Contours of the Field: Dual Language Learners and Early Language Development

Blog Post
April 17, 2017

Note: this is the second 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 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. Click here to read the third post

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” 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” 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 diversity of the United States’ DLLs/ELs is remarkable. They and their families have a wide range of cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic resources. Some DLLs/ELs are recent immigrants to the United States. Many more are related to immigrants. These, and other factors, can influence these students’ academic experiences in and out of school.

But above all, DLLs/ELs are defined by their language abilities. This is obviously true in a technical sense: students are classified as DLLs/ELs if they score below their state’s English language proficiency threshold on a screening test. But it is also true in a broader sense: DLLs/ELs speak a diverse set of native languages, and their emerging multilingualism can shape their language development and affect their academic assets and needs.

The intersection of language and academic content lies at the heart of so many debates over DLLs/ELs’ education (and the policies that shape it). Unsurprisingly, it also lies at the heart of many misunderstandings of how DLLs/ELs learn.

The NASEM report surveys a wide range of research to dispel myths and clarify how DLLs/ELs’ multilingualism interacts with their linguistic and academic development. It concludes that there is “a strong case for the human potential to learn more than one language,” and goes on to explore “the factors that may influence the full expression of this capacity among DLLs in the United States” (4-1).

Many questions — and misunderstandings — related to DLLs’ development begin with growing public awareness of the importance of early language development. Since the publication of Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s seminal research on the so-called “30 Million Word Gap,” a series of studies have established a consensus: both the quantity and quality of language exposure in the early years of children’s life has enormous impact on their language development.

But what does this mean for multilingual children? Research suggests that children are born with the ability to hear and discern between a vast range of different language sounds. As they age, they rapidly lose the ability to distinguish between sounds that are not common in the language (or languages) spoken around them. It appears that early language development is guided by a basic utility function: young human brains develop neural patterns to strengthen understanding in the language or languages they need to interact with those closest to them. The ability to distinguish other sounds is pared away, since they are not being used regularly in the child’s life. The details of these processes are still far from being fully understood, but early indications are that young children begin to lose the full range of their language discrimination abilities before they turn one year old (See pp. 4-2–9 in the NASEM report for more).

Research on the earliest stages of language development serves as a foundation for the study of subsequent developmental benchmarks. If early exposure to multiple languages can give DLLs access to “enhanced language discrimination abilities,” presumably this affects the development of vocabulary, grammar, and other key metrics (4-3).

For instance, studies suggesting that DLLs have smaller vocabularies than monolingual children have led some to worry that multilingualism can cause problems for children’s language development. If early language development is critical, and data on DLLs’ early language development appears to be different from their monolingual peers, presumably this could be a reason for concern.

In its survey of available research, however, the NASEM report concluded that “DLLs and young monolinguals show the same general developmental patterns and relationships...[and] there is no evidence that DLLs are likely to fall behind norms established for monolingual learners” (4-9). Indeed, when studies take DLLs’ knowledge and abilities in both of their languages into account, they generally find little to no difference between them and monolingual peers.

Indeed, there is reason to believe that DLLs’ early language development in their native languages can support their acquisition of a second language like English. The NASEM report notes, “having a large vocabulary in their native language supports toddlers’ ability to learn words in another language” (4-15). DLLs’ native language skills can improve their school readiness and help them understand conceptual similarities between their various languages. The report also notes that children appear likely to develop stronger second language skills if they are exposed to their second language (usually English, in the United States) earlier in their development.

The foregoing helps explain why it remains critical for many DLLs’ families to continue speaking with their children in their native languages. If, as the NASEM report notes, “Exposure to rich language early in language development is especially important,” and DLLs’ native language abilities can support English acquisition, then families with limited English skills should talk to their children in the languages that they speak best (4-20).

But while there is little reason to believe that DLLs/ELs’ emerging multilingualism imperils their language development in the short- or long-term, there is growing evidence that it could confer unique benefits. Some aspects of the so-called “bilingual advantage” are obvious: proficiency in a second language opens cultural, social, and economic opportunities for DLLs/ELs. For instance, students who become proficient in English and Spanish can work and earn money in both languages. Their bilingualism gives them access to more information about the world. Perhaps best of all, they can read Shakespeare and Steinbeck as easily as Cervantes and Borges — all without translation.

But some of multilingualism’s benefits are more subtle. The NASEM report summarizes research findings suggesting that DLLs/ELs’ develop separate language systems for using and understanding each of their languages. Critically, they also appear to develop unique cognitive skills involved in managing these parallel systems. In other words, as DLLs/ELs learn to use each of their languages in particular contexts and for particular purposes, they may strengthen their control of their attention spans and critical thinking skills.

It bears noting that many of the studies referenced here establish that children have the ability to learn multiple languages, and that there may be benefits from that process. It is quite another question to consider whether those abilities are currently being successfully harnessed to gain those benefits for DLLs/ELs in U.S. schools. The educational reality for many multilingual children in the United States falls well short of what’s possible for them.

For instance, many DLLs/ELs suffer under significant inequities that plague American schools and society. That is, things like family socioeconomic status and education levels influence the language development of all students — not just DLLs/ELs. If, as the report notes, “DLLs with first-generation immigrant parents frequently begin school lagging behind their monolingual peers in language and school readiness skills,” these gaps may be a product of their “DLL status,” but they may also be linked to “their poverty status and the low education levels of so many immigrant DLL families in the United States” (4-28).

This should be a caution against any simple stories about DLLs/ELs’ linguistic — and academic — development. This highly-diverse group of students spans a wide range of linguistic, social, economic, and cultural backgrounds. While research suggests that their native languages are no hindrance (and may be a help) to their English acquisition, significant work remains to convert that finding into daily school and classroom practice.

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

This post was written by Conor P. Williams, founder of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group. You can find him on Twitter at @ConorPWilliams. 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.”