Contours of the Field: Native Languages of Dual Language Learners

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Note: this is the fourth in a series of posts explaining the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s (NASEM) recent report on the education of dual language learners (DLLs) and English Learners (ELs), Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. To read New America’s initial coverage of the report’s publication, click here. This series is designed to serve as a companion document to the report. Each post will explore how one of the report’s key themes relates to DLLs/ELs’ success at school.

A note on terminology: the NASEM report covers the full range of students who speak a non-English language at home. It uses “dual language learners” (DLLs) to refer to students five years old or younger, as these students begin learning English before they have reached basic proficiency in their home languages. It uses “English learners” (ELs) to refer to English-learning students 5–21 years old. Finally, it uses “DLLs/ELs” to refer to language learning students from 0–21 years old. Our blog series follows this convention.


The native language of most U.S. DLLs/ELs is Spanish—nearly 80 percent of ELs speak it at home. Given the United States’ proximity and historic ties to to many Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, this is not surprising. However, this present situation looks unlikely to continue in the future. Projections from the Pew Research Center predict slowing immigration from these countries, particularly relative to Asian immigrants. Since immigration patterns have a significant impact on U.S. DLL/EL numbers, these changes suggest that more schools are likely to find a wider range of native languages among their EL students.

Does this matter? Do DLLs/ELs’ native languages influence their linguistic and academic development patterns? And if they do, what should teachers, schools, and policymakers do about it?

There is no question that there are different developmental benchmarks involved in learning languages with different structures. In some languages, like English and Spanish, early literacy is intertwined with phonics skills, such as phonemic and phonological awareness. By contrast, in character-based languages like Mandarin Chinese, early literacy relies upon the development of a pattern recognition skill known as radical awareness.

How consequential are these sorts of differences? There is some evidence that linguistic structures can be more or less useful for particular tasks. For instance, there is some evidence that native speakers of some languages (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Turkish) have certain advantages when it comes to learning math.

Somewhat predictably, however, in US schools, the biggest question in this area concerns DLLs/ELs’ English acquisition trajectories: How do these students’ native languages influence their development of English language proficiency?

Researchers have theorized that DLLs/ELs use their competencies in their first languages to build their second language skills. The NASEM report surveys research exploring the interplay between DLLs/ELs’ two languages. For instance, it summarizes a study suggesting that differences in these children’s native languages “may result in different patterns of English…learning” (4-25). Specifically, the study found that native Hmong-speakers do not appear to be able to use their vocabularies in Hmong as a significant foundation for building their vocabularies in English. The report’s authors suggest that this could be due to core differences between the two languages. That is, Hmong relies on tone to distinguish between words in ways that do not exist in English. By contrast, the “sizable overlap between Spanish and English sounds” could make it easier for native Spanish-speakers to use their native language skills to help them develop greater proficiency in English (4-25).

Similarly, the report cites studies indicating that early vocabulary patterns in some languages may influence the substance of DLLs/ELs’ English vocabularies. That is, “children learning Korean, Mandarin, and other East Asian languages as their native language often show a ‘verb bias,’ or a tendency to learn words for actions before learning words for solid objects” (4-26). The authors suggest that these patterns differ from monolingual English children, and could be because of differences in the importance and prevalence of nouns and verbs for communicating meaning in English and other languages. The report also surveys current research on how the grammatical structures of DLLs/ELs’ home languages may influence how they learn English, concluding, “interactions between dual language systems may be a permanent feature of sequential DLLs’ grammars” (4-26).

Note: none of the foregoing means that, for example, Hmong-speaking DLLs/ELs cannot learn English as well as any other student. Neither does it mean that these students may be disadvantaged by their native language. It simply suggests that structural differences between Hmong and English may influence their patterns of bilingual development. The more researchers and educators know about these patterns, the better they can support each DLLs/EL’s growth.

But this does introduce a wrinkle into how we think about these students. While DLLs/ELs’ native languages are unquestionably assets in their personal, social, academic, and professional lives, the details of how these languages help students learn and develop academic prowess and English proficiency appear to vary. So, hypothetically, native speakers of languages that rely heavily on verb usage in early communication may: 1) develop related cognitive skills, and 2) need additional, intentional exposure to nouns and adjectives in English. And students who speak languages with grammatical rules that generate different sentence structures might need specific instruction on particular details of English grammar.

Relatedly, the report explores studies on how DLLs/ELs’ abilities to hear, distinguish, and speak new sounds in English. It concludes that, while research in this area is lacking, current data suggest that “this is yet another area in which the evidence strongly suggests that earlier exposure leads to better [second language] learning” (4-25). Consider, then, how this might intersect with other aspects of DLLs/ELs’ emerging bilingualism. We know that robust, high-quality, early English exposure is valuable for all children in U.S. schools and society. We also know that it is uniquely beneficial for DLLs. The research summarized in the NASEM report suggests, however, that the relative benefits of English exposure could be different for DLLs who speak different languages. Hypothetically, children who are native speakers of languages that have more structural and conceptual overlap with English could benefit from different amounts and kinds of English exposure than students who speak languages that have less overlap.

A recent Stanford University study supports this approach to thinking about the impacts of language diversity. Researchers Rachel Valentino and Sean Reardon studied the impact of different instructional models on ELs (i.e. bilingual education, dual immersion, or English immersion programs). While they found that dual immersion programs were generally most effective and English immersion was generally least effective, they did note that children who were native speakers of Chinese seemed to do better than native Spanish-speakers in English immersion settings. One possible, partial explanation, they said, could be that “typological differences” between English and Chinese meant that “more time spent ‘on task’ in English may be a more effective means of academic instruction for Chinese ELs than it is for Latino ELs (if, of course, the outcomes of interest are measured by tests administered in English)” (p. 33, here).

Still, it’s critical for educators and policymakers to think broadly about DLLs/ELs’ native languages—beyond simply their impact on English acquisition. For instance, they need to understand that DLLs/ELs’ native languages are important assets that help these children to maintain healthy relationships with their families. These languages are frequently central to children’s identities, and their ongoing development can be an essential part of helping DLLs/ELs succeed academically.

Finally, much of the foregoing is conjecture based on limited research. DLLs/ELs’ home languages are just one variable related to these children’s linguistic and academic development, so analysts should be deeply wary of treating them as a singular cause of those patterns or overestimating the importance of differences between them.

Further Reading from New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group:


This post is part of the 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 “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.”


Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice.