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
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
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
Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS)
Conversational skills—telling stories
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
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
Teacher: “That’s not how we ask for more. Say, ’Can
I have more milk please?’”
Possible interaction in a language acquisition classroom
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.