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Discovering the Value of Home Languages

In my time as a high school ESL and Bilingual Teacher, I worked with students from all walks of life: new immigrants, long-term English learners, students with consistent academic history, students with limited or interrupted formal education, students who experienced mobility, students at all levels of the socio-economic spectrum, students experiencing family separation or family reunification, and the list goes on and on. Over time, as I worked in the trenches with all of these different language learners to teach them English and academic content, it became very clear to me that the singular largest asset that all of these students possessed was their home language. For students who had high levels of native language development, transitioning to English happened quickly and relatively easily. For students who had not had educational opportunities in the home language (i.e. refugees or students with interrupted education), transitioning to English was a slow, difficult process.

The impact that home language development has on developing English proficiency is enormous. This was so apparent to me as a classroom teacher that I began to informally assess the home language development of all students coming into my beginning ESL classroom so that I could make better instructional decisions about what skills my students could transfer to English from the home language vs. what skills I should spend more time developing intensely in English (and no, I didn’t speak all the languages of my students). This also led to better differentiated learning because my students were getting more of what they needed based on their background knowledge and prior learning.

I also began to have conversations with my students about how they use their home languages and how they can continue to develop their skills in the home language here in the U.S., even though they may not get instruction in that language in school. I encouraged my students to produce multilingual products, drawing on their native language to enhance their English development and vice versa.

My students flourished in this environment, and acquired English faster than ever before. But more often than not, when I talked with other teachers and administrators about native language development my suggestions were met with confusion: “Why should we care about native language?” or “What does that have to do with learning English?” or “We don’t have a bilingual program. We just have to get these students to speak English so they can pass _________ standardized test.” or “The home language isn’t going to help these students in the real world. They have to learn English to be successful in this country.” or “I don’t speak any other language, so I can’t possibly help my students to develop their home language.”

Because of these attitudes, many students receive the message that the only thing that matters in school is what they do in English. This could be an explicit message (I’ve known many misguided teachers who made it against the rules to speak any other language in their classrooms), or implicit (the only thing that students receive credit for in school is what they produce in English, and the only language students see displayed in school is English). This is in conflict with the current news headlines of

These headlines show that multilingualism is valued more and more by societ y today as an economic, cognitive, and community asset. But if we want to grow multilingual adults, we need to help emergent bilingual children develop their skills in multiple languages.

In my ideal world, bilingualism would be valued by all as an advantageous skill that will enhance the lives of all students. Schools would foster multilingualism. Students would be encouraged to produce in home languages as well as English for class assignments, and to utilize the home language as well as English to navigate complex academic tasks. Multilingualism would be celebrated and visible in schools through signage, student work, displays, and performances. If we truly value multilingualism and consider it an essential skill, then we need to start “walking the walk” and not just “talking the talk.”

Here are some suggestions to get you started. All of these suggestions will work even if you are monolingual:

  • Have open conversations with your students about how they use the language of their household. Do they consider themselves to be bilingual? (hint: not all ELs do) What language do they prefer for different types of activities? Do they use their home language strategically in school to help them navigate academic tasks?

  • Send home a pictorial preview of a lesson or unit. Assign students the task of discussing the pictures with their family in the home language. This can be a very powerful strategy even at the secondary grades.

  • Give students the opportunity to discuss concepts in the home language in small groups in class. Make this opportunity explicit by grouping students strategically and telling them your reasons for doing so.

  • Allow students to use research sources in the home language. Make this opportunity explicit for students by telling them that they are allowed to use multilingual resources and helping them find sources through tools such as Google Advanced Search.

  • Give students the opportunity to create multilingual projects or products, showcasing home languages alongside English.

  • Encourage students to look for cognates in content-area vocabulary. Engage family and community members in helping students know vocabulary in the home language.

If we start to show students that we value their home languages, they will be more apt to invest time and effort into maintaining and developing those languages and educators will reap the benefits of students better able to make connections and learn academic content in two or more languages. To start down this path, we first need to know what our students already can do in their home languages and then help them to strategically use their home languages in school.

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