Category Archives: Second Language Acquisition

A few (language and literacy) thoughts


  • I feel that my background in early childhood education holds me in good stead when it comes to the subtleties of first and second language acquisition. What comes naturally when we support children in their primary languages does not come as naturally when we are working with older learners. There are clear developmental differences but communication almost always is the goal. Instrumental motivation is commonly accompanied by integrative motivation(Baker, 2001, p.123). The useful purpose (instrumental) someone wants to learn a language for often relates to identifying with or joining another language group (integrative) and communicating with people from a distinct linguistic background. ‘Discourse analysis has shown that a second language learner and a native speaker work together to produce purposeful and efficient communication” (Baker, p.118).
  • This ties back to caregiver speech (or ‘motherese’). The caregiver and the infant do not speak the same language at first but they communicate in a mix of verbal and visual cues. They negotiate meaningful input and language development comes about as a ‘process of implicit rule formation, rather than explicit habit formation’ (Baker, p. 119). I remember when I was working in a preschool setting and first heard “I runned to the shop” (or equivalent). I don’t remember if I responded at the time, but if I did I doubt I would have said, “no it’s ran, you ran to the shop” (instinct would hopefully have had me say the second part without the initial negative correction). I now know more about language development and I know that the child was making a hypothesis that actually shows positive cognitive development. What is key is that the child is telling a story and if we interrupt that story to explicitly correct, the train of thought is lost, and the child may shut down.


  • A number of years ago I took part in a collaborative study to see whether we should make a foreign language part of the regular day, at the private school I worked at in Brooklyn. I was already the before and after school French and Spanish teacher, and my passion for languages would have swerved me slightly in the pro camp. After a period of months, of meetings, and readings, we decided that there was already a lot on in the day, including specialist science and music, and decided not to bring a foreign language into the regular school day. There was no clear evidence to show that the children at this privileged school would be better prepared to formally tackle a foreign language in fifth or sixth, if they had taken the language a couple of times a week from kindergarten on. The only ‘real’ benefit seemed to be in terms of accent. I found this process to be of great interest as the articles we read challenged the concept that young children pick up languages so easily and it’s harder the older you get. It is of course much more complex than that. While there are many factors in play, Hakuta (in Baker, p.98) states that the evidence for critical period is scanty and that there are no qualitative differences between child and adult learners.
  •  Something I hadn’t explicitly thought about before is the use of English for science and math (Baker, p.210, point 3). I have always believed that math should be in the home language as the skills are transferable (Baker, p.210, point 4). SFUSD has a math curriculum in Spanish but when I was supervising two student teachers both in second grades, one class used the Spanish language version and the other class used the English version. I had never questioned the use of English for science as I felt it was a given as all schools I’ve visited have had science in English, but now I do. This ties straight into a presentation I saw at CIES 2017 regarding the limits of using Western theorists in the African context, especially when there are African theorists to use, such as Nyerere. Birgit Brock-Utne discussed the use of English as people move through academia, including in Norwegian universities. She recalled a discussion she had with a man in Tanzania who moved into English from Kiswahili when a particular topic came up. She asked him whether the language existed in Kiswahili to talk about that topic, and he said it didn’t. Brock-Utne then said to us that language only grows by using it. A couple of hours later, in a different context, a man from Namibia said he was back in his village, he works in the US, and went to speak to the children at the local school. He works in multimedia and information technology and he found the words for that don’t exist in his mother tongue. We have critical mass with Spanish but even so it is hard enough to get a wide range of quality resources in language arts and social studies.
  • On the way to the airport the other day I spoke to a taxi driver from Tajikistan. I don’t think I’ve met anyone from there before and I didn’t know they speak Farsi, as well as Russian (looking it up now I see that Tajik is a version of Farsi). He has two young children and so I asked the driver what language they speak at home, as I often do. They speak Farsi. The phrase that crossed my mind was that “unless you speak fluent English it’s better to speak your home tongue”. This was quickly replaced by the fact that it’s important for children to learn the language of their heart, and that even if the parents do speak fluent English they should still speak the language of their heart at home. It goes beyond being able to speak to the elders; it goes straight to core preservation value. Children quickly learn what language has power, prestige and preference (Baker, p.92), but they also learn the language of the heart and family. Early on children have the ability to use the appropriate language within appropriate contexts (Baker, p.91). The role children play as language brokers has many positive outcomes (Baker, p. 105). Language brokering can often be a lifeline, but there are certain ethical dilemmas when it comes to interpreting sensitive information, such as medical or educational information. Ideally, trained community interpreters can fill the role but in their absence children may need to step in.
  • Language brokering in less sensitive areas, such as when shopping, or banking, highlight student skills in areas a classroom teacher might not be aware of (Jiménez & Orellana, 2006). The suggestion of using journals to access this information is a strong pedagogical tool that opens a window, not only into occasions of language brokering but also emotions surrounding these. Harnessing these skills for academic growth taps into funds of knowledge the student may not know they possess. It may also strengthen positive ideologies surrounding home languages, if these languages are not high status. Children learn early on (Baker, p.106) one language never fully parallels another. Language brokering is not so much about interpreting word for word, but it is also about finding equivalencies. These equivalencies might not always exist, the words comadre or compañera for example come to mind, but the importance is finding the spirit in the sentiment.



 Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed). Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Jiménez, R., & Orellana, M. (2006). Flipping the Educational Script: Teachers as Learners. California English.



Tend the linguistic garden


Colin Baker (Baker, 2001, p.53) comments that language diversity requires planning and care. He uses an analogy of a garden to illustrate his point. Smaller flowers may be in need of more protection, and sometimes radical action needs to be taken to preserve particular plants. Baker comments earlier on that language shift is more common than language stability. This intuitively makes sense but it complicates the preservation of languages that are not viewed as high status and/or are spoken by a small group of people. The Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights (1996) is a beautiful document to read but it is difficult not to view it as a utopia for language communities. It is a critical document to have, imagining other worlds is a powerful liberatory tool, and it is comprehensive, bringing in invasion and colonization and other references to uses and abuses of power. Linguistic diversity is promoted throughout this document as a peace builder, as a key factor for harmonious social relations, and a political framework based upon respect and mutual benefit.

Baker points out that language rights can sometimes be more idealistic than realistic (p.370). He describes the distinction between tolerance-oriented rights and promotion-oriented rights. A tolerance orientation is often legalistic in form, and one of its aims is to protect against discrimination in different settings, schools being one of the most highly charged. A promotion orientation implies the active inclusion of all language communities in question, going beyond the letter of the law. This can be costly to implement and oftentimes impractical. Home language instruction ideally would be offered to all students in the US but it is impossible to provide for all communities. Speakers of Spanish are best served as they make up a large group of non-English speakers in many parts of the country. Speakers of Somali may be served in the Minneapolis area but less so outside of this region.

The territorial principle may also be in play when it comes to tolerance and/or promotion of linguistic rights. In Article One of the UNLR a language community is considered any human society that has developed a common language as a natural means of communication, whether or not there are historical ties to the territory they find themselves in. This accounts for immigrant and refugee communities, among others. Baker reminds us (p.43) that the politics and power situation in which minority languages are situated is important. Beyond hierarchies of language, the power differential between people who believe they belong in this country (and Australia and the UK)-based on being a native speaker of English is vast. Around two thirds of the world’s population is bilingual and multilingual and this number is growing. The UNLR was likely written by people who speak multiple languages, and a challenge to the primacy of English did not have a place in this document (it can be read in the lines however). English is a global and imperial language and monolingual English speakers often feel entitled to the territory that comes with it.

Power and ideology determines whose language is taught, which language practices are valued and which are minoritized (García, 2014, p.89). Hegemonic educational practices in many Anglophone countries draw on the cultural capital of the white, middle-class, English-speaking student. The acquisition of ‘foreign’ languages is seen to be beneficial morally, socially and globally for the white, middle-class student, while the language communities that speak these languages as home tongues are seen as deficient (Baker p.347). Ofelia Garcia (p. 91) states that the most important aspect of language education is having teachers who are educated to respect the multilingual ecology of their classroom and to develop the bilingualism of their students. This happens too seldom in teacher education programs and in ongoing professional development for classroom teachers. Language education pedagogies are products of their time, and often reflect retrograde notions. Until a year or so ago, I carried with me a visual of the purgatory of ‘semilingualism’: people who don’t have academic home language or English. Leaving aside the problematic of the definition of ‘academic’, it was only when reading a recent article (Flores, Kleyn, & Menken, 2015) that I saw how erroneous that visual is. Garcia challenges monoglossic ideologies, in particular the concept that there are fixed first and second languages. She proposes instead the concept of languaging that is complex and interrelated, and does not emerge in a linear fashion. Garcia writes that continuing to talk about L1 and L2 keeps power in the hands of monolinguals that speak the dominant language of the society in which they live at birth and who can acquire a “second” language independently. This “native” speaker is seen as White, monolingual and loyal to their nation, whereas Brown and Black bilingual speakers are marked as ‘foreign’.

Language diversity, language rights, the territorial principle and power and ideology lead us in a circle that is ever expanding. Without intentional and critical reflection on bilingualism and its relation to power and privilege we may subsume language diversity and language rights beneath a neoliberal mantle. We need to crack that mantle and creatively plan for the maintenance and promotion of the rights of all language communities, wherever they reside. It is a complex and messy business, as with so much work in education, but if we don’t ask the questions we remain in purgatory.



Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed). Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Flores, N., Kleyn, T., & Menken, K. (2015). Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14(2), 113–132.

García, O. (2014). Chapter Six: Multilingualism and Language Education. In C. Leung & B. V. Street (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to English Studies (pp. 84–99). London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

UNESCO. (1996). Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. UNESCO. Retrieved from



Toku reo toku ohōho*

*Māori for “My Language, my awakening”

It is increasingly apparent that in the US formal school settings do not adequately support the learning of students whose home languages are other than standard English. Discrimination on linguistic grounds is still permissible, and even promoted, while other forms of discrimination are legally curtailed. Policy matters relating to the education of children who do not speak English as a mother tongue enter the realm of public discourse, with educators often drowned out by bigoted monolingual English speakers, and others who do not value multilingualism. James Crawford (2000), an outspoken advocate of bilingual education, states,

“In a small way when government offers bilingual assistance, it elevates the status of language minorities. It suggests that immigrants and Native peoples need not abandon their heritage to be considered American-or at least to be given    access to democratic institutions. In short, it alters structures of power, class, and ethnicity. The demand for language restrictions, by contrast, is a demand to reinforce the existing social order.”

Echoing these thoughts, Jill Kerper Mora (2000), questions what society hopes to accomplish through language restriction as an official language policy. “At the heart of the matter”, Mora states, “are the core principles of democracy in a culturally and linguistically diverse society”. Mora goes on to ask, “Is the use of other languages really a threat to our national unity, or are not intolerance and coercion a far greater threat to our unity?” The Ethnic Studies Now! campaign has seen over six school districts in California pass legislation to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement. Diversity of experience can only make our lives richer, and questioning hegemony and dominant power structures is essential to combat intolerance and coercion. Language plays a key role in rehumanizing education.

With formal education failing too many language minority students, the more we know about nonformal bilingual education the better we can play to student strengths. There is no doubt that mastery of academic English is of benefit to students, however years of research now unequivocally points to fluency in the home language as key to acquisition and learning of social and academic language in subsequent tongues. Language use can never be taken out of context. The languages and discourses a child grows up with are an integral part of what makes them whole and their use surpasses mere communicative goals. We build bonds with those around us with language, and language colors family life, and ties us to our communities.

Bartlett and Bajaj (2015) outline the importance of understanding and supporting ‘nonformal bilingual education’. The distinction between ‘learning’ a language and ‘acquiring’ a language is not as clear-cut as some would have us believe. Acquisition can be seen as the lesser of the two actions, when it is viewed as a ‘subconscious’ activity, rather than an intentional act. Bartlett and Bajaj affirm that (language) acquisition can be planned (not unconscious) or unplanned. They state, “bilingual speakers pragmatically access and assess their multiple linguistic and cultural resources as they participate in plural social networks”. Drawing on qualitative interviews with US students classified as LTELLs (long term English language learner), Flores, Kleyn and Menken (2015) recognize that students classified as English Language Learners “utilize a vast and flexible linguistic repertoire that allows them to negotiate many different cultural spaces and create fluid identities”. But “because of the epistemic racism of idealized monolingualism, the fluid bilingual use of language reported by students in this study does not translate into academic success”.

I was having a hard time pulling this post together but today when I flew into South Africa I thought about the term bilingual, and how it should not necessarily imply proficiency in the second (third, and so on) tongue. On the plane I watched a documentary that discussed art in Ghana. A singer who was interviewed commented that she sang in a language that wasn’t as popular as another language (I can’t remember the specifics). I’m pretty sure she mixed about three languages into her songs, in any case. There are formal uses of the term bilingual, such as in a work situation, but I would not hesitate to call many of the children at Joe Slovo (the children I work with here in South Africa) bilingual. As I write this Ofelia Garcia’s introduction of the term ‘emergent bilingual’ makes more and more sense. The further away we can get from terms that reinforce a deficit view of children (such as English learner) the greater the chance of potentially changing mindsets in the classroom and altering policy that pushes students into a corner, with limited means to escape. It’s exciting to the see the work that is being done in this field, but change never happens overnight, especially when addressing such a politically charged issue that threatens English dominance and hegemonic posturing.


Crawford, J. (2000). At war with diversity: US language policy in an age of anxiety. Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Flores, N., Kleyn, T., & Menken, K. (2015). Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14(2), 113–132.

Lesley Bartlett, & Bajaj, M. (2015). Chapter 25: Nonformal Bilingual Education. In W. E. Wright, S. Boun, & O. García (Eds.), The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education (pp. 428–446). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Mora, J. K. (2000). Proposition 227: Two Years Later. Retrieved from