Language Development Part I

The importance of Chinese at home

The key principle is that bilingualism is an asset, and the first language has a continuing and significant role in identity, learning and the acquisition of additional languages. It is widely accepted that bilingualism confers intellectual advantages and the role of the first language in the child’s learning is of great importance. Children need to develop strong foundations in the language that is dominant in the home environment, where most children spend most of their time. Home language skills are transferable to new languages and strengthen children’s understanding of language use. Developing and maintaining a home language as the foundation for knowledge about language will support the development of English and should be encouraged. Insistence on an English-only approach to language learning in the home is likely to result in a fragmented development where the child is denied the opportunity to develop proficiency in either language.

The best outcome is for children and their families to have the opportunity to become truly bilingual with all the advantages this can bring. Home languages are also vital for maintaining positive family connections. It is therefore very important to maintain the language of the home, particularly where older family members who care for children do not speak English. Otherwise this may mean that eventually they are no longer able to have proper meaningful conversations with each other. Parents who cannot share thoughts and ideas with their children will inevitably lose the ability to shape, guide and influence their lives.

What research say about bilingualism

  • Regular routines help children feel comfortable and confident by helping them understand what to do and when (Tabors, 2008).
  • Children need to feel included as valued members of the community (Tabors, 2008).
  • Let all children in learning experiences demonstrate what they know and can do in nonverbal as well as verbal ways.
  • Children need spaces where they can get away from the pressures of communicating or interact individually with another child or adult (Tabors, 2008).
  • Reading together and informal conversations, promote children’s receptive and expressive English language skills (Torgesen, 2002).
  • Vocabulary can be taught through songs, poetry, games, role-play, e-books, and read-aloud stories.
  • A solid foundation in their home languages helps children acquire English (Garcia, 2003).
  • Children need intentional oral language supports to help them learn English (Castro et al., 2006).
  • Talk to children about things they have prior knowledge and experiences about and make learning relevant for them (Goldenberg, 2006).
  • Children who are learning English benefit from opportunities to use their home languages as well as English written (Tabors, 2008).
  • Reading experiences for dual-language learners should include read-aloud stories in their home languages and books related to children’s prior experiences and daily lives (Castro et al., 2006).

Language Development

Professor Jim Cummins, an expert in bilingualism, found that a native speaker’s language proficiency development can be divided into two distinct stages: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) are language skills needed in social situations. It is the day-to-day language needed to interact socially with other people. English language learners use these skills when they are on the playground, in the lunch room, on the school bus, at parties, playing sports and talking on the telephone. Social interactions are usually context embedded. They occur in a meaningful social context. They are not very demanding cognitively. The language required is not specialized. These language skills usually develop within six months to two years.

Problems arise when adults think that a child is proficient in a language when they demonstrate good social English, this is only the first step in the journey to learning a new language.

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

CALP refers to formal academic learning. This includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing about subject area content material. This level of language learning is essential for students to succeed in school and for exams. Students need time and support to become proficient in academic areas. This usually takes from five to seven years. Recent research (Thomas & Collier, 1995) has shown that if a child has no prior schooling or has no support in native language development, it may take seven to ten years to catch up to their peers.

Academic language acquisition includes skills such as comparing, classifying, synthesising, evaluating, and inferring.

The language also becomes more cognitively demanding. New ideas, concepts and language are presented to the students at the same time. Jim Cummins also advances the theory that there is a common underlying proficiency (CUP) between two languages. Skills, ideas and concepts students learn in their first language will be transferred to the second language.