with “code-switching.” That’s when students switch back and forth between languages in the course of a few sentences. Teachers and parents often worry that this is evidence that children are unsure about which words belong in which language. Fortunately, this is a myth. Espinosa writes:

We now know that infants have the innate capacity to learn two languages from birth...The most current scientific research suggests that the development of two languages from a child’s earliest years has specific impacts on a variety of cognitive functions discernable as early as seven months of age that are persistent throughout childhood and may even offer some protection from symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

She notes that young children simultaneously learning two languages develop better control of the brain’s executive functions. These are the skills involved in impulse control, regulating focus, attention span, working memory, and other forms of mental flexibility. In fact, multiple studies suggest “that there is a bilingual advantage when comparing monolinguals and bilinguals on tasks that require selective attention, cognitive flexibility, and certain literacy skills.” In other words, as they learn both languages, bilingual children develop cognitive skills that enhance their academic abilities as well.

Espinosa’s paper addresses other, more pernicious myths as well. She draws upon a number of studies to show that English immersion during the PreK-3rd grade years is not a particularly efficient way for young language learners to: 1) develop English proficiency, or 2) succeed academically. In fact, she argues, “the data from recent evaluations show that a balanced dual language approach is an effective model for both DLL students and native English speakers.” Supporting dual language learners’ home language helps them learn English and succeed academically (For more on this, read my post on a recent Center for Early Care and Education Research-Dual Language Learners document which came to the same conclusion).

These are just a few of the important arguments in Espinosa’s paper. It deserves a wide audience. By 2030, 40 percent of students will come to school from households that speak a language other than English. While that’s a critical statistic on its own, it’s even more powerful in the context of an aging American population. As Dowell Myers pointed out at a recent New America event, the United States needs to treat every child as a precious economic resource. In an era when children’s share of the population is declining in most parts of the country, we need to educate every student effectively to have any hope of raising workers capable of supporting our graying, retiring population. In that light, effective, intentional dual language instruction isn’t an option—it’s an economic imperative.

*Click here to read Linda Espinosa’s “PreK-3rd: Challenging Common Myths About Dual Language Learners.”

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