Preserving the Mother Tongue of English Language Learners

Preserving the Mother Tongue of English Language Learners

Jatnna Acosta (University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1219-7.ch002

Abstract

The growing presence of English language learners (ELLs) in classrooms throughout the country highlights the need for effective strategies in the process of language acquisition. Through the language acquisition process students are able to progress towards becoming fluent in the English language and ultimately perform on the same academic level as their English-speaking peers. The issue arises when ELLs enter the classroom with a language or word gap that places them at an academic disadvantage. Bilingual education is an option that is offered to students seeking to enhance their native language abilities as they acquire the English language. However, bilingual education is limited to the presence of a specific language community and an effective language teacher. This chapter presents the benefits of preserving the mother tongue among ELLs and the strategies necessary to replicate mother tongue preservation with language learners in non-bilingual classrooms.
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Introduction

The “language gap”, also known as the “word gap”, relates to the fewer number of words low-income children are exposed to during their language acquisition stage in comparison to children from high-income households (Raz & Beatty, 2018). The level of language exposure children receive during their early years is integral towards the development of their brain structure and ongoing cognitive abilities (Romeo, Leonard, Robinson, West, Mackey, Rowe, & Gabrieli, 2018). According to Jensen (2013), by age four children from low-income families in the United States hear an average of thirteen million words, children from middle-class families hear about twenty six million words, and children from upper-income families hear about forty six million words. The lack of exposure to words during early childhood places children from low-income families at an academic disadvantage as compared to their peers (Jensen, 2013). As students from low-income families progress through school, the language gap steadily increases and their inability to meet grade level standards becomes heightened. Therefore, the language gap contributes to the overall academic deficiencies of students from impoverished communities.

The passing of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 established the notion of maintaining high expectations for all students by increasing the accountability on schools and teachers to attain grade-level proficiency of all student subgroups in American schools (Good, Masewicz & Vogel, 2010). As mandated by NCLB, standardized tests serve as the determinant of student academic achievement. English language learners (ELLs), as a subgroup, enter classrooms at varying levels of English proficiency with distinct cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Therefore, the NCLB requirement of grade-level proficiency on standardized tests administered in English poses a challenge for ELLs who are developing their English language abilities while navigating proficiency in the academic content (Sanchez, 2017). Teachers of language learners must be able to determine if their underachievement stems from limited language production or limited cognitive ability (De Jong & Harper, 2005). Language plays a pivotal role in the ways in which students both acquire the curriculum and are assessed on it (Sanchez, 2017). Without the proper language abilities, students face increased difficulty when trying to demonstrate grade level proficiency on state mandated exams. ELLs who have the cognitive ability in their native language are presented with the challenge of having to acquire the English language before they are able to make the academic transfer.

The presence of the academic achievement gap between ELLs and their English-speaking peers poses issues for education stakeholders as the immigrant population continues to rise throughout the country. According to Garcia (2011), ELLs underperform their English-speaking peers by thirty to fifty percent at almost every grade level as depicted by national and state tests. This chapter addresses the gap in the literature by analyzing the benefits of preserving the mother tongue of ELLs to help bridge the language gap and ultimately close the achievement gap. Mother tongue preservation is a practice most closely associated with bilingual education. However, the option of bilingual instruction is limited to teacher and curriculum availability. Therefore, language learners in non-bilingual classrooms need effective practices and strategies that address their academic needs by way of their cultural and linguistic diversity. This chapter provides a breakdown of the different options of bilingual education available in schools throughout the country. The characteristics and benefits of bilingual education are discussed and addressed throughout this chapter in order to contribute to the understanding of the ways in which native language preservation enhances the educational outcomes of ELLs.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Biliteracy: The skill to read and write proficiently in two languages.

Mother Tongue: The native, or first, language of a student who is learning a second language.

Language Gap: Students’ lack of exposure to spoken or written words in a certain language as compared to their more affluent peers.

Second Language Acquisition: The process of learning a second language and becoming proficient in this second language.

Proficiency: Having the skills necessary to demonstrate complete understanding in a specific subject area.

Bilingual Education: The academic instruction of the core subject areas in more than one language.

Preservation: To maintain something for an extended period of time.

English Language Learners: Students who speak a language other than English and are not proficient in English literacy skills.

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