Learning more than one language…

Over half of the children I work with have a cultural background different than my own. Their parents moved here for a job or education opportunity and have since settled down to raise a family here. Many of these families speak another language at home, or speak another language when they visit their relatives in their country of origin. I often field the question: “If my child is struggling to read or write, is it a bad idea to have them learn another language?”

We live in a language diverse world. Unlike previous assumptions that the majority of Americans are monolingual, we actually have more exposure to other languages than we might think. Besides studying other languages in high school or studying abroad in college, our work and life experiences are often ripe with linguistic diversity. Take my husband, for example. Work requirements have him traveling to parts of Asia and the UK, hosting work colleagues with limited English here in the U.S., and routinely participating in telephone conferences where workers must rise above the language barrier to communicate. Take a look at this NY Times article about Americans and their multilingualism.

Coming from California, I wondered about the homogeneity of Oregon. I thought it unlikely that my children would have a multicultural and diverse group of friends growing up. My first stop at the preschool library time showed me otherwise, however. Mothers toted their little munchkins in, speaking rapidly in other languages. It was instantly clear that many cultures and languages were represented, and the diversity made for a festive and enriching story time. The librarian was well-versed in using those differences to her advantage, with book selections, song choices, and posters appealing to all. My work experience with older children has been just as diverse. As families open up their homes to me, I am able to catch a glimpse of their family life that is different from my own.

We try and use these differences in our discussions around social studies and history texts. Recently, a student and I discussed stereotypes and the cultural differences she sees at her middle school. The upper-middle class experience at her private school differs for students depending on their cultural and socioeconomic background. Some families are pooling all their resources together to send their child to private school. Education takes on a whole new meaning when your entire family is counting on you. Still other students just coast by, depending on their family’s experience and focus at home. My student was able to use her life experience to expand her perspective-taking in writing assignments. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is often difficult for students who struggle with language disorders, but thinking about her experiences and how they related to other students’ experiences was helpful.

Back to the topic at hand, it would be a travesty for a child to not be exposed to the native language of their parents, their grandparents, or their ancestors. Research has shown that even children with language disorders can learn another language. The learning that can happen as a result of this exposure can be important for a child’s education and their identity. Like all people, it may be harder for some children to “pick up” another language. I work with one student diagnosed with a language disorder which significantly affects his ability to understand and use language like his peers. A high schooler now, this student can understand his grandparents and parents when they speak in their native language, but unlike his brother, he has been unable to learn to speak the language. He uses English, instead, but luckily it hasn’t stopped him from having an excellent relationship with his cousins and grandparents who still live in another country. I have other students who struggle with grammar in both their home language and English, but not exposing them to their home language is unrealistic and unnecessary.

I often recommend that families use whatever language at home comes most naturally to them. Even if it’s not English, parents will be best able to convey abstract ideas, tell stories with rich language, and use grammatically-correct sentences in their primary language. We can build a child’s skills from that solid language foundation.

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