Saturday, November 24, 2012

What Language Should ELLs Speak at Home?

By Judie Haynes

School administrators and classroom teachers should encourage parents to speak their native language at home. It is much more beneficial for children to hear fluent native language with a rich vocabulary than it is to hear imperfect, halting English. When students learn academic concepts in their primary language, this knowledge will transfer to English. Let's look at the case of one ELL, Isobel, and her family as they try to integrate English into their home life.

Isobel's family is from Costa Rica. Her parents speak some English and are literate in Spanish. When Isabel's teacher told them that they should speak English at home, her parents became distressed. They tried to speak English with her at the dinner table, but their conversations were stilted. Isobel's parents no longer felt comfortable asking her about her school, classes, and homework in Spanish. They stopped discussing books and the television news with her. Although the family reverted to their native language at the dinner table after a week of hesitant English, Isobel felt ashamed of her native language. She wished her parents spoke English.

What Isobel's teacher and parents did not know was that by reading and discussing stories with her and by encouraging Isobel to share her school experiences in Spanish, they were giving her experiences in their native language. Informal conversations like these are critical for Isobel because they will help her establish values and discuss ideas that she is not ready to learn in English. Eventually, what she learns in Spanish will help promote her English proficiency. The concepts and skills that students learn in one language will transfer to the second language when the learner is ready.


Students who are literate in their native language have many skills to draw on when they learn academic English, even when the writing system is different. It is much easier to teach a concept if the student already has some background with it in native language. Once students grasp the underlying literacy skills of one language, they can use these same skills to learn to read in another language. For example, 6th graders who are literate in Spanish will understand the underlying process of reading in English. Older students will be able to transfer skills such as scanning, selecting important information, predicting what comes next, and visualizing to enhance comprehension. Younger children who are literate in one language will know that printed words carry meaning, that words can be combined into sentences and paragraphs, and that certain letters stand for certain sounds.

We want to be sure that the parents of our English language learners are encouraged to speak their first language at home.

12 comments:

Douglas W. Green, EdD said...

Great post. I agree totally. The problem that English speakers have learning other languages is the limited amount of fluent native speech they get to hear in the language they are trying to learn. Also, ELL kids will be exposed to tons of fluent English via the media they can't escape.

Page, Middle School ELL Teacher said...

The pattern I've seen with adolescent, long-term ELLs is that they speak English with siblings and often to parents, who may respond in the first language. As a result, communication with parents and other family members who don't speak fluent English becomes stilted. This is especially problematic during teen years when parent-child communication is so essential.
I agree with your post. Most successfully bilingual-biliterate children I've seen come from households where the parents insist on their first language at home, but encourage and celebrate literacy in both languages.

JamesJacob said...

Good topic and best best article.I agree with your topic totally.

Andrea Wilson Vazquez said...

Great post and a worthy topic! I often have parents ask me if they should speak English to their (ELL) children at home. I always reply with a resounding "No!". I go on to explain that the family's home language is an important part of the child's culture and identity, and that continuing to speak their language while the child learns English will actually help him/her in the long run by helping the student to make connections between new things they learn in one language and what they already know on that topic in the other language. I have also seen it happen where students forget or lose their L1 and are no longer able to communicate with family members who do not speak English -- such a difficult situation! I think it can be helpful for teachers to encourage the continued use and development of an L1 with children.

Angielski Tlumaczenia said...

My advice is just to speak your mother tongue. Children automatically learn what language to speak to whom.

Wendy O said...

As a teacher in a predominantly Hispanic elementary school, I often tell parents to encourage their children to speak their native languages at home, and that the students will get plenty of English practice at school. Many of them are surprised to hear that we want them to continue to speak and read to their children in Spanish. But there are also the parents that try to do this, and their young children hesitate. I remember as a teen refusing to speak Spanish at home, mostly because I was embarrassed and knew I sounded 'funny' (which I completely regret now!). Do you have any tips for how to encourage my students to speak Spanish (or their native languages) at home? I often share my experiences with them, but want to find other ways to motivate them to keep their native languages.

tim watson said...

Very interesting post. I really enjoyed reading it and totally acceptable.

Anonymous said...

With respect to the use of music for language learning, there is a new app on iTunes called JamTok. Very elegant way to use popular music and games for language learning. As of this writing, they only have Japanese-English. But Spanish is coming soon.

Seoulasagna said...

I agree completely. I have seen the results firsthand of students whose parents read to them in Spanish (most of my ELLs are native Spanish speakers) and helped them with, say math homework in Spanish, and it greatly helped them with concepts in English.

I've had other parents say that they cannot help with homework because their English is not good enough. While this may be a struggle, for some topics such as math, working with them in their native language is fine.

For some of my ELLs, I actually have made picture vocabulary pages and stapled it to the front of their homeroom homework so that both they, and their parents can work on the homework together. This has been fairly successful.

As for just general communication at home, I too believe that using the native language is ultimately very beneficial. It has my push to get parents to engage as much academically in their native language, be it reading stories or working on concepts and history, so that students understand concepts and know that they can depend on their parents for academics despite language barriers.

Teacher Eva said...

I can't help but agree. Exposure to English is a must. I encourage my students to create an environment of English at home. These could be watching movies, TV shows, listening to music. The internet is a rich source where they can learn a lot of vocabulary through social media.

Vicky Tan said...

In Asian countries, English is rarely spoken. That's why Asians should use English at home to train themselves to be bilingual. Not all Asian countries have English subjects. My two cents' worth.

siya said...

these methods have make make my learning easy and less stressful....