Maintaining and Sustaining Second-Language Learning

By Sheets, Rosa Hernandez | Multicultural Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Maintaining and Sustaining Second-Language Learning


Sheets, Rosa Hernandez, Multicultural Education


Multicultural Resources

Rosa Hernandez Sheets

Children use language to communicate their needs, make social contacts, construct their learning, and influence others to grant their wishes. Although we often think of language differences as something foreign, in 1995 the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) position paper on language and cultural diversity made two important points.

First, cultural and linguistic diversity is most common with young children under the age of six, and, contrary to popular belief, these children are neither foreign born nor immigrants. Approximately 45 million school age children - more than one in five - live in households in which languages other than English are spoken. It was not possible to ascertain if this figure included African American children who speak American Black English.

Second, language issues affect children who understand English but come from different cultural backgrounds. This includes bilingual African American children who speak American Black English, monolingual children who speak a dialect of English (e.g., children from Appalachia or other regions with distinct speech patterns), and children who come from homes where English is spoken but is not the dominant language.

At a very young age, children are required to negotiate difficult transitions between home and school. While it is challenging for any child to enter a new environment, this experience can be terrifying for young children whose home language differs from that of the classroom. For some children, the resulting psychological trauma may be a more debilitating consequence than the original language issue. Additionally, if the learning of English results in a shift of the heritage language in childhood, this cognitive and cultural disadvantage may produce feelings of anger and guilt in adolescence and/or adulthood.

In the classroom, linguistic isolation can make children feel unsafe, insignificant, and friendless, which affect participation in classroom events. These psychological and social factors sometimes outweigh the cognitive challenges of learning a new language. To be successful with diverse linguistic groups, teachers need to acknowledge the functions of language beyond direct exchange of information. Every language embodies both the historical experience of a particular cultural group and the group's conscious effort to transmit its collective values (Vygotsky, 1962). Native speakers of a given language utilize not only its grammar and vocabulary, but also its distinctive verbal customs, patterns of thought, and styles of learning.

For example, the turn taking, eye contact, and conversational sequence modeled in many U.S. schools may be foreign to some children in diverse classrooms. Children from a culture that values spontaneous and exuberant call-and-response group dialogue may have difficulty raising their hand and waiting to be called on. Conversely, a child from a culture in which personal opinion and emotion are considered inappropriate for public display may withdraw from class participation (Minami & McCabe, 1995).

In addition to these cultural factors, teachers need to understand the developmental aspects that all children go through as they develop facility with language. Children might understand incoming language but may not be able to produce language that expresses their understanding. Also, many young children are in transition from the casual communication style used at home to the more formal one ofschool and society. As children advance their language abilities - speak, listen, read, and write they learn that language is a powerful social tool. Teachers who value children's home language and culture increase children's ability to communicate in American English while acknowledging the benefits and challenges in helping children maintain two or more languages.

Teachers understandings of the knowledge, skills, and experiences children need to successfully acquire a second language is a prerequisite to insure that the first language is not sacrificed in the learning process. …

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