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Be the Bridge—Raising a Child in More Than One Language

What is so important about students learning a second language? Studies show that the rate of students learning English in schools is much greater than the rate of increase in all students attending school. In fact, since 1990, the number of students who are learning English in American public schools has increased more than 150 percent, while the overall student population has grown only 20 percent. This trend is likely to continue; in fact, these students may make up 40 percent of the school-age population by 2030. Parents of students who are learning English can help their child by participating in their child’s schooling. Parents can even help their child before he or she starts attending school. Because these children are learning two languages at the same time, parents need to act as a bridge between home and teachers to make sure that these children are ready for kindergarten.

Who Are These Children Learning English in School?
Young children from backgrounds where English is not the first language come from diverse cultural and language backgrounds. Their parents may speak very little English or fluent English. In some families, parents may speak two languages interchangeably at home, while other families may speak only their native language at home. Family members may also differ in their language backgrounds, so a child may speak English to a parent but Spanish to a grandparent. As a result, students arrive at school with language backgrounds and skills that are much different from their peers who speak English only.

These young children who are learning English and their home language are described with different terms by different school systems. Some terms to describe these students include dual language learners, bilingual students, limited English proficient students, English-language learners, and linguistic minority students. Regardless of the term used, these children are learning a second language while mastering their first language.

Challenges for Students Learning More Than One Language
Studies show that students will benefit from using and/or developing their home language as they learn English, and so this dual language method of learning English should be supported. Between the years of 3 and 6, children are still learning their first native language. Because students are also learning their second language, learning both languages well may take from 4 to 8 years—sometimes even longer. For this reason, parents need to ensure that the best conditions of language learning are provided for English as well as the home language. Studies have shown that if the right support is not in place, these students may fall behind in their social–emotional development and may more likely be socially isolated, bullied, and even viewed negatively by teachers.

Benefits for Students Learning More than One Language
It’s important for parents to know the link among culture, language, and learning. The benefits of children learning more than one language include:

  • Children who learn to speak and read in their home language are more likely to shift those skills easily to English. Studies have shown that home language development helps early reading, cognitive, and social–emotional development.
  • Children who have oral language skills, including vocabulary and listening comprehension in both English and the home language, can learn to read more easily. Oral language skills have been shown to be key factors in gaining reading skills.
  • Children who are proficient in their home language are able “to establish a strong cultural identity, to develop and sustain strong ties with immediate and extended families, and to thrive in a global, multicultural world.”
  • Children who speak more than one language are thought to have greater mental flexibility, and they can use these skills to figure out math concepts and word problems.
  • Children who speak more than on language switch between tasks or to multitask more quickly than monolinguals. Switching between two languages entails a degree of mental acuity that helps develop other cognitive skills.

Parental Involvement Helps language Development
It is key for parents to support the cognitive development of their children during the early years. Research has shown that children who come to school with language skills are less likely to have difficulties; it doesn’t matter which language that they read or are read to at home. The link between first-language reading ability and second-language reading ability is the “most direct cross language” relationship to language. 

Children who know more than one language can have personal, social, cognitive, and economic advantages throughout their lives. However, for a child to fully benefit from learning more than one language, parents must be actively engaged in their child’s school to make sure that the right process is in place. Parents need to support teachers in various ways for teachers to also support the home language so that early literacy can be fostered in the home as well as at school.

Family Activity:  Building Words
Educator Activity: Many Languages, One Classroom
Quiz for Parents: Do You Speak Another Language?


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health

Bilinguals switch tasks faster than monolinguals”, takes note of children’s increased cognitive abilities when they learn a second language.

Bilingual Effects in the Brain” is a new study that describes how certain brain functions are enhanced in teens who are fluent in more than one language. The finding gives insight into how our senses help shape our brain.

U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families,Office of Head Start

Focus on Language Development: Reports” provides a list of selected resources and effective practices for families and educators to gain knowledge that is culturally and linguistically responsive to the needs of dual language learners’ children.

"Two Languages Better Than One for Kids’ Brains: Study” is a new study showing that children who speak more than one language seem to have a learning advantage in problem-solving skills and creative thinking.

Parent Power: Build the Bridge to Success provides tips for parents to support their children to be successful in school and in life.

Dual Language Learning: What Does It Take? Head Start Dual Language Report is a study that assesses program needs, opportunities, and barriers as well as provides recommendations that effectively work with young dual language learners. 

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Updated on 9/13/2012