There appear to be at least two schools of thought about which language English learners (ELs) should be speaking at home. While some encourage parents of ELs to speak English with their children, Judie Haynes makes a convincing argument for parents speaking their first language at home, even while their children are learning English at school.
Haynes tells the story of Isabel, whose family is from Costa Rica. Isabel’s teacher asked Isabel’s parents to speak English with their daughter at home. Her parents, who are literate in Spanish but speak little English, tried to comply with the teacher’s request by speaking only English at the dinner table. They gave up after a week of stilted and mostly meaningless conversations. This left Isabel feeling ashamed of her first language and wishing her parents spoke English.
Disagreeing with this approach, Haynes suggests that parents of ELs speak their first language with their children to help the children gain literacy in that language. She argues that the more literate children become in their first language, the more tools they’ll have to learn English. “Once students grasp the underlying literacy skills of one language, they can use these same skills to learn another language” she says.
For example, younger children learn that letters represent sounds, that printed words have meaning, and that words can be combined into sentences and paragraphs as they become literate in their native language. Older ELLs who are literate in their first language have already learned the underlying process of reading, scanning, selecting important information, predicting what comes next, and visualizing to increase comprehension. They can transfer those skills directly to learning English.
Haynes’s ideas make a lot of sense to me. When I learned a second language during my secondary school years, I constantly used my knowledge of English language and grammar to make sense of the new language. And even if literacy in their first language didn’t provide children with English-learning tools, I believe that developing literacy in two languages is still a great advantage.