Matthew Lynch: Assisting Students with Language Acquisition

Dr. Lynch writes that language acquisition depends on many factors, from culture to idioms.

Most schools have implemented a language program for non-English speakers. These programs follow a variety of approaches and employ a variety of terminology. To fully understand this article, it is important to understand some of the acronyms associated with English learning programs:

ESOL refers to English for Speakers of Other Languages;
ESL—English as a Second Language;
LEP—Limited English Proficiency, and;
ELL—English Language Learners.

Matthew Lynch

It is also important to know the difference between acquiring language (actually gaining language, using it and speaking it fluently) and learning a language (recognizing isolated sentences or copying words out of context and memorizing them). Acquiring language is done sub-consciously and students are given opportunities for natural communication and learning, for example by interacting with their school friends. Language learning is not communicative and students are taught the rules of the language in a less natural way. This process may result in students lacking strong speaking and writing skills in the second language.

Because the goal is to prepare students to learn in an English speaking classroom, acquiring language is the goal, and most school programs are designed to serve the language acquisition process. The simple fact that there are several different approaches to teaching English clearly indicates that educators do not agree upon which method is most effective to address the needs of both the language learner and the school. Regardless of the teacher’s personal ideology about an official national language, teachers must be aware that it is not the learner’s goal—and should not be the school’s goal to replace the native tongue with English.

Language, Literacy, and Culture

A number of levels of literacy in the home language exist alongside the variety of languages other than English spoken in homes. There are a number of reasons for low levels of home-language literacy. Literacy development for children whose primary home language is not English is influenced by the use of language in the home and the community, as well as opportunities for literacy-base experiences in the community, among other factors. This fact makes the placement of ELL students in American schools a complex process. Students who are not literate in their home language are sometimes misidentified as special needs students and are assigned to special education classes.

Often there is a catch-up process before students can be appropriately placed in any classroom, even if the subject is being taught in the native tongue. Age alone cannot determine placement. Lack of education in their countries of origin complicates the determination of how best to approach the education of some language minority students. Still, they must begin at their own levels—which may be lower than the grade level appropriate for their age, in order to ensure they have equal access to a fair and appropriate education.

One of the most difficult challenges for ELL students while learning English is becoming familiar with the idioms. It is difficult for a teacher to refrain from using idiomatic language in the classroom, as these are part of conversational strategies used to engage students and help them to “transfer” or make connections between their prior knowledge and the curriculum. Saying he had “a monkey on his back” or “a chip on his shoulder” may have little resonance for students whose cultures reflect a different experience with monkeys. Another difficult concept is “silent letters” in pronouncing words—most often the “silent E” or “schwa E” sounds. Phonetics can help, but it is wise to be aware that while English was originally a Germanic language, the mother tongue has evolved considerably, and borrowed from so many other languages that there are probably more exceptions than rules.

Teacher Perceptions and Language Acquisition

A key factor for success in any learning environment is the teacher’s perception of a student’s ability to learn. Teachers’ perceptions about the language acquisition process are often based on misinformation. Many teachers mistakenly believe that students learn better if they are restricted to using English only in the classroom. Some teachers also believe that English language learners should be proficient after only a year or two of English instruction. In a survey conducted by the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), only 39 percent of the participants advocated allowing learners to use both English and their native tongues in the classroom. In the same study, 7 percent of teachers believed their students should be fluent after two years of ELL courses.

In actuality, it takes 5–7 years to be proficient in a second language. Also, the success rate for learning a second language grows exponentially. Second-generation Hispanic children raised in the United States usually learn to speak English very well by adulthood, even though three-quarters of their parents speak mostly Spanish and are not English proficient. However only 23 percent of first-generation immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries said they spoke English very well. Pew Hispanic Center statistics also showed that 88 percent of the members of the second generation described themselves as strong English speakers, a figure that increased to 94 percent with third-generation children.

"It's Time for a Change," by Dr. Matthew Lynch

Dr. Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch is the author of three forthcoming books; Its Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching (Pearson 2013). To read more of his work, please visit his blog at www.matthewsruminations.blogspot.com. He can be contacted at mlynch@mail.widener.edu.

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