Why English as a second language?

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Why English as a second language?

by: Jan Slusher | .
The Sullivans School | .
published: December 02, 2013

Yokosuka Navy Base, Japan  As teachers, we sometimes hear the following question from parents: “Why does my child need English as a Second Language (ESL)? My child speaks English fluently and doesn’t speak my first language.”  Some parents may feel that because their child is orally fluent in English, s/he doesn’t need ESL. In fact, there has been a great deal of research that shows why these students often qualify for services and may benefit from ESL support.

1) Language development. According to Kim Yoneda, Speech and Language Pathologist, babies’ first year of life is the time when their brains are “mapped” for understanding the sounds of language.  In a dual language home, infants need to be spoken to daily by an adult who is a native speaker of each language.  This is how babies’ brains learn to understand the sounds of each specific language. Ideally, in a dual language home, children will become balanced bilinguals.  Another possibility is non-balanced bilingualism with one clearly dominant language and some proficiency in the second language. Yet another unfortunate possibility is a child without native-like competency in either language. This can occur even for children with average intelligence if critical points in their early development are not understood by parents and caregivers.

2) Generation “1.5” Theory. “Generation 1.5” is a term first used in 1976 by Rubén G. Rumbaut, a sociologist and expert on immigration. In terms of immigration, Generation 1.5 students are the children of first generation adult immigrants. They are “in between” two cultures so to speak, i.e. they are not deeply-rooted in the home culture, yet not as immersed in the American culture as second generation students are. In terms of language, Generation 1.5 students typically have the following traits:

  • varying degrees of oral fluency in the parents’ native language, from limited to fluent. Some may not be able to communicate with extended family.
  • native-like English speech and knowledge of American customs.
  • weak literacy skills in the home language.

Further, even though they may have completed most or all of their education in US schools, these students may not have the cultural background knowledge necessary for many of the grade-level social studies and language arts readings.

3) Social vs. Academic Language.  A student may be a fluent speaker of English but not yet fully English proficient. There is a difference between social and academic language. Students use social English in everyday interactions with their family, peers and adults. Social language is not specialized.  Academic language, however, is specialized within subject areas and includes not only the specific vocabulary of the core subjects, but also transitional phrases (consequently, as a result) and the language terms required for tasks, e.g. analyze, evaluate, compare/contrast, which usually have Latin/Greek roots. It’s important to understand that academic language is necessary for academic success, which becomes more critical as cognitive demands increase in school.

4) Grammar. Last of all, many “1.5” students may be lacking the reading and writing skills necessary for academics. Mark Roberg of San Francisco State University suggests that “although English is their stronger language, […] they don’t have a complete communicative competence. They’re missing a lot of vocabulary and grammar.” Roberg says that this grammatical knowledge doesn’t come from watching TV or having conversations, but from reading. Awareness of grammar structures comes from seeing these language features in books. So if a child hasn’t been exposed to a lot of reading, then grammar errors will likely appear in their writing. Coincidentally, writing is the last language skill to develop, and this is the area where most ESL students show weakness. These students would likely benefit from focused writing instruction in a small group.

Of course every learner is different, and within the same home environment we can see marked differences in siblings’ abilities.  The bottom line is that if a student speaks English fluently and doesn’t speak the first language of a parent, s/he may still qualify for ESL services if s/he is not performing up to expectations. A clear understanding of the student’s current level of language development is useful in determining what kind of support would benefit the student.

DoDEA Pacific provides a comprehensive preK-12 education to the children of military and eligible civilian personnel families serving throughout Asia. The 50 schools in DoDEA Pacific are composed of more than 23,500 students and 3,400 professional educators and support staff. The schools are geographically organized into four districts: Guam, Japan, Okinawa and South Korea. The Sullivans School is the largest school in DoDEA with a student body of approximately 1200 in grades K-5.

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