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How do they do it? Second language acquisition in early childhood

Josselyn just said “No!” to her friend in English. At first glance this might not seem like much, but for Josselyn, understanding and speaking English is a significant accomplishment. Josselyn just turned 5 years old and is beginning the second half of pre-kindergarten in a North Texas public school.
When Josselyn started school in August, she spoke only Spanish. When someone spoke to her in English, she answered in Spanish. When asking for assistance, she communicated to her teacher in Spanish. Josselyn quickly figured out that the language she spoke and the language the teacher used were not the same.
So instead of speaking Spanish, her native language, she refrained from speaking at all—until now.
Just because Josselyn didn’t speak for several months doesn’t mean she didn’t communicate. She began to use more gestures and body language for communicating with her teachers and classmates. On one occasion Josselyn came running to her teacher pointing to the construction center. Her teacher noticed that Josselyn was upset and asked her in English what was wrong. Josselyn began pointing to a classmate and pinching herself on the arm. Josselyn didn’t say a word, but her teacher knew exactly what had happened.

As early childhood professionals, we need to understand how young children make this change from speaking one language to speaking two. The subject of second languages contains important aspects to consider when providing the best educational experience possible for children.

Why do I need to learn about English as a second language?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2005), approximately one-third of the Texas population older than 5 years of age speaks a language other than English. The number goes even higher when you add children younger than 5.
Who provides care for these children outside the home? Many of these families qualify for Head Start and state-based pre-kindergarten. Others will not be exposesd to English instruction until they enter kindergarten and are placed in a bilingual classroom. Early childhood professionals must be knowledgeable about how these children develop both content and language skills.
According to the National Child Care Information Center (2004), the Hispanic population in Texas is 32 percent of the state population. In this article, we will focus on Spanish as the native language, although all information provided applies to any native language other than English.

Native language, English, or bilingual instruction?
With more non-English speaking children entering early childhood programs, child care providers are faced with the question of how to provide an appropriate education for these young children. There are several methods for helping children acquire English as a second language, but we will look at three. They are native language instruction, English language instruction, and bilingual instruction (Tabors 1997), as shown in the table below.

Educational Setting: Native language instruction
Children’s native language: Spanish
Teachers speak: Spanish
Instruction in: Spanish

Educational Setting: English language instruction
Children’s native language: Spanish
Teachers speak: English
Instruction in: English

Educational Setting: Bilingual instruction
Children’s native language: Spanish
Teachers speak: Spanish and English
Instruction in: Spanish and English

According to many researchers, the most effective method for second language acquisition is bilingual instruction (Krashen 2004, Cummins 2000, and Tabors 1997). Krashen (2004) found that it’s easier for children to learn to read in a language they understand and then transfer that knowledge to English. He stresses the importance of learning content, such as where animals live, in the child’s native language.
Cummins (1979) suggests two types of language: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). BICS refers to the conversational skills of children in their second language as opposed to CALP, the academic language of these children. According to Cummins (1979), it takes less time for children to reach conversational proficiency in their second language than it does to reach academic language proficiency in their second language.
Most teachers can agree that some children are able to have conversations in their second language but are not as successful with academic content.

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS)
Conversational skills—telling stories and experiences

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP)
Academic content—identifying something that lives in the ocean, for example

Cummins (2000) writes that children who develop two or more languages have a better understanding of the languages and how to use them. This supports the goal of bilingual education to improve the native language while developing the second language. Bilingual teachers can support the development of both languages simultaneously in a manner that values the native language. These teachers are especially equipped to provide experiences in both languages, which can help children develop strong language skills.
What about classrooms that don’t have bilingual teachers? Classroom environments, activities, and interactions can help young children develop language skills. Tabors (1997) has provided suggestions for teachers of children acquiring a second language. Many of the suggestions provided below are useful in any classroom, not just those with children acquiring a second language. Teachers who are not bilingual can still succeed in helping children develop language.

Second language acquisition or second language learning?
Krashen (1988) defines language acquisition as a process that includes natural communication in the new language. In natural communication, the focus is on the message rather than the form. When Josselyn pointed to her picture and said, “My name,” her teacher responded to the message rather than the incomplete sentence in English. Josselyn’s teacher restated the information correctly, “Oh, you wrote your name on the paper,” while pointing to the letters on the paper Josselyn was holding.
Language learning implies academics and instruction (Krashen 1988). Language learning uses more explicit error correction and discussion. In the above example, if Josselyn’s teacher was focused on language learning, she would have said something like, “Josselyn, say ‘I wrote my name.’” This interaction may have discouraged Josselyn from continuing to try to use English and may have deflated her excitement about writing her name.
For young children, language acquisition is the preferred method and is considered developmentally appropriate. Rather than correcting mistakes, teachers can scaffold language development by restating and expanding the child’s language.

Possible interaction in a language learning classroom
Child: “Milk.”
Teacher: “That’s not how we ask for more. Say, ’Can I have more milk please?’”

Possible interaction in a language acquisition classroom
Child: “Milk.”
Teacher: “Oh, you would like more milk, please? Yes, I will get you some more milk.”

In 2005 the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) published a statement titled, “Many languages, many cultures: Respecting and responding to diversity.” This position statement explains that bilingualism is an asset and children should be supported in maintaining their native language. Like Cummins (2000), NAEYC’s position statement endorses the belief that it’s easier for children to learn complex concepts in their native language before transferring that knowledge to a second language.