The Role of the First Language in Enhancing Second Language Literacy

Free essayThe steady growth in the language minority population – children and adults from non-speaking English homes – constitutes an ongoing population shift with wide repercussions throughout the United States. Most English teachers have difficulty while teaching English as a second language. These difficulties stem from the practice wherein the medium that teachers use to communicate literacy is ineffective. Thus, the need for an alternative element that could make the learning process more effective is remarkably crucial. Although there is a school of thought where researchers argue that the use of the first language is actually destructive in second language acquisition and delays the learning process, I argue that employing the first language in enhancing second language literacy is very effective. In addition, researchers who reject the so-called “grammar translation method” have argued that this method of teaching is outdated and old-fashioned. However, it is my contention that this method may be more effective, especially in the case of older students, to enhance their second language literacy.

The Role of English as an International Language

Nowadays, English is no longer viewed as a foreign language – it is a global means of communication. No other language has achieved such a widespread profile. It has become the main language of books, international politics, broadcasting, advertising, travel, air traffic control, science, technology, and knowledge management (Renoud 23). If English is an essential means of scientific knowledge, accelerated economic growth, and upward social mobility, it is important to find out better solutions for teachers to educate children and adults from non-speaking English homes. Combined with the huge numbers of immigrants learning English in the United States and other Anglophone countries, the numbers of people learning English as a second language has reached historical peaks. Policy debates on language in education will only intensify as none of these developments are without contradictions. The debate between fostering the development and learning of the national language and promoting multilingual education and ambitious foreign language learning will continue to engage many experts and policy makers.

Renoud observes that today there are more bilingual speakers of English than native ones (4). They use English for a variety of specific purposes, often for cross-cultural communication. Indeed, the interest in the learning of English has increased to such an extent that English is now considered by many to be an international language. Thus, the teaching and learning of an international language must be based on an entirely different set of assumptions than the teaching and learning of any other second or foreign language. Every teacher is prone to choose his or her own teaching materials and methods. In doing so, they have to consider the following factors: the character of current users of EIL, the changes that accompanied the spread of English, and the relationship that exists between culture and international language. The link between language and culture has important implications for the choice of teaching materials.

Linguistic Diversity in the United States

Dual-language learners are highly diverse in many ways. The number of dual-language learners in the United States has increased dramatically over the past decades. Nearly half of dual-language learners are formally known as limited English proficient. These students are limited in their English skills and therefore cannot benefit adequately from mainstream classroom instructions. About 10 percent of students in the U.S. schools are ELLs and require some sort of instructional modification to assure they have meaningful access to the school curriculum (Durgunoglu and Goldenberg 4). Children in the United States come from more than 400 different language backgrounds. For educators charged with providing these students with a comprehensive and comprehensible education, it is especially critical to understand the dynamics of dual-language development and its implications for literacy learning and other aspects of academic achievement. The research asserts that Latinos and Asians together comprise about 90 percent of the language minorities in the United States (Chiesa, Hinton, and Scott 187). Asians have higher incomes and levels of formal schooling than Latinos.

While few dispute the centrality of language, numerous long-standing disputes over language acquisition, development, influences, and relationship to other developmental processes (such as cognition) have occupied scholars for years, without end in sight. Researchers have studied many aspects of children’s social contexts and their influence on language and literacy development. For bilingual children growing up in the United States, the dynamics of language use at home and in the community is more complex than for monolingual English speakers. Immigrant children are often called upon to serve as translators for their families in a variety of domains, including legal, financial, residential, and religious ones (Low and Hashim 47).

Many findings support the idea that the more English used at home and with peers leads to greater English proficiency among children. However, this literature has several limitations. Perhaps, the most important is that it is almost exclusively correlational. It is therefore impossible to determine whether more English at home or among peers leads to greater language and literacy attainment in English. Admittedly, not all studies underpin that more English at home is associated with higher literacy achievement in English.

Current Approaches to Language Assessment

Classroom-based evaluation in second language education represents an important contribution to the field of second language education by drawing together current thinking and approaches to language assessment and by providing a conceptual framework that enables teachers to better understand the nature, purposes, strengths, and limitations of different approaches to second language evaluation. Second language evaluation involves different kinds of decisions: the placement of individual students in particular streams, levels, textbooks, or other materials, student homework, and others. Individual teachers face many challenges, and they must respond to them in specific ways. Teachers have to understand student abilities and level of English language in order to plan appropriate and effective teaching.

In recent years, the debate over target language and first language use in teaching and learning English as a second language has resulted in an extensive body of literature. Many second-language educators and researchers have developed strong beliefs about the most effective way to master a language (Baker 58). These beliefs are not always grounded in theory or research. In some cases, many scholars and researchers ban first language in the classrooms. In other cases, beliefs that educated speakers, native speakers, and advanced bilinguals should not switch back and forth from one language to another may be the source. Many educators also believe that avoiding interference from the learner’s first language is necessary in effective language teaching and learning. These educators consider that avoiding code switching is the only way to ensure that the learners’ first language does not interfere with target-language development (Turnbull and Dailey-O’Cain 2).

Researchers argue that target language use will result in increased motivation since students can see how knowledge of the target language will be immediately useful to them. This theoretical and empirical support for exclusive target-language use has led governments, language school administrators, teacher educators, publishing houses, and teachers to accept the virtual position on the target language use, which has reached hegemonic status (Turnbull and Dailey-O’Cain 12). Observational studies clearly show that teachers vary in terms of the quantity and quality of the target language used even in contexts that are based on principles of communicative language teaching and exclusive target language use. Durgunoglu and Goldenberg (45) point out that no study has demonstrated a relationship between exclusion of the first language and improved learning. Some studies also show that non-English speakers, especially in higher level classrooms, use their first language even when asked not to and even when monitored.

The Cognitive Benefits of the First Language

The first language can be beneficial as a cognitive tool that aids in second-language learning. English as a second language can sometimes be more easily processed by making reference to the first language. Small amounts of the first language use may lead to more comprehensible input and English language production. Widdowson (123) notes that too much focus on teacher target language use, with long periods of input modification, may result in teacher-fronted lessons in which individual learners may only be speaking the second language for limited amounts of time, which goes against the very nature of communicative classrooms. The research asserts that teachers can achieve many language and pedagogical functions in the first language in a very short time, thus still allowing for significant ‘discourse space’ in the target language.

Many scholars agree that the language of thought for the most advanced learners is inevitably important. First language use can facilitate connections between English language and prior knowledge and ideas already developed in the first language. The cognitive benefits of the first language may be especially relevant in learning contexts where the cognitive load of many tasks is heavy and students’ target-language skills are limited. Moreover, first language use may help students who are challenged in some way to learn English. Chiesa et al. argue that older students who intend to enhance their second language literacy use the first language as a cognitive tool for providing each other with help, for maintaining cooperation, and for externalizing their internal speech (468). First language use supports second-language learning and production in the second language.

Many scholars argue that employing the first language in enhancing second language literacy is very effective. According to research, a great number of bilingual students use their first language in different critical situations while studying in schools or colleges. Even the most fluent bilinguals lack their first language in organizing and structuring their talk. They keep thinking and analyzing things in their mother tongue even though their level of English language is high.

The Positive Effects of Bilingualism

Some findings suggest that employing the first language in enhancing second language literacy may involve important influences on people’s academic intellectual development. Continued development of English as a second language on the basis of a mother tongue of students into literate domains is a precondition for enhanced cognitive, linguistic, and academic growth. By contrast, when bilingual students develop low or minimal literacy as a result of inadequate instructional support, their ability to understand increasingly complex instructions and benefit from their schooling will decline. Chiesa et al. observe that the first language may have a positive influence on students’ academic and cognitive growth (146). The linguistic and academic benefits of additive bilingualism for individual students provide an additional reason to support students in maintaining their higher level of English.

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Maintenance helps students not only communicate with parents and grandparents in their families, but it can also enhance the intellectual and academic resources of individual bilingual students. At an instructional level, teachers should create the potential advantage in the classroom helping them become more adept at manipulating language in different environmental situations. Most scholars support the idea that there is an interdependence of first and second languages (Widdowson 39). Studies have noticed that students who use their first language have the better opportunity to develop literacy in English. A comprehensive review of the US research on studying process among ELL students shows that many students use knowledge of their native language as they read in English. This is evidence that the first language can enhance ELL reading. Thus, the research data show that within a bilingual program, instructional time can be focused on developing students’ literacy skills in their primary language without adverse effects on the development of their literacy skills in English.

Furthermore, the relationship between first and second language literacy skills suggests that effective development of primary language literacy skills can provide a conceptual foundation for long-term growth in English literacy skills. This does not imply, however, that transfer of literacy and academic language knowledge will happen automatically. There is usually a need for formal instruction in the target language to realize the benefits of cross-linguistic transfer. The research asserts that teacher’s instructions may be given partly in first language in order to overcome some difficulties in the comprehension in English (Baker 49). This does not mean that the effectiveness of the learning process will be lowered. Moreover, there is a considerable interdependence between both languages that should be actively used in teaching and learning English language literacy.

Varieties of English Language Teaching

In spite of the long history of the United States immigration, there is evidence that the country’s educational system still lacks appropriate programs for second-language learners. There is a great number of approaches and techniques and none of them is considered as universal. There is, however, a sufficient basis for arguing that certain instructional features contribute critically to program effectiveness. The U.S. Head Start programs, for example, serve a large and increasing population of English-language learners. Head Start programs are held accountable for standards set centrally, but have local control over the specifics of program design. Thus, teachers use various techniques in their teaching process. Some of them may be rather controversial. Most English teachers have difficulty while teaching a second language, rather than English to a classroom full of non-English speakers in higher level classrooms. These difficulties stem from the practice wherein the medium that teachers use to communicate literacy is ineffective. Thus, the need for an alternative element that could make the learning process more effective is remarkably crucial.

Researchers who reject the so-called “grammar translation method” have argued that this method of teaching is outdated and old-fashioned. However, this method may be more effective, especially in the case of older students, to enhance their second language literacy. Students are frustrated and remain confused during the class when the teacher spends the entire time speaking in the second language. Learning outcome evaluation at the end of each class was examined, and the researcher found through feedback that students tended to evaluate the teacher as more effective when there was some use of their first language (Arabic) in the classroom (Baker 125).

The home language facilities subject to learning and literacy development are important means through which a child absorbs the cultural environment, as well as enabling understanding between school and home. Proponents of bilingual education believe that students learn faster when they are educated through the use of their native languages while studying English. Opponents maintain that language minorities need English as a precondition to becoming educated.

Mastering a New Language

Though, there is too little research about the relative effects of first and second language use at home the findings suggest that enhancing home literacy experience for English learners in their first language can have positive effects on literacy development in English. There are several possible explanations for these findings. One is that language, literacy, and cognitive skills are learned most easily in one’s second language and then transferred to one’s second language, making this a more efficient pathway for literacy learning. Another possibility is that language, literacy, and cognitive skills learned in one’s primary language promote enhanced language, literacy, and cognition in general, creating a stronger foundation for subsequent and ongoing development (Durgunoglu and Goldenberg 10).

When a learner embarks upon the task of mastering a new language, he or she not only needs to learn new grammatical rules and vocabulary items, but also needs to let go some of the restraints imposed by the first language because often there is no direct transfer of grammatical rules and lexical items from one language to the other. Teachers of ELL have different approaches to the learning process of students. They have many problems and anxieties about certain methods and techniques. Second-language acquisition and techniques are not covered adequately in teacher preparation programs. However, these topics clearly need to be the focus of teacher education programs and major educational development initiatives as the demographic shift is expected to increase exponentially in the future.

Sarmini observes that if teachers are not prepared to deal with culturally and language diverse children for whom English is not the first language, the implications will be dire (102). The extent of the knowledge base needed in the area of second-language acquisition is vast. Second-language students have a unique opportunity to become bilingual and bi-literate. However, they require appropriate educational support and understanding. Wonderful advantages are associated with bilingualism, including enhanced cognitive enrichment and socioeconomic advantages later in life.

An important factor affecting the level of difficulty of learning English as a second language is the age at which the student is exposed to the second language. Even though older second-language learners may possess higher developed skills that make it easier and quicker for them to learn the second language than for younger students, it is more challenging for them to produce more accurate and formal aspects of the language than for younger students. As second-language learners progress through school, the challenge to learning posed by the language becomes greater (Sarmini 132). Certain aspects of the student’s own native language and culture play a critical role in facilitating or inhibiting learning a second language.

Classroom Management

Bilingual staff can be invaluable to a school, helping support the learners in the classroom by speaking in the family language with them and encouraging the use of their first language. There are many cultural issues that need to be considered and managed positively for bilingual learners. The four main factors identified below are by no means the only ones, but these are the issues that can play a significant role in whether a learner is even initially accepted and therefore included in the learning, teaching, and socialization in the classroom environment:

  • Cultures vary in the way they use language, verbal and written, and therefore assumptions should not be made by a teacher about whether a bilingual learner will see the value of writing information down for certain activities.
  • Different cultures have rules about the way adults and children interact. For example, when a learner averts their eyes away from the educator speaking to him or her, it may not be a sign of rudeness or lack of attention, but a sign of respect. If unaware of this type of difference, teachers can do great harm and create isolation for a bilingual student.
  • Disciplining strategies can also be a reason for miscommunication between educators, students, and home environment. Clarity and discussion of behavior and management of inappropriate learning behavior need to take place when a bilingual learner starts at a school. Cultures vary a great deal with regard how they discipline and students need to be fully aware of school’s rules.
  • Finally, even the way the school day is organized can cause problems for bilingual students (Soan 56).

A classroom needs to reflect the value placed on the languages and cultures of learners and educators. The provision of opportunities to engage in purposeful language interactions can be achieved in a language-rich environment. This also encourages and develops production skills and comprehension. An organizational structure, which should be consistent, uses visual strategies to support second-language learners. Guidance in ways to support classroom practice for bilingual learners can be provided by the theories of the second language acquisition. When planning for bilingual learners, educators need to think about what they can bring from their previous experiences to the task in great detail. The level and type of support needed are also an important aspect of the educators’ planning. This may be delivered to learners in many different ways, using the strength of their peers, effective grouping, or additional adult interventions.

Advantages of Bilingual Education

Baker observes that bilingual education typically enables both languages to reach higher levels of competency (34). Bilingual education ideally develops a broader enculturation, a more sensitive view of different creeds and cultures. It usually deepens engagement with cultures associated with languages, fostering a sympathetic understanding of differences, and avoids the tight compartmentalization of racism and stereotyping. Plentiful research suggests that students with two well-developed languages share cognitive benefits. Moreover, students’ self-esteem may be raised in bilingual education for minority language students. The opposite is when a child’s home language is replaced by the majority language. Then, the child itself, the parents, and relatives may appear as inadequate and disparaged by the school system. When the home language is used at school, students may feel themselves, their home, family, and community accepted, thus maintaining and raising their self-esteem.

Bilingual education may aid the establishment of a more secure identity at a local, regional, and national level. Being bilingual can be important to secure employment in many public services and particularly when there is a customer interface requiring switching effortlessly between two languages. Thus, bilingual education is increasingly seen as delivering relatively more marketable employees than monolingual education. The research asserts that English language learning policies enacted in schools can deny access to the language and knowledge that would empower U.S. immigrant children. There are complex interacting classroom factors that frequently work against students.

Some use of the first language in the classroom can actually enhance the learning process and meet objectives as the use of the first language allows students to better comprehend the learning materials. This use of the first language though should be strictly controlled and monitored. Many educators support the idea that comprehension of class materials is as important as the ability to communicate with others in the second language. Bilingual education typically enables both languages to reach higher levels of competency. Bilingual education ideally develops broader enculturation, a more sensitive view of different creeds and cultures. The home language facilities subject to learning and literacy development are important means through which a child absorbs the cultural environment, as well as enabling understanding between school and home. The mother tongue is the best medium for instructions and for literacy development of the English language, and bilingual students should use their first language at school.

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