Learning English differently

Young dual language learners with language impairments always amaze me. I love to observe how they negotiate communicative needs, ideas, and understanding of the world with the mind tools they possess. Some of them have maintained their home language; others let it behind. Some have a strong desire to use and live in English while others appear to drift between their home language and English. You can never tell.

I find this variability, these differences, fascinating. What do these children pay attention to when they are learning English? What do they do to learn new words and new ideas? What do they do to make friends, in their emerging English, for example?

This week, I observed a young 3rd grader from a Spanish-speaking family. In the school system, he is considered an English language learner at the Beginning stage of English Language Development. His parents shared that he understands Spanish but he rarely, perhaps never, uses or used Spanish. He may ask for “agua” or “pollo”, but that’s it! Mamá and Papá speak to him in Spanish, he responds in English, and life goes on. The child is also a child with a language learning disability. How does he manage to learn at school, to have fun, to be another kid in the playground?

I was lucky to observe a fascinating interaction the child had with a graduate student I was supervising. My student “read” him a frog story and after the retelling and other comprehension questions, he asked the child what part of the story was the most unbelievable. He was attempting to assess the child’s comprehension skills. My student also asked “Do you know what unbelievable means?”
And this is what the child said: “Yes, awesome!” As my student started to say “No, that is not the right meaning”, the child provided an alternative: “Excellent!” The child, of course, did not explain frogs cannot be pets or frogs do not wave their little “hand” to children. But, of course, unbelievable is many times awesome and excellent!

What do we do with this type of observations as clinicians? What is the child showing us? He has definitely (at least partly) acquired the word “unbelievable”, he also knows that there are synonyms in the language. How is this little interaction aligned with the Beginning stage of English Language Development? He did not appear to use his home language to learn the word “unbelievable”. Perhaps more importantly, how can we acknowledge his insights and guide him forward?

Have you ever asked yourself these questions before?

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  1. #1 by Cate Crowley on April 18, 2014 - 5:15 pm

    Thanks, Gabriela for this post. Too often we look at deficits and not strengths–what does the child do that shows skills and abilities. Similarly when a child regularizes irregular past tense, e.g., “bringed” instead of “brought”, it shows so much about his learning of the pattens and rules of the language. I remember doing the Horton-Weismer fast word mapping task with a 4 year old bilingual boy who could not remember the new word “tode.” After a moment, his eyes brightened as he remembered and said a vegetable that was probably about as foreign and rare to him as the “tode”—“SPINACH!!!”

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