How proficient is proficient enough?

The Des Moines Register had an article yesterday about a high school senior who refused to take the English language fluency test required for students who learned English as a second language. Her argument was that she was fluent in English and that this was evidenced by the fact that she has nearly a straight A average in courses that are taught exclusively in English. Her parents are immigrants from Laos but she was born in the U.S. While she learned Lao at home, she has likely been exposed to English her entire school career.

So, how long do you need, and when can yearly proficiency testing stop?

One of the problems I see with asking about a child’s home or primary language is that the assumption sometimes is that it’s also the better language. This is likely to be true when the child is just entering school. But, children can and do learn to be fluent in a second language. Most children likely become dominant in the second language when the second language is the majority language.

Evidence of this is in work done by de Houwer which I discussed previously. In fact, this work demonstrates not that the second, majority language is in danger (as some folks believe) but that the home language is likely to be lost. So, even if the first or primary language is another language, the majority language (in this example, English) will most likely take over.

Other evidence has also been discussed here in 2 languages 2 worlds. After just a few years of schooling U.S. ELL children’s dominance shifts from the home language to English. The shift depends to an extent on whether expressive or receptive language is being measured. This typically occurs by about 10-12 years of age. This shift is certainly before senior year.

The other issue is proficiency. Must one language be dominant? Or can one be proficient in both? It’s likely that the answer to this is that  it depends. Usually you become proficient in a language depending on amount and type of exposure. If the demand is for reading in both languages then one needs to learn to read in both. If the demand is for conversation in one, but reading in the other then one can learn enough to meet those demands.

Demands do change over time and while I don’t believe that a one-time test tells you enough, there comes a time when that test does not tell you anything. Here, I’m thinking of development of oral proficiency in kindergarten vs. 2nd grade. The linguistic demands of these two grade levels are different. A child who has enough proficiency to meet kindergarten demands may not have enough proficiency to meet 2nd grade demands. This is why yearly testing is needed in the early grades. After a child is demonstrating that they can do well however it may become less necessary or even pointless to test. That seems to be what happened here.

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  1. Speech Sound Development in Bilinguals: It Depends… « 2 Languages 2 Worlds

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