Perspectives on Bilingual Education with Kenji Hakuta
By Rinna Sanchez-Baluyut, Teacher
Children at Bing come from culturally diverse backgrounds, and increas-ingly they speak a language other than English in their homes. On October 9, 2000, Bing teachers had the opportunity to reflect on their role as educators in a culturally diverse setting and on their support for children learning English as a second language.
Dr. Kenji Hakuta, the guest speaker, has been a professor of education at Stanford University since 1989 and currently teaches courses in language development, bilingual education, and research methods. He has studied bilingualism, language shift, and English acquisition among immigrant students. He has also written or edited several books, including In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second Language Acquisition (with E. Bialystok, 1994) and Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism (1986).
Bilingual education in California took hold in 1968 when the Bilingual Edu-cation Act provided federal funding for local school districts to use native-language instruction as well as English instruction. In 1974 the Equal Educa-tional Opportunity Act further provided equal access to education for children whose first language was not English.
Children become bilingual usually through simultaneous acquisition (learning two languages at the same time) or through successive acquisition (learning one language and then another). Children under the age of three who are exposed to two languages usually learn by simultaneous acquisition. Children who are exposed to the second language at an older age usually learn by successive acquisition. The amount of exposure and support the child receives influences the rate of acquisition.
Parents are often concerned that children learning two or more languages at the same time will confuse them and fail to learn any of them well. Bilingual children who combine two languages when communicating are usually offered as evidence for this belief. However, according to Dr. Hakuta, research shows that as children mix two languages, they are using words from one language to support and emphasize the other. Far from being confused, they are taking advantage of the richness of both languages.
Children learning more than one language reap benefits. They gain in cognitive flexibility because they can understand and analyze concepts using more than one language system. They may begin to talk a little later than their monolingual peers, but then they show a better understanding of the way language works—for instance, by separating words from their meanings. In addition, bilingual children demonstrate language proficiency and metalinguistic ability as they translate words for family members, friends, and others.
Bilingual preschoolers may also learn to read more quickly than their monolingual peers because reading involves the same skills as speaking two languages. Under-standing that two sounds from two languages are symbols for the same object allows bilingual children to understand that a printed word represents a symbol as well.
Dr. Hakuta warns that children often lose the language of their native culture if no attempt is made to keep it up. And yet maintaining both languages not only allows children to participate fully in an English-dominant society but also encourages children to continue forming strong linguistic ties. Further, the abilities of bilingual children to express themselves in different cultures and with a wide variety of people can widen their perspectives and their opportunities.
Dr. Hakuta’s talk reinforced the need for Bing’s teachers to understand second-language acquisition and to adjust their instructional styles to promote and maintain children’s native language and otherwise meet the needs of bilingual students.