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Bilingual children have been shown to be better communicators, do a better job paying attention, and even become stronger readers—in both languages. Yet most American children who speak a language other than English at home begin to lag behind in school by fourth grade.
Given what is known about the brain science of language acquisition, early support for dual language learners in state preschool programs could turn that trend around. Nearly a quarter of American 3- and 4-year-olds speak a language other than English at home, according to an April report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), a nonprofit think tank based in New Jersey. But most state preschool programs provide few or no proven supports to help bilingual children flourish, according to NIEER’s recent report.
“It really matters where you live,” said Allison Friedman-Krauss, lead author of the 2017 Preschool Yearbook, which included a special report on children who don’t speak English at home. “I don’t think we can generalize what the country is doing.”
Only three state preschool programs — in Maine, Kansas, and Texas — provide at least eight of the nine supports for dual-language preschoolers that Friedman-Krauss and her colleagues asked about. But 25 state programs don’t provide any of the supports, which include allocating extra funding for dual-language learners, permitting bilingual instruction, training staff on instructing children who don’t speak English well and conducting developmental screenings of children in their home language. It’s very difficult to determine how much math a child understands by asking them questions about numbers in a language they don’t speak, Friedman-Krauss pointed out.
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About half of states are so far from providing useful support to these students that they don’t even collect data on how many of them they have. Arizona and Florida, for example, are known to have a high percentage of dual-language learners in their general populations but those states’ preschool programs don’t collect data on the number of such children they serve. Nor does either state require its publicly funded preschool to provide any of the supports in the NIEER survey. In a state like Florida, where 77 percent of 4-year-olds attend preschool, that disconnect is particularly noticeable.
People who speak two languages fluently have been shown to be more flexible thinkers with higher levels of self-control and better reading skills, among other benefits. However, in the U.S., those benefits can be blunted by the disadvantage of being poor. Since most American dual-language learners are the children of immigrants and are growing up in poor or low-income homes, it is easy for the source of their issues with English to be confused with the fact that they speak another language at home.
In fact, said Naja Ferjan Ramirez, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, it’s likely that their economic circumstances, which can affect language acquisition, are the problem.
“They have lower language skills not because they are bilingual, but because there’s not a strong foundation in the other language,” Ferjan Ramirez said of bilingual children from low-income homes. “A strong base in any language, whether it’s English or something else, can serve as the base for whatever language you might learn later on.”