Home Language: Why It Matters

Home Language: Why It Matters

Hazel C. M. Simmons-McDonald (The University of the West Indies, Open Campus, Barbados)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4075-6.ch012


The chapter briefly discusses the terms used to refer to the language or languages first acquired by an individual as well as variations between language acquisition and learning in Caribbean settings. The chapter then goes on to explore prevailing attitudes to language and trends in education policy. A summary of relevant research on home language is presented with the ensuing discussion focusing particularly on the relationship between home language, second language acquisition, the development of proficiency and literacy, and, more generally, academic success. The final section presents some reasons why the inclusion of home language in education is beneficial, particularly in Caribbean contexts.
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Perceptions of Home Language

The term “home language” refers to the language a person speaks in the home and often in the community as well. It is usually a speaker’s dominant language although speakers may also use another one or two languages if they have competence in them, depending on the situation, context and interlocutors. The literature on language acquisition describes different language learning situations and uses various terms to refer to these (Brown, 1973; Chomsky, 1965; Fletcher & Garman, 1986; Ingram, 1989; Ellis, 1994; Krashen, 1976). Research conducted by linguists and applied linguists over the last sixty decades or so discussed implications of first and second language acquisition and learning for education and the importance of these for proficiency and literacy development (Corder, 1973; Craig, 1977, 1999; Cummins, 1986, 1991, 1994; Ellis, 1985, 1990; Krashen, 1985; Ovando & Collier, 1998).

The term “first language” is used to refer to the language a person acquires first in childhood. This language is also referred to as the “mother tongue” or the “native language” which, as defined by Matthews (1997) is “a language that people have acquired naturally as children, as opposed to one learned later, e.g. through formal education”(p.238). It is possible for an individual to have more than one mother tongue or first or native language if the individual acquires two languages simultaneously in childhood. This can happen, for example, in a bilingual household in which one parent may use English exclusively to communicate with the child and the other parent uses French (or another language) exclusively to communicate with the child. In such an instance, the child will acquire both languages. Second language (L2) is used to refer to a language that is learned after the first has been acquired. This can occur in a naturalistic setting or in a formal classroom setting. Several studies were conducted to examine the effects of the acquisition of two languages simultaneously in childhood. Examples of such studies include Leopold (1954); Celce-Murcia (1975); and others reprinted in Hatch (1978). Their findings, which report positive outcomes for the acquisition of two languages in childhood and bilingualism, have generally been supported by more recent research. For example, Ramirez (2016) found that children who experience two languages from birth typically become native speakers of both. Studies of first language (L1) acquisition have discussed various aspects of acquisition. Brown (1973), for example, studied the stages of acquisition of English and the order in which morphemes are acquired. Other studies presented different theories to explain the process of acquisition of a first language: for example, as habit formation (Skinner, 1957); as an innate process involving a language acquisition device (LAD) (Chomsky, 1959,1965); as a process which involves communicative competence (Hymes, 1971). The majority of studies have indicated positive results for the simultaneous acquisition of more than one language in childhood.

In such cases, one may argue that both languages can be called first, or native language or mother tongue. If a family decides to adopt one language for almost exclusive communication, then that language is referred to as the home language. It may happen that an individual who acquired two languages in childhood may, for various reasons, use one more than the other so that the language that is used more frequently may become more dominant.

A trend in L2 acquisition research is toward “a constructivist, whole-language” approach that fosters “personally and academically meaningful language development” (Ovando & Collier, 1998, p.87). These authors stated that “to assure cognitive and academic success in a second language, a student’s first language system, oral and written, must be developed to a high cognitive level at least through the elementary school years” (p.89). Corder (1973) made a distinction between “acquisition” and “learning” which led to much discussion in the literature. Krashen (1976, 1985) argued that “acquisition” is a more sub-conscious process which an individual picks up in naturalistic settings; for example, in settings in which mothers interact with their children. He attributed “learning” to a more formal process, such as, learning a language in a school setting. In 1985 he presented the “input hypothesis” which proposed that the exposure of learners to “comprehensible input” in a formal situation can lead to the ‘acquisition’ of new linguistic forms. Ellis (1994) referred to the 1986 study by Sharwood Smith which indicated that “the processes of comprehension and of acquisition are not the same nor are they necessarily related” (p.27). One might make a similar point with respect to second language acquisition and literacy learning. This distinction is important for consideration of language learning and literacy development in Creole and “Creole-Influenced-Vernacular” settings. Craig (1999) made the point that “English as mother tongue” traditions in the Caribbean influence approaches to language teaching. He said:

In educational practice, these traditions manifest themselves in many ways. One manifestation is that it is tacitly assumed that everyone speaks or ought to speak and understand English. In nursery and primary education, the fact that many children can communicate only in Creole is hardly reflected in a critical area such as the teaching of reading…. In most Ministry of Education guidebooks for teachers…there is nothing to indicate…that English has the status of a second language for most Caribbean children.… In addition to all of this, the education of teachers is usually not designed to give them the necessary linguistic understanding of both English and Creole, an understanding which they need in order to function efficaciously in CIV situations.(p.30)

This statement refers to some challenges that are central to second language learning and teaching in the Caribbean. If children come to school speaking an L1 that is different from the language used for instruction and they are introduced immediately to literacy in the L2, successful learning of the L2 is likely to present some challenges.

This chapter will seek to do the following:

  • 1.

    examine some of these challenges as well as language acquisition and language learning situations in the Caribbean, using examples from some countries in the Anglophone Caribbean.

  • 2.

    discuss the effects of attitudes that have influenced language education policy which may have hindered the development of bilingualism and literacy in this context

  • 3.

    discuss the benefits of including the home language for literacy development and academic success.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Communicative Competence: The language abilities which enable learners to convey and interpret messages and negotiate meanings in various contexts.

Mutual Interference: A situation in which two or more language varieties exist in a community and exert influence on the other.

Early Learners Programme: ( ELP): A programme within the Education Development Management Unit of the OECS Commission established to improve the reading skills of children in the early primary grades with the goal of providing a foundation for improved learning outcomes and enhanced opportunities for students in six independent Member States of the OECS.

St. Lucian English Lexicon Vernacular (SLEV): A creolised form of English spoken in St. Lucia.

Official Language: A language chosen by a country’s government to conduct its official business; it is used as the language of education, and in the legal system.

Organization of the Eastern Caribbean State (OECS): The OECS is an international inter-governmental organization dedicated to regional integration in the Eastern Caribbean.

Creole-Influenced Vernacular (CIV): The generic creole-based language of the Caribbean region.

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