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Dual Language Learners Reader Post #4: How Long Does it Take to Learn English?

In its 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that public schools have an obligation to provide appropriate language services to students who are learning English. Logically, this has prompted lots of interest from education policymakers who want to know: how long does it take for DLLs to learn English? For better or worse, there’s no simple answer: the length of time depends on a range of factors. Specifically, the variables influencing the trajectory of DLLs’ English development fall into two categories: individual factors and school factors.

Individual Factors

As noted in Part 2 of the DLL Reader, there is substantial diversity within the DLL population and thus many elements must be taken into consideration with regard to the time it takes them to acquire English. The most important of these factors include age, exposure to English, and prior education.

First, one theory of language acquisition suggests that humans have a critical or sensitive period within which to learn language. This is generally thought to be before age nine, when brain development is particularly flexible. It should be noted that this theory is largely based upon research of first rather than second (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.) language acquisition and that there have been many language learners who acquire another language later in life. Still, a body of research shows that language acquisition tends to be quicker in children than adults.

The second individual factor (related to age), is amount of exposure to English. It’s a basic equation: time spent living in an English-speaking environment is usually correlated with a higher level of English (note: this doesn’t mean that DLLs should be dropped into English-only classrooms and left to fend for themselves. In fact, the “sink or swim” model of language learning is highly ineffective). While the majority of DLLs are born in the U.S., their exposure to English may vary according to the language communities where they grow up. For instance, many DLLs also experience frequent migration either within the U.S. or between the U.S. and their home country. The resulting interruptions in schooling can have negative impacts on their language learning and educational growth.

Third, DLLs’ prior education — in any language — plays an important role in their English acquisition, as more education is typically associated with a deeper understanding of language and academic content, both of which support English acquisition.

School Factors

While individual factors like these may be mostly beyond policymakers’ control, school factors are important levers that influence DLLs’ English acquisition. First, the type of instructional program into which DLLs enter can impact the time it takes to learn English. Generally, bilingual education programs — those that allow DLLs to learn in their first language while simultaneously acquiring English — have proven to be extremely successful. One study comparing children’s outcomes from several language-learning models found that DLLs in English-Spanish bilingual programs outperformed DLLs in English as a Second Language (ESL) or mainstream English programs on both literacy and math tests by fifth grade. These findings do not speak to the time it took children to learn English in each setting, but they suggest that more time in a bilingual program may support English achievement. Also worth noting is that the highest number of dropouts (by 11th grade) came from the group of DLLs who were placed in mainstream English classes because their parents refused ESL or bilingual services. Why? Perhaps it’s because these students were dropped into school experiences that were overly challenging for them without linguistic support.

Second, the presence of bilingual and bicultural staff members may also facilitate children’s English acquisition, particularly in settings where formal bilingual education is not an option. While there is currently no empirical evidence linking teachers’ backgrounds to DLLs’ time to acquire English, anecdotal and qualitative research suggest that teachers who are familiar with their students’ languages and cultures may readily draw upon them in instruction. Lastly, there is substantial evidence that DLL family engagement supports positive educational outcomes (here, for example). In particular, family literacy initiatives have shown to facilitate DLLs’ emergent literacy and oral language skills in English.

What’s the Range?

Even though these various factors make it hard to give a specific answer to the question of how long it takes DLLs to learn English, researchers have developed a range. They estimate that it can take up to three to five years to achieve oral proficiency — the type of language children need to engage in everyday interactions — and four to seven years to be at the same academic level as their native English speaking peers, which includes reading and writing across subject areas. The distinction between these social and academic language domains is important. Not taking into consideration this difference could, for example, lead a school to exit a student too early from language services.

Implications for Policy

The individual and school factors mentioned here present both potential strengths and challenges for DLL-specific policy. For instance, while there are substantial positive benefits for DLLs in bilingual programs, these findings mostly come from programs for children whose home language is Spanish. And while Spanish speakers represent the majority of DLLs, about 25 percent of DLLs speak other home languages. Unfortunately, bilingual programs for non-Spanish speakers are rare due to the challenges of finding teachers and resources in languages other than English and Spanish.

The research also has important implications for DLL assessment policies. Presently, most states do not have access to assessments in languages other than English and (sometimes) Spanish and therefore only assess DLLs in English. This gives states a limited picture of the entirety of DLLs’ linguistic and content knowledge. Assessing DLLs across all of the languages they know would allow for schools to better understand a student’s linguistic and content instructional needs. In addition, DLLs are presently exempt from standardized testing in English language arts only during their first 12 months in a U.S. school. Yet research tells us that it takes at least four years to acquire the academic language that is required for these tests. More flexible testing policies, or better yet, assessments designed specifically for DLLs could better set these students up for success.

Stay tuned for next week’s DLL Reader post on instructional models of language learning.

 --This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group.Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter,click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”"