When Learning a Second Language Means Losing the First

Published 03 May 2017

Language-minority students should learn the English language if they want to be accepted and to take part in the opportunities offered by the society. However, these children do not know that in the process of acquiring English as a second language, they slowly lose grip of their first language, which endangers their relationship with their family and society.

Research author Lily Wong Fillmore, together with some colleagues, called for the No-Cost Study on Families, “a national survey of language-minority families who have participated in preschool programs that were conducted partly or entirely in English to determine the extent to which these programs were affecting the children’s language patterns” (p. 327). Researchers made interview forms that were translated into many languages. Afterwards, they trained various people to conduct the family interviews. Questions aimed at knowing the language patterns of the children, the parents, the siblings, and the teachers, and how these patterns are affecting the child linguistically.

One thousand one hundred families across the country were surveyed, 311 of which is the comparison sample – Spanish speakers “whose children attended preschool programs conducted entirely” in the native language. On the other hand, the main sample composed of 690 families “whose children attended English-only or bilingual preschool programs” (p. 327).

Findings revealed that “50.6 percent of the main sample reported a negative change in the language patterns in the home,” a shift from the native to the English language, compared to 10.8 percent in the comparison sample. “Negative changes were reported in 64.4 percent of the families whose children attended English-only preschool” compared to “just 26.3 percent of the comparison sample families, whose children attended primary language preschool” (p. 333). Moreover, bilingual education was also found to foster negative change as 47.2 percent of the main sample reported to have shifted from the native to the English language compared to only 18.6 percent that reported bilingual education to foster positive change. Furthermore, findings held that children were using English more often than their native language in conversing with their siblings, as well as their parents who did not know English well. English is evidently becoming the chosen language as reported by over half of the main sample families, whose parents use English even if they cannot express themselves in the language easily, compared to one-fifth of the comparison families who preferred to use Spanish in talking to their parents. In addition, reports confirmed that “early exposure to English leads to a language loss,” as children in the main sample were “very deficient or completely unable to speak” their first language six to eight times more frequently than those in the comparison sample, who could speak their primary language better (pp. 339-340).

Findings pointed out that immigrant children’s learning of the English language affects the patterns of language use in their homes, and the younger they start to learn the second language, the greater is the effect. This is evident in societies like the United States, where “linguistic or ethnic diversity are not especially valued” (p. 341). Both external and internal pressures work as these children see in the television and feel deep within them that they are different, thus undesirable. This strengthens their will to learn English to belong and be accepted. However, not only is the native language lost but also the concept of family, as parents and children begin not to understand each other. Thus, parents’ teachings on values, responsibilities, and experiences, do not reach the children, losing the ties that bond them.

As what Wong Fillmore pointed out, English is not the problem, but timing. Before a second language is taught to a child, parents and teachers should first make sure that immigrant children’s native language is strong enough not to be swayed by any linguistic change such as the acquisition of another language. Also, ethnic community efforts to make immigrant children feel loved and accepted should also be taken into consideration so that they will realize that even though they are different, there are people who regard and view them as desirable individuals worthy of love and acceptance.

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