Choice of Languages in Instruction

By Brice, Alejandro | Teaching Exceptional Children, March/April 2001 | Go to article overview

Choice of Languages in Instruction


Brice, Alejandro, Teaching Exceptional Children


One Language or Two?

Here's the deal: I have six students in my room whose home languages are definitely not English. How can I provide effective instruction for these students?

This article explores the ins and outs of bilingual instruction and helps teachers know (a) whether to use the native language versus English in instruction and (b) the role that code switching (i.e., language alternation or language exchange between two languages) plays in instruction. In addition, the article suggests strategies for using the native language and using code switching.

We have followed a model, Jacobson's New Concurrent Approach (Faltis, 1989), for bilingual special educators. This model relies on the following assumptions: (a) the teacher and students have some abilities in both languages, (b) use of code switching is to occur only between sentences and not within a sentence, and (c) it can be integrated into any program of bilingual education (maintenance or transitional) or general education.

Use of the Native Language

As early as 1953, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report on the use of vernacular (native) languages in education discussed the issue of which language to use with a bilingual child. Findings of that report stated:

It is axiomatic that the best medium for teaching a child is his mother tongue. Psychologically, it is the system of meaningful signs that in his mind works automatically for expression and understanding. Sociologically, it is a means of identification among the members of the community to which he belongs. Educationally, he learns more quickly through it than through an unfamiliar linguistic medium. (p. 11)

The current literature supports the notion that the native or home language is the best medium for working with children and adds to the child's ability to communicate in the second language (i.e., English). This may become more important when a special educator is working with a bilingual child with a language disorder. Let's consider several factors that influence the choice of language of instruction.

Cognitive Factors

The trend of thought, over the past 30plus years, has been that bilingual children possess either equal abilities with their monolingual peers or cognitive advantages over their monolingual peers (Cummins, 1984; Lambert & Anisfield, 1969; Lambert & Tucker, 1972; Peal & Lambert, 1962; Pearson, Fernandez, & Oller, 1993). Vygotsky (1962), the Russian linguist, stressed that being able to express the same thought in more than one language enabled a child to compare and contrast two language systems and that this allowed a greater cognitive-metalinguistic awareness. This notion was authenticated in that same year by Peal and Lambert (1962), in what is now considered a classic study. They found that 10year-old Canadian, bilingual children (from Montreal schools) performed better than their matched monolingual peers on all verbal IQ test scores. This study overturned earlier notions that bilingual children were somehow cognitively disadvantaged.

Cummins (1984), in a review of the literature for support of metalinguistic awareness among bilingual individuals, stated that some subtle evidence exists for greater metalinguistic advantages among children who are bilingual. The extent to which cognitive advantages may exist has not been adequately resolved, that is, a strong advantage to being bilingual versus a weak advantage to being bilingual. Cummins says that it is generally agreed that proficient children, who are balanced in both languages, show some cognitive advantage over proficient monolinguals.

Linguislic Factors

Language transference is the cross-linguistic effect or influence two or more languages may have on one another. Ransfer may occur in either direction, that is, between the first (native language, L1) and second language (L2) or between the second and first language (Odlin, 1989).

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