This article provides some background information about dual language learners (DLLs) in early childhood classrooms in the United States.
In the United States, approximately 23% of children aged three to four years are dual language learners (DLLs). A more precise picture emerges when we look at the numbers at the state level where the percentages vary from 2% in West Virginia to 45% in California. On a local level, the variation is even greater (NIEER, 2015). Chances are, wherever you are, there are dual language learners. This document does not suggest specific policies, but, along with DLLs and Math in Pre-K, it does address some frequently asked questions about dual language learners.
The term dual language learners commonly refers to young children who are learning more than one language. Head Start more specifically defines DLLs as “children learning two or more languages at the same time, as well as those learning a second language while continuing to develop their first (or home) language.” This definition encompasses more than you may think. A DLL may be the child of an immigrant and a native-born parent, or two immigrant parents. A DLL may be the child of one or two native-born parents in the United States who have retained their home language (other than English) and want to continue that tradition with their own children. Parents of DLLs may speak no English, some English, conversational English only, or be completely proficient in English. In many countries, bilingualism is the norm. According to some estimates, as much as 66% of humans on the earth are bilingual (and many of these are multilingual). While there isn’t a strict dividing line between DLLs and English-language learners (ELLs), DLLs are generally younger and thus acquiring the foundations of both languages at the same time, while ELLs have gained proficiency in their home language and are now acquiring a second language.
We know that in all populations, poverty and parental income can affect a child's readiness for school and later academic achievement. This is no less true for DLL families. However, the good news is that DLLs may experience cognitive benefits because of their ability to speak two languages. Because the brain relies on executive functions such as attention and inhibition to juggle two languages (attending to the language that is being spoken, and then inhibiting a response in the non-corresponding language), DLLs tend to do better on inhibition tasks (e.g., looking at a color word in a same or differently colored font, and then naming the color of the font) than monolinguals. DLLs also tend to do better at switching between two tasks than monolinguals, such as sorting shapes first by color and then by size. These cognitive skills are important for success in school. DLLs also generally learn third languages faster than monolinguals learn second languages. Finally, bilingualism that continues into adulthood may result in improved memory and executive control, and perhaps best of all, stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s for several years. These are all terrific reasons for supporting bi- and multilingualism.
Marian, V. & Shook, A. (2012). The cognitive benefits of being bilingual. New York, NY: The Dana Foundation
National Institute for Early Education Research, (2015). State of Preschool Yearbook 2015. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey