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There is probably no professional advice that is more harmful to language minority families than this. In many monolingual societies, immigrant parents are routinely advised by doctors, speech therapists, teachers, and counselors to stop speaking their native language to the children so as not to “confuse” them with input from two languages. The so-called linguistic mismatch hypothesis is the notion that in every situation where there is a switch between home language and school language, students will encounter academic difficulties (Cummins, 1996). The argument that bilingual input confuses children is not valid, however, since most children growing up in bilingual or multilingual societies (e.g., India, Singapore, as well as many Asian and African countries) learn to use two or more languages with no apparent negative consequences to their cognitive development. This view is not supported by empirical sociolinguistic evidence either.

Much of the policy regarding the education of language minority students in the U.S. has been driven by a hypothesis called “maximum exposure” (Cummins, 1996). The maximum exposure hypothesis posits that if children come to school lacking proficiency in English, they require maximum exposure to English in school in order to learn it. This hypothesis has led to the claim that immersion in English is the most effective means to ensuring the learning of English. It is also assumed that, under these conditions of immersion, language minority students will learn sufficient English in about one or two years to survive academically without further special support.

Cummins (1996) notes that the maximum exposure hypothesis fails to account for the success of students enrolled in enrichment bilingual education programs (e.g., Canadian French immersion programs). He notes that countless evaluations have shown that students in French immersion programs make good progress in acquiring French fluency and literacy at no cost to their English academic skills despite considerably less instructional time spent in English (more on French immersion programs in Chapter 8). This is because, in a French immersion program, French instruction that develops French literacy is not only developing French skills, but it is also developing a deeper conceptual and linguistic proficiency that is related to the development of English literacy. This is called the linguistic interdependence principle (Cummins, 1996).

Research suggests that literacy skills transfer between languages, especially when the two languages have the same writing systems. Bialystok, Luk, & Kwan (2005) compared three groups of bilingual (Cantonese-English, Hebrew- English, Spanish-English) first-grade children with a group of monolingual

English-speaking first-graders on early literacy tasks. All the bilingual children used both languages daily and were learning to read in both languages. The children were given decoding and phonological awareness tasks, and the bilinguals completed all tasks in both languages. Bialystok et al. (2005) found that the Hebrew and Spanish bilingual children’s ability to read in English was more advanced than that of the Cantonese bilingual and English monolingual children. The Cantonese bilingual children showed some advantage compared to the monolingual children in the decoding task but their performance on the phonological awareness task was at the same level as the English monolinguals and significantly lower than that of the other two bilingual groups. Thus, the Hebrew and Spanish bilingual groups (whose two languages were both based on an alphabetic principle) had the advantage of applying the literacy concepts they learned to their two languages. The two languages are in an interdependent relationship—improving skills in one language helps improve skills in the other.

Bilingualism is an asset for immigrant children, and parents should be encouraged to speak their native language with their children. If parents do not speak the native language at home, children will most likely never learn it. What happens when children never learn (or lose) their native languages? In a study of Korean American college students, Cho & Krashen (1998) report that loss of Korean significantly interfered with the students’ ability to communicate with their parents. All of the subjects either were born in the U.S. or came to the U.S. before they started school and reported that they spoke Korean fluently before entering elementary school. However, all of them became more comfortable in English once they started school and used English with their siblings and friends. The following excerpts from Cho & Krashen (1998: 33-36) poignantly capture the participants’ sense of frustration in communicating with their parents:

My parents and I do have a communication gap, a communication problem. Not in just a sophisticated way. I can’t even hold a normal conversation with my parents. I just say my thoughts once and I repeat it constantly until they understand. . . .

I see barriers between my mom and my sister. I can explain what I want... like when my sister wants something, if she says it directly to my mom, my mom just doesn’t get it, and they get frustrated with each other and they are like fighting, tension.... I can just say “Mom, this is what she meant” and my mom says, “Oh, why doesn’t she say so ... okay ... go to the movie.” . . .

It is frustrating when I’m speaking with my parents and we can’t fully comprehend what we’re trying to say to each other. I hate it when I eat dinner with my parents and they always carry on their own conversation that I can only half understand.... I hate having something to say but not being able to say it.

As these excerpts show, significant costs are incurred when parents and children cannot communicate with one another due to a language barrier. Telling parents who are not proficient in English to speak in English to their children is like taking away their parental rights and responsibilities. More than teachers, parents need to teach values to their children—they need to show children why it is important to work hard, respect others, and be honest. They need to talk to their children about setting personal goals and persevering when things get difficult. Because parents need to do this in the language they command, they must be encouraged to speak their native languages to their children. Children’s development in the home language helps ensure strong parent-child communication and improve family relationships, which also benefits the larger society.

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