Promoting the Development of Dual Language Learners: Helping All Children Succeed

June 29, 2016
Young childs hand reaching for colored chalk

By Linda K. Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development and Libby Doggett, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Early Learning

A growing number of children in the United States go to kindergarten with the advantage of knowing a language other than or in addition to English. Bilingualism is an asset in school, life, and the workplaces of today and tomorrow. As a result, it’s so important that our nation’s early learning programs support all children, including those who are dual language learners.

Earlier this month, the White House announced a new Federal policy statement Visit disclaimer page from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education to promote the development and learning of young children, birth to age five, who are dual language learners.

The number of children who are dual language learners, or DLLs – children who have a home language other than English and are learning two or more languages at the same time, or are learning a second language while continuing to develop their first language – has grown significantly over the past few decades. Data shows that roughly 27% of children under age 6 in the U.S. come from homes where at least one parent speaks a language other than English. In Head Start, nearly a third of the children served are DLLs.

Neuroscience has shown many advantages to dual language learning. Children who are bilingual demonstrate more advanced executive functioning than their monolingual peers, a phenomenon often referred to as the “bilingual advantage.” They tend to have enhanced cognitive control, greater working memory, and an increased ability to attend to pertinent information while ignoring distracting information. Research further demonstrates that children who are DLLs may have better self-regulation and fewer behavior problems compared to their monolingual English-speaking peers.

Despite these advantages, on average children who are DLLs in the U.S. enter kindergarten behind their peers across multiple academic domains, and these gaps in achievement may persist later in life.

So why do children who are DLLs in the U.S. tend to lag behind their monolingual English-speaking peers academically? There are many factors at play, including the English proficiency of a child, support or lack of support for a child’s home language, and the socio-economic status of the family. There is also the issue of views on bilingualism in this country – in countries where speaking two or more languages has social prestige and bilingualism is common, achievement gaps between monolinguals and bilinguals are less pronounced, if they exist at all.

There are several myths about bilingualism that persist in the U.S.  It’s often believed that learning more than one language confuses young children or leads to developmental delays. Neuroscience finds that the opposite is true – research brief (PDF) Visit disclaimer page recently released by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science shows that babies are born with the ability to identify sounds from every language, and the human brain is just as capable of learning multiple languages as it is of learning one. A highlights these and other findings. Another common myth is that supporting the DLL child’s home language in the education setting will interfere with the acquisition of English. Again, the research indicates that quite the opposite is true, and a strong foundation in the home language facilitates English language acquisition and helps prepare children for school.

These and other suggestions have caused a great deal of confusion for families, educators, leaders, and the general public alike. As a result, there is a mismatch between the learning experiences children need to succeed, and the quality of experiences DLLs are currently receiving in this country. But that is beginning to change.

Early childhood programs are implementing models that support both languages produce great benefits to young DLLs and have positive effects on their native English speaking counterparts as well. Dual immersion models where native English speakers and DLLs learn together with the goal of bilingualism give the benefits of bilingualism to more children. They also help DLLs maintain important connections to their culture and communication with their families, which fosters identity development and social-emotional health, and help form the foundation for English, an important skill for school success.

Providing children who are DLLs with appropriate development and learning supports – including supports to promote their dual language development – during early childhood is necessary to help them succeed in school. It’s also good for their economic prospects down the road – a study released by the University of California’s Civil Rights Project found that children who are DLLs that end up losing their home languages made about $5,400 less a year than their DLL peers who are strong bilinguals.

While we’ve made some progress in supporting both the development of children’s home language and their acquisition of English, particularly in our Head Start program, we need to do more, and we need to do so across all early childhood programs, including child care and preschool.

The Health and Human Services and Department of Education  policy statement offers practical recommendations to States and early childhood programs on how to support the early childhood workforce so that they can foster the learning and development of all children, including DLLs.

The number of DLLs in this country is growing, and will make up a sizable proportion of the U.S. workforce in years to come. It is imperative that we ensure they are prepared for school and beyond, including supporting them in their emerging bilingualism. It’s not only the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do for these kids and for their families. By embracing and building on each and every child’s assets – including their cultural and linguistic assets – we help create a sense of belonging and tailor a learning environment that helps every child succeed.

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