On May 13, 2013, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill released a report on dual language learners, Dual Language Learners: Research Informing Policy. The university has a special project, Center for Early Care and Education Research- Dual Language Learners (CECER-DLL), funded by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation which is a part of the United States Office of Administration for Children and Families. It focuses on dual language learners age birth to 5, their families, learning environments in early care and education center-based programs, home-based child care providers, and Head Start and Early Head Start Programs.
Even before the release of the report, some states, like Massachusetts, have dedicated policies towards young dual language learners. However, many school districts across the United States still utilize standardized questions that are geared for monolingual children when addressing dual language learning needs. Educators, concerned with the possibility that a dual language learner child might need federal IDEA educational supports, use questions that date to the 1970s to find out if a child requires special services. One form provided by a public school district asks parents to check Yes or No to “Speech is not clear enough to be understood”. According to the report, for dual language learners under the age of 5, that is very likely the case, because the sounds of two or more language systems influence speech.
With regard to phonological abilities, as infants DLLs’ are behind monolinguals, but then make significant progress during the preschool years, and eventually, reach the same skill level as their monolingual English speaking peers during the early grades.
Another question the form asks is “What language is generally spoken at home?” While the spoken language may be one thing, the child’s exposure to media may show a completely different picture. The popular website, pbskids.com, has video games like Pinata Party featuring Curious George and The Man with the Yellow Hat. Apparently, El Hombre del Sombrero Amarillo is now bilingual. Because of resource issues, financial and available personnel, some public schools will assess dual language learners in English only. This is where things break down dramatically for preschoolers, because, according to the report, their English vocabulary cannot be comparable to that of monolingual English speakers.
Also, while DLLs’ vocabularies in their individual languages are smaller than monolinguals’ when conceptual vocabularies in both languages are combined, DLLs’ vocabularies are often equal to that of monolinguals.
CECER-DLL released a report in June 2012 that explains in more detail how to properly assess a dual language leaner, Examining the use of Language and Literacy Assessments with Young Dual Language Learners. They recommended assessments in both languages spoken at home, and they test on whether or not a child can understand what is said to them (receptive vocabulary). Expressive vocabulary (what a child says) is also assessed, but it is very likely that a young dual language learner is in what is termed the Silent Period, a duration when there is no talking.
…dual-language approach in which DLLs were assessed in both languages for at least one area of language or literacy development, irrespective of language proficiency or dominance. The most frequent area of development assessed in both the home language and in English was receptive vocabulary.
They also utilized input from parents to allow the assessors to get a better understanding of which language to focus on.
Studies used parent and teacher/caregiver report of children’s language in various ways, including as background information on language exposure, as an initial step, or as sole criterion in determining language of assessment.
They endorsed the use of language neutral or language independent assessments. Language neutral assessments come in a few forms. One type, the assessors present flashcards with different pictures and use a specific word in either of the two language to ask a child to identify a picture from the group of pictures. Some other language neutral tests introduce new vocabulary in either language while presenting a picture that depicts the new word. Then the assessor asks the child to either repeat it or be able to identify the new word amongst a set of flashcards.
Educators who do not believe that dual language learners develop language skills differently from monolingual children will find the most recent release from University of North Carolina to be an eye opener.
Dr. Alejandro Brice, 2012-2014 Chair, ASHA Multicultural Issues Board, Dr. Mahchid Namazi, Assistant Professor at Kean University and Patricia Murray, M.A., LDT/C, Advocate and Educational Consultant Educational Resources for Success, LLC , share their knowledge of how children become bilingual.