What is the ideal age to introduce a second language to children? Contrary to popular belief, cognitively mature students with advanced first-language skills acquire a second language faster, as long as their motivation to learn it remains high. Middle school is not too late to introduce a second language, but the later elementary grades are ideal for a child to learn to speak the second language with an authentic accent. It is a case of better late than never. We need to focus on the potential cognitive benefits of bilingualism, with or without the accent.
The story is quite different for language-minority children who are learning the language of the dominant ethnic group. In the United States, English must not be introduced until the first language is well developed, especially not to children who are at risk of losing their first language as a result. This “subtractive bilingualism” occurs in many bilingual and ESL programs throughout the country. Language-minority children will learn English, but at what cost? They may not learn anything else, and they may lose the skills they have in their native tongue.
One way to introduce language skills early without stunting children’s cognitive development is through dual-language programs, which support their first language, be it English or another tongue. A few school districts now offer dual-language gifted and talented (GT) programs. Interest in these programs is growing, since they bring together the brightest children early in their school careers in a bicultural or multicultural setting and avoid the stigma of traditional, segregated bilingual programs.
The dual-language GT program at Mesita Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, began in fall 1997 with three classrooms, for grades 1, 2, and 3. Teachers and parents approached the principal and asked if their program could incorporate Spanish as the principal differentiating factor, so the students might become bilingually proficient in reading, writing, and speaking. Mesita’s program grows one grade level per year. Today students from across the district are applying for admission to the Connecting Worlds/Mundos Unidos (CW/MU) program, and the initial group of second- and third-grade students has graduated to Wiggs Middle School, where the program continues.
The CW/MU program uses three effective techniques. First, a 50-50 model of instruction ensures that all core academic subjects are taught in both languages, half the day in English and half in Spanish. Second, lessons are taught without translation, but the latest second-language methods are used to ensure comprehension. Finally, native speakers of English are paired with native speakers of Spanish—language buddies who help one another understand the instruction and help the second-language learner formulate responses to teachers’ questions. The gifted children have done very well on standardized tests, although native speakers of English still do better on tests in English, while native speakers of Spanish do better on tests in Spanish.
The CW/MU experience makes two important points. First, the process of selecting language-minority students for the GT program should not be postponed until they have learned enough academic English to be tested in it. It is a form of discrimination that occurs far too often, especially where GT programs have recruited few or no minority teachers. Programs should use alternative assessments, if necessary, to select these children early, including evidence of actual performance and creativity, such as portfolios and written work in either the first or the second language. Second, a multicultural ambience should be provided that honors social and individual differences and incorporates highly personalized contact among students and between students and teachers, since all GT students respond well to such schooling.
Dual-language programs provide culturally and linguistically diverse GT students with the benefits of a classical education and also achieve a substantial measure of equity among them. Highly proficient bilingual students generally enjoy certain cognitive advantages, especially in creativity, problem definition, and problem solving. They also may gain an edge in the economic future of this country. It’s a good bet that dual-language programs will provide academic and social advantages over English monolingual programs to the participating GT students who can meet the challenge.
—Ernesto M. Bernal, PhD
Ernesto M. Bernal is vice president of the San Antonio Gifted Education Foundation. He conducted the first research study of gifted Mexican American youth and is an educational consultant and program evaluator to innovative gifted, bilingual, and multicultural programs.
- Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism, by Kenji Hakuta, Basic Books, 1986
- “The Advantages of Bilingualism,” by Andrew S. Latham, Educational Leadership, Vol. 56, No. 3, 79–80
- Meeting the Challenge of Linguistic and Cultural Diversity in Early Childhood Education, by Eugene E. García, Teachers College Press, 1995