Picture this: Almost overnight, you move to an entirely new country. You don’t know anyone and you’re forced to start from zero at a brand new school. You learn subjects and rules, but nothing is in your native language. Your teachers give you pages with words you cannot read, and your classmates do not understand when you try to ask them questions. It’s nearly impossible to comprehend all of this new information you’re receiving. Your classmates, peers, and teachers are all speaking another language, making it not only difficult to communicate with them, but seemingly impossible to form meaningful connections. After being unable to talk to your classmates and your teacher, and understand classes and readings, you start to feel lonely, unhappy, and isolated.
So much for a warm welcoming, right? Unfortunately, this is the reality of thousands of immigrant and refugee children across the United States, as they’re expected to succeed in high stakes academic environments without any (or very limited) support in their native languages.
The scenario described above reflects the “sink or swim” approach toward language acquisition. Advocates in support of this approach believe that if you throw an English Language Learner (ELL) into an English-only school (the water), the child will have the option to either not master English and fail (sink), or quickly learn English and thrive (swim).
In a “sink or swim” or “English-only” environment, all instruction and learning materials are provided solely in English. ELLs are discouraged from speaking their native languages, cutting off the means they have to communicate and connect with those around them. This often leaves students feeling isolated, confused, and lacking the tools necessary to succeed in and outside of school. In contrast, when teachers promote bilingualism and biliteracy among students whose first languages are not English, the academic and socio-emotional outcomes are quite the opposite.
The promotion of bilingualism and biliteracy among ELLs is illustrated in a variety of ways, including the incorporation of learning materials in English and the students’ native language(s), and encouraging communication and expression in both languages. Additionally, teachers can create games and dynamic classroom activities that use English and the kids’ first languages. This would allow their classmates to engage with the kid in their own native language(s), making them feel included and embraced. In contrast to the “sink or swim” approach, bilingual approaches prepare ELLs to thrive as children as adults.
Firstly, students are able to grasp concepts more easily if they are presented to them in their first language. This way, miscommunication of instructions and materials can be minimized, and students can independently complete activities and comprehend the content at hand. Especially for subjects such as mathematics, science, and literacy, this means not falling behind academically.
Secondly, bilingual approaches encourage students to improve both their English and native language skills. In a globalized world, people who are able to express themselves in more than one language (written and orally) are afforded countless opportunities in school, work, and their personal lives (many more than students that are prohibited from learning in their native languages).
Finally, ELLs that are permitted to speak in their native languages at school are able to more clearly express their concerns, questions, and feelings; in turn allowing them to form meaningful connections with their teachers and classmates. Not only does this provide these students access to strong support systems, but it also creates avenues for them to practice and become more fluent in English while avoiding the trauma of not being able to communicate with anybody.
Despite the clear benefits of bilingualism and biliteracy, many schools and families are concerned that if ELLs are encouraged to speak their native languages, it will be harder for them to become fluent in English. However, many studies have proven that if ELLs are given the opportunity to learn in both languages, they will not only become more proficient in both, but they will also realize significant, long-lasting linguistic, cognitive, and academic advantages. Therefore, the benefits of bilingual approaches do not negatively affect students’ journey toward proficiency in English.
In conclusion, if teachers provide students with floaties, lifejackets, kick boards, and swimming lessons, the kids will not be forced to sink or swim; but rather, they will learn how to become fast and safe swimmers. For ELLs of all ages, English proficiency, academic achievement, and healthy socio-emotional adjustments are realized when their teachers embrace bilingualism and biliteracy in their classrooms.