Tuesday, September 04, 2007

update: Guatemalan adoptees learning English

Last month's post about my friend Katie who will be tutoring three children from Guatemala who will be adopted by a U.S. family generated lots of response, both in the comments section of the blog and also to my "Baby Bilingual" email account. I'd like to thank everyone who wrote in to offer suggestions and cautions--it's important for me, Katie, and Kirsten (the children's mom) to see as many different sides to this issue as possible (the issue being how to best teach them English while not losing their Spanish). Click here to read the original post and comments.

I had promised an update, but there's not much to report yet, as Kirsten and the children have just now returned to the U.S. Katie will be meeting them this week (informally, not for an English lesson yet) to assess how much English they already know so she can figure out where to start. (She's started to accumulate some materials, like a good picture dictionary for English Language Learners, although the ESL Symtalk book she wanted to use is out of print and she can't find a copy, and she's also contacted some ESL elementary school teachers for suggestions.) Much of the advice my readers have shared will be more applicable to Kirsten as she begins homeschooling the children with her other kids (Katie will see them only once a week for ESL lessons).

Hopefully the fact that Kirsten and some of the other kids in the family have studied Spanish (the oldest daughter even spent three months living at the orphanage in Guatemala with her new siblings) will mean that they still have opportunities to interact in Spanish at home. (In fact, they should probably establish a consistent routine, like using Spanish at every, say, lunch, and whenever they're in a certain room or sitting on a certain piece of furniture (like a couch covered with pillows from Guatemala), and whenever they're talking after watching a movie/video/program in Spanish. And I (and many of my blog readers) think that Kirsten, when doing homeschooling lessons with the kids, should draw upon her knowledge of Spanish to help them understand the connections between the languages and figure out how best to present the material. But for the private tutoring, when Katie has such limited time with them, I'm still inclined to say that she should immerse them in English and not give them a reason to think they can speak Spanish to her.

The readers who wrote to me off-blog all encouraged Kirsten to help her new kids maintain their Spanish, emphasizing the importance of keeping them connected to their original culture and language. Emily, who adopted two children from Guatemala, says that "use of the native language can become a bridge to learning English …. There's increasing amounts of recent research on the benefits of building on the first language to access the new language…. They could quickly lose their Spanish in an English-only environment. (There are some few and far between studies on language loss and acquisition in adopted children too). Emotions and language can be pretty tied up - I think the continued use of their first language while acquiring English could smooth the transition….Memories and emotions are connected to our use of language - personally, I feel it would be hard to lose that in the midst of such big changes, wonderful though the changes may be."

One reader recommends the book The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents by Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley (originally published in 1986; updated in 2003) for suggestions on how families can maintain two languages.

Emily also recommends the following articles: "National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth;" articles (and books) by Fred Genesee; and a Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper article called "Dual language learning benefits students" which "highlights Illinois research about the gains made by students in dual-language programs. This seems to be one of the few educational programs that has strong research to support it - we've been having to look closely at work at the research on English Immersion, Sheltered English, Transitional bilingual, etc. as we revise our state ELL regulations. There was also a report by the National Governor's Association last year citing research support for dual language learning and also for the positive influence of native language use in English acquisition programs."

Additionally, Emily relies on the OELA (Office of English Language Acquisition) daily newsletter which shares relevant articles; their website also offers searchable archives of past newsletters. It is published through the National Center for English Language Acquisition (NCELA), part of the U.S. Department of Education. (Here is their mission statement from their website: "OELA provides national leadership in promoting high quality education for the nation's population of English language learners [ELLs].... OELA's mission is to include various elements of school reform in programs designed to assist the language minority agenda. These include an emphasis on high academic standards, school accountability, professional development, family literacy, early reading, and partnerships between parents and the communities.") Emily also recommends browsing the Center for Applied Linguistics website and works by Deborah Short and Diane August.

Thanks again to everyone who wrote to share their thoughts on helping Kirsten's family with their linguistic transition! Please let us know if you have other resources to recommend or other approaches to try (or a different perspective on maintaining the children's Spanish). For those families with adopted children, can you tell us about how you're keeping them bilingual--or how you tried and it didn't work?

Stay tuned for another update when Katie starts doing ESL lessons with the three kids.

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