As a teacher in a transitional-bilingual preschool classroom, one of the biggest struggles I come across is the desire from some parents for their children to learn English. Yes, I agree, learning English is important, but keeping and maintaining their home language is even more important. Prechool students are especially ready to learn so much language. Young children are like sponges and take in a lot of information from their environment and process it to learn new things.
During home visits with parents, I always ask what their goals are for their children for the upcoming school year. Most parents talk about colors, shapes, learning how to socialize with peers, even learning to speak, but I sometimes get, “please teach my children English first.”
My response is always, “they will learn English in time,” and then I always stress the importance of speaking their native language at home. In my years of teaching, I’ve encountered former students who have forgotten their native tongue and do not speak Spanish anymore. That makes me terribly sad. It’s as if English (and the power of English) has taken over and their home language has been tossed away, especially in the teenage years.
Parents, educators, and administrators need to be reminded that students who are stronger in their native language will have an easier time learning a new language. It is far better for students learning language to have strong language role models than language role models who are not secure in grammar and vocabulary. Maintaining the home language allows students to communicate with their parents during the difficult adolescent years. In cases where the student has developmental or language needs, maintaining the home language is even more important.
Maintaining the home language also is important for young children with disabilities. Some doctors, educators, child care providers, and administrators recommend speaking to young children with disabilities only in English. This makes me sad. That’s like saying, here, let’s alienate these kids by distancing them from their culture, heritage, and language. Just because a child has a disability, it does not mean he can’t learn his home language and learn to speak English as well.
As a bilingual teacher, yes, I do want my students to be bilingual. I want them to benefit from bilingualism the way I have and for them to have the many opportunities and richness in life that comes with being bilingual. Yes, we are in a country where English is the language of power, but that does not have to come at the expense of their culture or language.
As a parent of bilingual children, I too I must admit that maintaining a native language with your children at home is not easy, but it may be one of the greatest gifts one can offer as a parent.