We Will Take Our Languages Together Please

By Beth Butler

The debate between the immersion approach and the bilingual approach to introducing a second language rages on.  Enjoy this perspective on the topic of which way is best for the majority of the world from a mom, a certified teacher and a business owner all rolled into one person!

It has been almost three decades since I received my teaching degree from Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.  Way back in that time of ancient history very little was spoken about teaching young children a second language.  In fact, the most I heard about introducing a new language to a baby, toddler or even a preschool age child was when I was living in Chile as an exchange student!

In other countries it seems the norm to introduce more than one language to children before the age of formal education in a traditional school setting; hence the increased numbers of bilingual citizens coming from other countries.  Here in the United States it has typically been middle school where a student is finally given the opportunity to choose an academic course of another world language.

I know!  I know!  Some of you private schools offer early second language instruction, and even some of the public schools have ventured into a weekly visit from a world language instructor or maybe even started a dual language program.  Today I want to discuss the masses, those who are touched by mainstream America which represents the majority of the population of our United States of America.

The sad fact is that our country has never allocated enough money hire qualified bilingual staff in order to implement dual language programs across our public school systems.  Nor have we ever given attention to the early childhood sector in terms of second language introduction, except for perhaps using American Sign Language when the owner or staff deemed it a necessary part of their program.

Here we sit with two major magazines; Time and Newsweek, published right here in our country informing us that the window of opportunity to learn a new language is between birth and age ten to twelve.  Yet we live with a public school system, where the majority of our children are instructed, that offers nothing to assist with instruction of a second language before the age of eleven or twelve.

When I was experiencing the birth of a late life baby and debating over how to have her cared for during the short time between my corporate job hours and the hours my husband worked from home, I opted for a care provider who spoke only Spanish.  I felt this would give our child exposure to Spanish for a few hours at a time since our home was mainly English with a new Anglo husband and two bilingual sons from my former Latino husband.

What I did not realize was that such exposure to Spanish in an immersion format caused our daughter to become selectively mute only months later.  To this day I still do not know for certain why she would shut down verbally for hours on end when in the presence of Spanish.  It could be as simple as a server in a restaurant, a neighbor, or a child care provider in her new preschool.  If any of them were Latino, she would not verbalize, she would not utter one word while in their presence.

It took us months and months of observation, research, investigating and pure agony as parents until we finally had the casual diagnosis made.  And sure enough, once we removed our daughter from an environment that presented Spanish in an immersion setting, she would verbalize fine for a two year old.  I continued to give her the gift of Spanish as her second language; I just never presented Spanish without English alongside it.  This presentation of two languages is known as a true bilingual format.

Now let me ask you as a parent?  What would you have done?  I had known for a long time that the ideal situation to help my child become fluent and biliterate in Spanish and English would be to have me speak Spanish in our home while my husband spoke English.  It is truly the best of both worlds experts agree, but I had agonized for months over what I felt I had done to our daughter.  I had exposed her to Spanish using an immersion format which seemed to have resulted in her becoming selectively mute.

I could not feel good any longer about my belief in immersion for my daughter.  Then I went on to teach at local preschools as a music resource teacher, and these children helped me to realize that immersion was not a successful format for the majority of young children who were hoping to get a fun jump start on learning a second language.  Here is what happened in a nutshell:  I went into the preschool and was ready to sing a new bilingual song about the days of the week I had written to the tune of a classic children melody called The Ten Little Indians. 

Before I introduced the song, the teacher of these three year olds told me they had already learned the days of the week in Spanish thanks to a song they had been singing for months and months.  I remember thinking to myself how great that teacher was for exposing them to other languages all on her own accord.  The children excitedly sang the song, all in Spanish, from start to finish, and they sounded great!  Most of their accents were spot on or at least near native in the Spanish pronunciation.

The kicker followed after their adorable presentation of a song sung only in Spanish.  I asked these English-speaking three year old children what the Spanish word is for Monday.  Silence followed my question.  I then asked what the Spanish word for Friday is.  Again, not one child could answer my question.  Then a little boy who had been singing the song again in his mind, raised his hand to answer that jueves is the word for Friday in Spanish.  Their little minds could not transfer the order of the words of this Spanish song to the order of the days of the week as they had learned them in English.

The light bulb went off, and I knew I had to search no longer for the answer of which to choose for these little children when it came to song writing or introducing Spanish and English.  Immersion was clearly out of the picture for me both personally and professionally as I proudly taught these children my version of the days of the week in both Spanish and English.  The way my song flowed we sang from domingo to Sunday then on to lunes and Monday then we learned martes and Tuesday and so the song went until the end with sábado and Saturday.

Might I share with you that when I ask the children who sing bilingual songs such as that one what the word is for Monday, they proudly and without hesitation, answer lunes!  The bilingual method can and does work for the very young children.  Recent research continues to suggest that children who are still acquiring skills in their native language should continue to learn that native language right alongside the new language.  These children experience early reading skills because they are experiencing the languages side by side; thus reinforcing early literacy.

One last and very crucial point on this debatable topic of introducing a new language using a bilingual format or using the immersion method.  Do you believe that we will ever see a complete turnaround of our public school system where our children will be given the opportunity to learn a language other than English from the onset of their traditional school instruction?  I know that our President Obama and his administration, including Arne Duncan who is now at the helm of our educational system, plan on helping us raise global citizens.  I do not take lightly what they aim to do to improve early childhood education and elementary education.

The hard, cold facts are that our country does not have the budget, the support or the qualified educators to put into place a successful second language program in every preschool and public school.  We will never witness enough bilingual teachers available to implement a program that will provide our young children with fluency in a second language before middle school.  We will never watch our legislative and political systems approve a budget for such implementation even if we imported teachers from around the world to help us.

The clear answer is using a bilingual format incorporating whichever two languages your community, your school or your family is hoping to learn.  This provides the monolingual parent, teacher and child care provider with a high level of comfort by knowing what is being taught while also providing the young child a point of reference in his native language as the new one is introduced.  Remember that this perspective is about reaching the majority of children in our country where qualified bilingual staff is at a minimum and budgets are being cut left and right.

We can make a difference for our young children and shape their future as global citizens prepared to travel successfully through a very global economy.  Give the gift of a second language starting as young as possible, and please keep the languages together for their sake and yours!

Bilingual mom, educator and keynote speaker Beth Butler is the founder of the BOCA BETH Program for young children where they make it fun and easy to introduce Spanish to young children.
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