Did emergent bilingual students lose a year of language while at home?

Some in education are suggesting certain students be retained because of the “learning loss” that has taken place. Here is an argument against that approach.

Asset Model

Maya Goodall is Senior Director of Emergent Bilingual Curriculum at Lexia Learning.
Maya Goodall is Senior Director of Emergent Bilingual Curriculum at Lexia Learning.

Traditionally, learning English in the U.S. K-12 context has been approached from an intervention perspective. The underlying thinking has been that learners who come to school not knowing English are at a deficit and need to “catch up” with their English-speaking peers. This thinking has been underscored by research indicating that English learners have a higher dropout rate than their native English-speaking peers.[1]  This approach has perpetuated a deficit mindset, where we focus on what learners lack rather than what they possess.

Having a deficit view places the emphasis on a student’s lack of English, and we find ourselves framing such students as having “impoverished language” or “requiring intervention.” In fact, even thinking of English as an intervention, as we do systemically in U.S. education, is indicative of a societal view that learners are in grave danger of becoming “languageless” when actually, they are merely on the path to English acquisition, as are millions of schoolchildren around the world. The very term “English learner” places emphasis on an obstacle (learning English) rather than the learner as a person.

The opposite of a deficit view is an asset view. In this view, the obstacles that a learner faces are peripheral to the learner’s identity. This can be generalized to any kind of obstacle and for any kind of learner, but let’s stick with language. An asset view of language learners focuses on the language skills the learner already has and on the bilingualism they can successfully attain.

A small but profound shift is to refer to learners as “Emergent Bilinguals” or “Multilingual Learners.” Outside of the United States, multilingualism is often viewed as an asset. It is a happy expectation for many schoolchildren, who are already fluent speakers of their country’s language (or languages), to acquire English in primary school and to then learn an additional foreign language in secondary school. Language acquisition follows predictable patterns for the human mind, so instruction in the English as a Foreign Language context is not sensationally innovative. The radical idea which spurs its success is an asset view of language by the educators and the local society.

Human capacity for language

The reality is, everyone is born with the capacity for language.[2] Researchers have found that children between the ages of infancy to five years show signs of being able to distinguish languages. Children who have been exposed to English and another language are able to focus on both of those languages. Children who have exposure to only one language show a preference for the language they have heard before.[3]

In one particular study, as children grew and were speaking both languages, researchers showed that children could not only distinguish between the languages they heard, but also make discrete choices when speaking one or the other. Even when “code-switching,” children would make grammar choices pertinent to the language they were speaking at the time. This indicates that bilinguals actually do create separate grammars for their language. While there was a time when we fixated on whether or not someone could learn two languages at one time, now we know without a doubt that the human mind is capable of this.[4] What this research illuminates is that human beings are born with the capacity for language.

Happily, the very thing that makes the difference in whether or not someone learns a second language is something that educators can influence: instruction. This is the mitigating factor that researchers found when investigating the reasons why some children became bilingual and others did not. Instruction comes from multiple sources: home, school, and society.

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As COVID-19 has shown us, we are all in this together. The first two steps in being of service to Emergent Bilinguals is to acknowledge their assets and believe in the human capacity for language.

Home language as background knowledge

Does a home language help or hinder second language acquisition? There is strong evidence that knowledge and use of a heritage language can help aid in the learning of the second language.[5] Encouraging parents to use their heritage language, speak in complete sentences, introduce new vocabulary words, and read in the home language have all been proven to help children learn a second language.  Essentially, the home language is background knowledge that the teacher can leverage to help a learner learn English. This year, COVID-19 has provided us with time at home using the heritage language. All of this time is beneficial and positive for cross-associations and language transfer.

Your district’s English learner master plan

Most, if not all, school districts have an English Learner Master Plan (if not this, then some kind of accountability plan). There, you will find a reference to goals, guiding principles, or objectives for the district. Within those, there is always something that reads like this:

Our Core Beliefs outline our renewed commitment to supporting the whole child:

The district believes: that the advantages of being multilingual include lifelong meaningful career choices, increased creative thinking and being more connected to one’s family, culture, work and community;[6]

This is the time to reexamine the meaning behind these words. If the advantages of being multilingual are meaningful enough for the creation a stated belief/goal, then supporting a learner to become multilingual must be a concrete activity. Educators should acknowledge that the learner is actually becoming multilingual, and that language learning and teaching is a job divided between home (heritage language) and school (English language).[7] Parents should be praised and encouraged to cultivate heritage language use in their homes.

As teachers, we know how profound and necessary background knowledge is. In this case, the first language is the background knowledge needed to teach the L2 or second language. The time spent at home during the pandemic was time well spent, building more background knowledge in the first language.

The asset model asks us to view all happenings from a growth mindset and have reverence for a student’s lived experiences. The human capacity for language is well known and first language experience helps to grow second language acquisition. Our own thinking around multilingualism, which can be found in our school system documents, also codifies our thinking around this. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is to focus on what we have, how to make the most of it, and move forward. The year spent at home is no reason to retain a student. It is our imperative to focus on the assets a learner has and teach them what they need to know in order to move forward.

Maya Goodall is Senior Director of Emergent Bilingual Curriculum at Lexia Learning.


[1] https://www2.ed.gov/datastory/el-outcomes/index.html#:~:text=In%20most%20states%2C%20at%20least,ELs%20graduated%20within%20four%20years.&text=Note%3A%20Figure%20shows%20the%20state,all%20students%20and%20EL%20students.

[2] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24677.

[3] Bosch, L., and Sebastián-Gallés, N. (1997). Native-language recognition abilities in 4-month- old infants from monolingual and bilingual environments. Cognition, 65(1), 33-69.

[4]De Houwer, A. (2009). Bilingual First Language Acquisition. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

[5]Brisk, M.E., and Harrington, M.M. (2007). Literacy and Bilingualism: A Handbook for All Teachers (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

[6] https://www.alisal.org/cms/lib/CA02215153/Centricity/Domain/213/ALISALUSD.LCAP.6.27.18.pdf

[7] Dual Immersion schools offer instruction in both L1 and L2, which is to be admired.

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