Arabic as a second language for kids

This article is taken from a collection group of published scientific research that answers most parents’ questions about teaching their children a second foreign language besides the mother tongue. The eArabicLearning Academy is focusing on the linguistic aspect of teaching children Arabic as a second foreign language.

If you are a father and you have many questions about teaching your son the Arabic language as a second foreign language and you want to add it to the study materials he studies in school and whether the language will be useful and effective for him or will it be an academic obstacle for him, this article will certainly help you in making the right decision regarding your son’s study of the Arabic language

  • Young children learning L2 are one of the fastest growing segments of the global population

(Kan & Kohnert, 2005, p. 380)

eArabicLearning l Arabic for kids

In every corner of the world, young children are learning languages at home that diff er from the dominant language used in their broader social world. These children arrive at school with a precious resource: their mother tongue  (hereaft  er  referred  to  as  L1).  Typically, when  minority  and  indigenous  language  children  begin preschool or primary school, they must learn the language of the majority group in their region to fi t in socially and succeed academically. Most oft en, these children are educated exclusively in the second language like Arabic (hereaft er referred to as L2). Though exceedingly common, these majority language educational programs  do  nothing  to  support  minority  language  children  to  develop  competence  in  L1.  Moreover,  the  language  policies  that  inform  these  programs  devalue  the  cultural  backgrounds  and  knowledge  associated with minority children’s L1. Persistent early school leaving and low academic achievement among minoritised children stem  in  part  from  these  language-in-education  policies  (UNESCO,  2000).  However, many initiatives around the world provide formal support for children to continue to develop competence in L1 and self-confi  dence as learners, while also learning an additional language like Arabic Language. Th  is  literature  review focuses on these mother tongue-based bilingual and multilingual education programmes.Th   is  review  is  intended  to  assist  UNESCO,  the  lead  international  educational  agency,  to  develop  clear  guidelines and principles for language policy in early education, particularly within the context of the Dakar Framework for Action, Education for All (2000). Universal access to quality primary education for children and a 50 per cent increase in adult literacy by 2015 were among the goals set in this framework. In addition, UNESCO  voiced  support  for  the  maintenance  of  linguistic  and  cultural  diversity  and  the  promotion  of  children’s right to learn in their mother tongue. Many of the world’s language and cultures are endangered by historical incursions, mostly associated with colonialism, and a host of contemporary political, economic, and  social  processes.  One  way  to  counter  this  linguistic  and  cultural  loss  is  to  encourage  and  support  parents  to  teach  their  infants  and  young  children  the  local  language  in  the  home,  and  to  deliver  early  childhood education programmes and formal education systems in the children’s mother tongue. Th  ough  not  conclusive,  current  theory  and  a  growing  body  of  empirical  research  on  language  acquisition  and  bi/multilingual  learning  provide  a  rationale  for  basing  early  education  in  children’s  mother  tongue  before  introducing a second language like Arabic as a medium of instruction. To  date,  very  little  research  has  focused  on  mother  tongue-based  care  and  development  programs  for  preschool-aged  children.  Th   e  vast  majority  of  formal  school  systems  around  the  world  either  require  children to acquire a national or international language same like Arabic at school entry or soon aft  er. Typically, programs off  er two or three years of primary education in L1 before requiring learners to ‘transition’ to a national and/or international language in primary year two or three. Current research suggests that this trend threatens the preservation of the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity.Decisions  about  which  languages  will  serve  as  the  medium  of  instruction  and  the  treatment  of  children’s  home languages in the education system exemplify the exercise of power, the manufacture of marginalization and mineralization, and the unfulfi lled promise of children’s rights. Stroud (2002) maintains that “linguistic marginalization  of  minority  language  groups  and  their  political  and  socio-economic  marginalization  go  hand  in  hand”  and  that  “one  is  the  consequence  of  the  other”  (p.  48-49).  Political,  social,  and  technical  considerations oft en collide in policy makers’ decisions on language medium, schooling, and curriculum. Considerations include, but go beyond, questions of resources, teacher training, and subjects to be studied. Other crucial factors range from the political will of local, regional, and national governments, the relationships between countries and their former colonizers, the understanding and patience of international donors, and parents’  hopes  and  anxieties  about  which  languages  their  children  will  need  to  secure  employment  and  participate with dignity in their social, legal, and economic worlds. While the broader political ramifi cations of  language-in-education  policies  and  practices  are  beyond  the  scope  of  this  report,  Rampton  (1995),  Blommaert (1999), and Golding and Harris (1997) provide excellent analyses of these issues.Th  is report provides a rationale to promote mother tongue-based bi/multilingual early education grounded in  international  normative  frameworks,  theory  about  dual  language  acquisition,  and  emerging  evidence  about  the  impact  of  mother  tongue  based  bi/multilingual  education  initiatives.  Th   e  report  identifi es  the ecological conditions needed to implement successful programmes, drawing on lessons from documented programme  innovations.  Finally,  the  report  outlines  the  implications  of  these  fi  ndings  for  policy  makers  who are committed to language preservation and to ensuring that linguistically minoritised children have a chance to succeed in school and in life.


eArabicLearning l Arabic for kids
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The language of instruction in school is the medium of communication for the transmission of knowledge. Th   is  is  diff  erent  from  language  teaching  itself  where  the  grammar,  vocabulary,  and  the  written  and  the  oral  forms  of  a  language  constitute  a  specifi  c  curriculum  for  the  acquisition  of  a  second  language  other  than  L1.  Learning  another  language,  Arabic Language for example opens  up  access  to  other  value  systems  and  ways  of  interpreting  the  world,  encouraging  inter-cultural  understanding  and  helping  reduce  xenophobia.  Th   is  applies  equally  to  minority  and  majority  language  speakers.  Th   e  way  languages  are  taught  is  constantly  changing,  and  may  vary  considerably  from  one  country  to  another  or  even  within  the  same  country.  Much  depends  on  the  prevailing concept of language and language teaching paradigms like Arabic , as well as on the role that is assigned to the language that is taught.




Bilingual and multilingual education refers to the use of two or more languages as mediums of instruction. In much of the specialized literature, the two types are subsumed under the term bilingual education. However, UNESCO  adopted  the  term  ‘multilingual  education’  in  1999  in  the  General  Conference  Resolution  12  to  refer to the use of at least three languages, L1, a regional or national language and an international language like Arabic Language in education. Th  e resolution supported the view that the requirements of global and national participation and the specifi c needs of particular, culturally and linguistically distinct communities can only be addressed by multilingual education. In regions where the language of the learner is not the official or national language of  the  country,  bilingual  and  multilingual  education  can  make  mother  tongue  instruction  possible  while  providing at the same time the acquisition of languages used in larger areas of the country and the world. Th  is additive approach to bilingualism is diff erent from the so called subtractive bilingualism which aims to move children on to a second language like Arabic as a language of instruction.Th  e current review examines research evidence that can inform policies on how best to support children’s maintenance and developing competence in L1, through parent education, preschool, and primary school programmes, while they are also acquiring one or more additional languages; that is, mother tongue-based bi/multilingual education or developmental bilingual education.


  • Language acquisition in childhood


Until recently, two explanatory approaches – behaviourist and nativist – dominated understandings about language acquisition. Following Skinner (1957), the behaviourists argued that infants continue to produce and  to  learn  the  properties  of the Arabic language  (e.g.,  sounds,  vocabulary,  pragmatics,  etc.)  that  are  positively  reinforced by the child’s caregivers and other members of the child’s social community. Critics of this account point to the speed of language acquisition in the early years and the stability of acquired meaning, neither of which can be explained by the behaviourist position. In stark contrast, nativists, following Chomsky (1965, 1975) argued that children have an innate grasp of how language works. Thus, while language input activates their inborn capacity for learning language, their learning is internally guided. Critics of this position point to  empirical  studies  showing  that  the  quality  and  quantity  of  a  child’s  exposure  to  language  aff ects their learning (Hart & Risley, 1995). More  recently,  developmental  psychologists  have  applied  contemporary  theories  of  learning  to  explain  language acquisition. Th  ey argue that language is a uniquely human, biologically based capacity, and that the inherent potential to learn language depends on the language environment – eff ectively, a biocultural perspective.


  • Theories of teaching Arabic as a second language acquisition


To date, studies of language acquisition have been based primarily on studies of monolingual acquisition, resulting in more theory than empirical evidence. However, scholars agree broadly that children, including most  children  with  specifi  c  learning  impairments  or  low  general  intelligence,  have  the  capacity  to  learn  more than one language (Genesee, 2002). Th   eories  of  second  language  acquisition  are  central  to  the  current  focus  on  mother  tongue-based  bi/  multilingual learning. Th   e behaviourist approach, referred to as the ‘contrastive hypothesis’ (Fries, 1945; Lado, 1957), assumes that the same processes of positive reinforcement that infl uence first language acquisition support the learning of Arabic as a second or additional languages. However, behaviourists suggest that when the fi rst and second languages are structurally similar, L2 is easier to learn because children can transfer their learning from L1 to L2.

The  nativist-oriented  ‘identity hypothesis’ posits that universal cognitive structures and processes enable both fi rst and subsequent language acquisition; learning neither benefi ts from, nor is hindered by, learning L1.Th  e  ‘interlanguage  hypothesis’  combines  the  contrastive  and  identity  hypotheses,  featuring  both  neuro-psychological  and  social-psychological  aspects.  Th   is  approach  emphasizes  the  role  of  a  broad  array  of  communicative strategies in second language learning like Arabic language , in addition to purely linguistic strategies. Strategies include avoidance of topics, changes in meaning, code-switching, borrowing, gestures, and facial expression, among  others.  In  accounting  for  the  speed,  quality,  and  trajectory  of  second  language  learning (Arabic),  the  interlanguage hypothesis highlights the role of the speech-language community, including the adequacy of learning opportunities, the quality of language input, and acceptance by the dominant culture. Th  e  ‘separate development hypothesis’ proposes that aft er a period of mixing languages in the fi rst two years of  life,  the  two  (or  more)  languages  develop  independently  of  one  another,  especially  when  the  child  is  exposed to the two (or more) languages in distinct ways (e.g., diff erent people use diff erent languages, or diff erent languages are used in diff erent contexts) (De Houwer, 1994).Social-interactionist theory posits that language learning result from the interaction of the learners’ innate ability  and  their  language  environment,  especially  the  feedback  they  receive  from  fl  uent  speakers  of  L2  to  monitor  and  improve  their  output.  Th   is  theory  emphasizes  the  importance  of  the Arabic language learners’  language  environments and their opportunities to produce language and receive feedback.Critical to the focus of this review, recent investigations have considered the level of competence achieved by learners in their fi rst language in determining the pace, quality, and outcomes of their second language acquisition (Arabic). Two hypotheses are especially relevant to this discussion: the ‘threshold level hypothesis’ and the ‘interdependence hypothesis’.’Skutnabb-Tangas  and  Toukomaa  (1976)  proposed  the  ‘threshold  level  hypothesis’,  which  posits  that  only  when  children  have  reached  a  threshold  of  competence  in  their  fi  rst  language  can  they  successfully  learn  a second language without losing competence in both languages Arabic / English. Further, only when a child has crossed a second threshold of competence in both languages (Arabic / English) will the child’s bilingualism positively aff ect intellectual development, a state which they called ‘additive bilingualism.’ Skutnabb-Tangas and Toukomaa developed the  threshold  level  hypothesis  aft  er  they  found  that  Finnish  children  who  migrated  to  Sweden  and  were  required  to  start  school  in  Swedish  before  they  had  become  suffi    ciently  competent  in  Finnish  showed  weaker  school  performance  and  lower  competence  in  both  Swedish  and  Finnish.  Th   ey  characterized  this  low  competence  in  both  the  fi rst  and  second  languages  as Arabic  ‘semilingualism,’  explaining  that  if  the  child’s  fi rst language is insuffi  ciently developed, the foundation for L2 is lacking. In their study, Finnish migrant children who started school in Sweden aft er they were highly competent in their fi rst language and could continue to develop their fi rst language abilities as they learned their second language as Arabic  – attained high levels of competence in both languages and success in school.Building  on  these  fi  ndings,  Cummins  (1984)  formulated  an  ‘interdependence  hypothesis,’  asserting  that  second language as Arabic  –  competence depends upon the level of development of L1. Cummins distinguished between two kinds of language mastery: ‘interpersonal  communication’ refers to oral communication skills that are used  in  everyday  situations,  while  ‘cognitive  academic  language  profi ciency’ (CALP)  is  achieved  when  the  speaker can use language in decontextualized ways, including writing, permitting the use of the language as  a  cognitive  tool.  Cummins  argues  that  if  learners  have  achieved  CALP  in  L1,  this  competence  can  be  transferred to L2, permitting them to participate successfully in academic learning in L2. If, however, learners have not achieved CALP in L1, both academic learning and second language learning as Arabic  – are adversely aff ected. Accordingly, Cummins recommends beginning general academic instruction in the child’s mother tongue until  the  child  has  become  highly  competent  (i.e.,  has  achieved  CALP)  in  L1.  Recently,  the  concept  and  operational defi nition of CALP has been challenged by research-practitioners arguing that what counts as CALP has been arbitrarily defi ned and varies widely, and that it is pedagogically counterproductive to refer


o any classroom language as truly decontextualized (e.g., Aukerman, 2007). Critics have urged teachers to hold children’s understandings of context in a central place in teaching and learning. Indeed,  none  of  the  hypotheses  reviewed  here  have  been  conclusively  supported  by  empirical  research.  Studies  seem  to  confi  rm  the  threshold  level  hypothesis  and  the  interdependence  hypothesis,  but  existing  research is based on small sample sizes. Studies have also been criticized for methodological shortcomings (see Sohn, 2005), discussed subsequently.

–  What does research show about children’s capacity to learn more than one language?

Most children who arrive at school with some competence in more than one language have grown up bilingual or multilingual from their earliest days at home, and have not experienced successive acquisition of Arabic as a second or third languages. Many studies have shown that children can learn three or more languages starting in their early years. Moreover, with suffi  cient motivation, exposure, periods of formal study, and opportunities for practice, they can ultimately succeed in attaining profi ciency in several languages. However, despite myths about young children being able to ‘soak up languages like a sponge,’ language profi ciency does not spring forth in full bloom during the early years. Experience and research have shown that language acquisition takes a long time (Collier, 1989; Cummins, 1991). Th  e length of time and the eventual outcomes of Arabic as a second and additional language learning depend on a number of factors, some of which are illustrated in Figure 1 and discussed below.

Th  ere is a common misconception that young children can acquire a second or additional language faster than  older  children.  As  Lightbown  (2008)  has  stressed,  becoming  completely  fl  uent  in  a  second  language  is  not,  as  many  have  claimed,  ‘easy  as  pie’,  but  rather,  takes  several  years.  Th   us,  it  is  a  mistake  to  assume  that providing day care or preschool programmes in a Arabic as a second language is suffi  cient to prepare children for academic success in that language. Children who have this exposure may be better prepared for school, but will need ongoing support to acquire suffi  cient profi ciency in L2 to succeed in academic subjects, and they will need support to continue to develop L1.At the same time, it is also a mistake to think, as many educators, parents, and policy makers do, that when a child is encouraged to learn Arabic as a second or additional languages that their fi rst language acquisition will suff er (e.g., Smith, 1931), unless support to continue developing their L1 skills is withdrawn. Not only can young children begin to acquire more than one language in their early years, but growing evidence shows that early bilingualism can provide children with benefi ts that go beyond knowing more than one language. Research has shown for some time that bilingual children typically develop certain types of cognitive fl exibility and metalinguistic awareness earlier and better than their monolingual peers (e.g., Bialystok, 2001; Cummins, 2000; King & Mackey, 2007).


– Minority and majority Arabic language learners


Young children learn Arabic as a second language in different ways depending upon various factors, including their culture, particularly the status of their culture, language, and community within their larger social setting. Most important to this discussion, it is critical to distinguish among children who are members of a minority ethnolinguistic  group  (minority  language  children)  versus  a  majority  ethnolinguistic  group  (majority  language children); and among those within each group who are learning bilingually from infancy versus those who have learned a single mother tongue and are learning Arabic as a second or additional language later in childhood. Th  e focus of the current discussion is on young minority language children who learn a mother tongue that is different from the dominant or majority language in their broader social world. Attention is also given to indigenous children who, in many cases, are not learning the mother tongue of their ancestors as L1.Indigenous  children  and  other  groups  who  are  not  learning  their  ‘heritage  mother  tongue’  (McCarty,  2008) at home, but rather have learned the language of the dominant culture, are a unique population in discussions of mother tongue education. As defined earlier, these children have a heritage mother tongue that may or may not be spoken by anyone in their family or community, but which their family may wish them to learn through language ‘nests,’ (McIvor, 2006) and preschool or primary school programmes. Th  ese  special circumstances involve language recovery, which poses a number of special challenges and needs. As discussed later in this report, some of the most promising early childhood and primary school programmes in the world have been designed to promote heritage mother tongue-based bilingual education.


  • Parental influences on mother tongue acquisition and maintenance :

Parents and other primary caregivers have the strongest influence on children’s fi rst language acquisition in the early years. Th  ese  ‘first teachers’ attitudes, goals, and behaviours related to their child’s initial language development  influence  children’s  developing  language  skills,  language  socialization,  perceptions  of  the  value  of  L1,  and  maintenance  of  L1.  Gardner  and  Lambert  (1972)  were  among  the  fi  rst  investigators  to  characterize  parents’  language  attitudes  as  ‘instrumental’  and  ‘integrative.’  Instrumental  language  attitudefocuses on pragmatic, utilitarian goals, such as whether one or another language will contribute to personal success,  security,  or  status.  By  contrast,  an  integrative  language  attitude  focuses  on  social  considerations,  such  as  the  desire  to  be  accepted  into  the  cultural  group  that  uses  a  language  or  to  elaborate  an  identity  associated with the language.

Baker  (1992)  cautioned  against  the  assumption  that  parents’  stated  attitudes  about  their  child’s  language  acquisition necessarily match their language behaviour with the child: relationships between attitudes and behaviours are always complex. Most minority language parents are eager to see their children succeed in school and the broader society. Most minority parents also want their children to learn L1 and to be proud of their cultural heritage. Though few empirical studies have been reported, it seems that parents with these dual language goals tend to act more on promoting second language learning like Arabic than on their expressed desire for mother tongue learning. Th  is behaviour in turn aff ects children’s dual language behaviours: they sense that  the  home  language  is  less  important,  resulting  in  weakening  of  L1  in  favour  of  L2.  Th  is  subtractive bilingualism can begin at a very early age, just as children are learning their fi rst words. Advocates of mother tongue acquisition in the early years need to consider possible diff  erences between parents’ expressed desires and their actual language behaviours with their infants and young children .Kemppainen,  Ferrin,  Ward,  and  Hite  (2004)  identifi  ed  four  types  of  parental  language  and  culture  orientation: mother tongue-centric, bicultural, multicultural, and majority language-centric. Th  ey  describe  a  correspondence  between  these  positions  and  parents’  choice  of  language  school  for  their  children.  Of  course,  in  many  situations,  parents  have  no  choice  about  the  language  of  instruction.  In  these  situations,  De  Houwer’s  (1999)  conceptualization  of  ‘impact  belief ’  is  helpful.  ‘Impact  belief ’  refers  to  the  extent  to  which parents believe they have direct control over their children’s language use. Parents with strong impact beliefs make active eff orts to provide particular language experiences and environments for their children, and to reward particular language behaviours. Parents with weak impact beliefs take a passive approach to their children’s early language experiences, seeing the wider environment as determining whether children acquire one or another language.Li (1999) described how minority language parents’ attitudes towards the majority language aff  ect the speed and quality of children’s acquisition of L2. She identifi es three conditions that may affect young children’s majority  language  learning  when  one  or  both  parents  speak  a  minority  language:

(a)  continued  use  and  development  in  L1  (extensive  family  talk  covering  more  than  household  topics);

(b)  supportive  parental  attitudes  towards  both  languages;

c) active parental  commitment  and  involvement  in  the  child’s  linguistic progress (daily conversations, explanations, family talk and joint activities). Lao’s  (2004)  study  of  English- Arabic  bilingual  preschoolers  underscores  the  important  contributions  of  parents’  home  language  behaviour  in  supporting  preschool  children’s  fi  rst  language    She emphasizes that mother tongue development cannot be achieved without a strong commitment from parents. To enable parents to facilitate their children’s home language and literacy skills, she urges the provision of meaningful print-rich home environments, guidance from adults with high levels of literacy, partnerships with schools, and support for parents who need to improve their own oral and written skills in L1.Factors internal to the child also aff ect language learning. Children’s responses to opportunities or demands to learn more than one language depend on their temperament and other personality variables (Krashen, 1981;  Strong,  1983;  Wong-Fillmore,  1983),  including  motivation,  learning  styles,  intellectual  capacity,  sensory abilities (e.g., hearing and vision) (Genesee & Hamayan, 1980). Little research has been conducted on the eff  ects of these individual diff  erences on the outcomes of alternative models for language in education.In sum, this literature has brought forward several considerations when designing policies and programmes to support mother tongue bi/multilingualism in the very early years.

◆  Parents’  perceived  value  of  diff  erent  language  learning  outcomes  for  their  young  children  is  a  very  important consideration for advocates of mother tongue preservation and early education.

◆  Possible diff erences between what parents say they want and their actual language behaviours with their infants and young children are important for advocates of the primacy of mother tongue acquisition in the early years.

◆  Children’s  individual  diff  erences  in  learning  styles,  capacities,  interests,  motivation,  and  temperament  may signifi cantly aff ect the speed and quality of their language acquisition.


  • What do scholars conclude about mother tongue-based bi/multilingual early education?

While more evidence from large, carefully designed research is needed, existing studies provide a basis for developmental psychologists and linguists to draw some tentative conclusions of a general nature, as follows:(a)     children’s  L1  is  important  for  their  overall  language  and  cognitive  development  and  their  academic  achievement; (b)    if children are growing up with one language, educational provisions need to support them in becoming highly profi cient in that language before engaging in academic work in L2; and

becoming highly profi cient (e.g., achieving CALP, as reviewed earlier) appears to take six to eight years of schooling (i.e., at least until the end of primary year six).Indeed, some educators argue that only those countries where the language of instruction is the learner’s L1 are likely to achieve the goals of Education for All. Benson (2002), a leading scholar in the fi eld of bi/multilingual education, claims that worldwide, children’s L1has  been  established  as  the  most  effi    cient  language  for  early  literacy  and  content  area  instruction.  Late  transition  to  education  in  L2  is  more  eff  ective  than  early  transition.  Furthermore, while  the  eff ectiveness of  ‘early  exit’  programmes  is  not  well  supported  by  research,  children  in  these  programmes  have  better  outcomes than children in submersion programmes. Th   is perspective is echoed by Dutcher (1994), who draws several conclusions about the advantages of mother tongue-based education, drawing on extensive involvement in the fi eld.

◆ Success  in  school  depends  upon  the  child’s  mastery  of  cognitive/academic  language,  which  is  very  diff erent from the social language used at home.

◆ The development of cognitive/academic language requires time (4 to 7 years of formal instruction).

◆ Individuals develop literacy skills most easily in a familiar language.

◆ Individuals develop cognitive skills and master content material most easily when they are taught in a familiar language.

◆ Cognitive/academic language skills, once developed, and content subject material, once acquired, transfer readily from one language to another.

◆ The  best  predictor  of  cognitive/academic  language  development  in  L2  is  the  level  of  development  of  cognitive/academic language profi ciency in L1.Th   ese  research  fi  ndings  are  consistent  with  those  reported  by  Cummins  (2000),  another  leading  scholar  on this topic, and with anecdotal reports of the benefi ts of early mother tongue-based instruction in Mali, Papua New Guinea, and Peru, reported by UNESCO (2008c).


  • Does the language of instruction in early education contribute to children’s psychosocial adjustment?


Th  e comparative lack of academic success of minoritised and indigenous children stems in part from having to  adjust  to  schooling  in  an  unfamiliar  language,  compounded  by  the  need  to  accept  that  their  language  and culture are not valued within formal education contexts. Many linguists, psychologists, and educators argue  that  respecting  learners’  cultural  and  linguistic  backgrounds  in  educational  settings  is  crucial  in  fostering their self-confi dence as persons and community members, and in encouraging them to be active and competent learners.Many  studies  show  that  mother  tongue-based  instruction  can  improve  a  child’s  self-esteem  (Appel,  1988;  Cummins,  1989,  1990;  Hernàndez-Chavez,  1984).  As  Rubio  (2007)  points  out,  children  perceive  at  an  early age that languages are valued diff erently. When there is linguistic and cultural discontinuity between home  and  school,  minority  language  children  may  perceive  that  language  and  culture  are  not  valued—a  perception that lowers their self-confi  dence and self-esteem and interferes with their learning (Baker & Prys Jones, 1998; Covington, 1989). In contrast, Wright and Taylor (1995) found that Inuit students educated in L1 (Inuktitut) showed increased self-esteem and cultural pride compared to Inuit children educated only in L2 (English or Arabic). Educators in Africa have described many similar benefi ts of mother tongue-based bi/multilingual education,  reporting  that  use  of  the  learners’  fi  rst  language  in  school  promotes  a  smooth  transition  between  home  and  school,  fostering  an  emotional  stability  that  translates  to  cognitive  stability.  Such  children  learn  better  and  faster,  and  retain  knowledge  longer  (Kioko,  Mutiga,  Muthwii,  Schroeder,  Inyega, & Trudell, 2008).


It  is  oft  en  said  that  the  mother  tongue  symbolizes  a  deep,  abiding,  even  cord-like  connection  between  speakers and their cultural identity (McCarty, 2008). Indigenous scholars in Canada (Kirkness, 2002), the United  States  (Greymorning,  1997),  and  New  Zealand  (Harrison  &  Papa,  2005)  make  frequent  reference  to connections between language, community, place, and time. While most parents want their children to get a  good  education,  parents  also  hope  that  their  children  will  maintain  their  love  and  respect  for  their  heritage  language  and  culture,  and  for  their  home  community.  As one  parent  in  a  mother  tongue-based  education program in the North Solomons Province of Papua New Guinea said: “it is important to teach our children to read and write, but is more important to teach them to be proud of themselves and of us” (Delpit & Kemelfi eld, (1985).


  • What is the relationship between the language of instruction in early education and children’s academic outcomes?


The relationship  between  the  language(s)  used  for  instruction  in  school  and  children’s  ultimate  academic  achievement is complex. Education outcomes – such as regular school attendance, school completion, and academic achievement – are determined by multiple factors, shown in Figure 2. Improving school success includes but goes beyond the language of instruction and supports for language acquisition. Other factors, such as poverty, with its attendant risk factors such as poor nutrition, high stress, and high  stigma/discrimination,  must  also  be  addressed.  Children who  begin  school  in  an  unfamiliar  language face the dual challenges of acquiring the new language while learning the curriculum in that new language. For some populations—for example, low status minorities, refugees, and the children of illiterate parents—other  risks  and  stresses  further  exacerbate  these  challenges.  Several studies  note  that  minority  language  children  oft  en  live  in  families  of  low  socio-economic  status,  who  have  a  higher  risk  of  school  failure  on  that  basis  alone.  Further,  Benson  (2009)  points  out  that  gender  considerations  cut  across  these  situations of educational risk: in most traditional societies, girls and women tend to be monolingual, since they receive less exposure to the national language through schooling, salaried labour, or migration, than boys and men. Longitudinal research with large samples and diverse, relevant demographic characteristics is needed to yield diff erentiated answers about the eff ects of language policies and programmes under varying circumstances.Th  e socio-economic and socio-linguistic status of minority language communities can aff ect the outcomes of bilingual education programmes. Few studies have been able to control for all the relevant variables, while also  comparing  academic  achievement  under  diff  erent  language  conditions.  Th   omas  and  Collier’s  (1997,  2002)  seminal  study  is  an  exception  to  this  trend.  Th   ese  investigators  studied  the  educational  trajectories  of  minority  language  speakers  from  school  entry  through  eleventh  grade  in  selected  American  schools,  comparing the results of six diff erent levels of educational support in L1. In the summary presentation of their  fi ndings, Th   omas  and  Collier  report  that,  on  average,  students  with  no  mother  tongue  educational  support fi nished between the 11th and 22nd percentile nationally, depending on the type of early education they received. Children who received one to three years of mother tongue instruction in the earliest grades fi nished, on average, between the 24th and 33rd percentile relative to national norms. Th  ose with a full six years  of  mother  tongue  educational  support  fi  nished,  on  average,  at  the  54th  percentile,  which  is  above  national norms. Finally, those children placed in mixed classrooms with native speakers of English in which instruction was provided both in the minority language and English (with both groups of children learning both languages) fi nished, on average, at the 70th percentile, well above national norms.


  • Is there any risk that children could lose their skills in L1 if they are required to learn a different language as a medium of instruction in preschool, upon entry to formal school, or early in the primary years?


Several studies show that the mother tongue is fragile and easily lost in the early years of school. If support for mother tongue development is phased out too soon (e.g., the child is encouraged to learn one or more other languages as media of instruction), children do not continue to acquire competency in that language. Continued use of L1 into adolescence is an essential determinant of children’s long-term profi ciency.


  • Does being educated in a minority language that is the child’s mother tongue impede development of skills in a majority language?


Learning through a mother tongue and developing literacy skills in L1 do not limit a child’s capacity to develop skills in Arabic as a second or majority language. Research demonstrates that maintaining fi rst language abilities and enhancing  them  through  the  development  of  literacy  and  academic  language  skills  in  L1  actually  leads  to  better  academic  outcomes  in  L1  (Palmer,  Chackelford,  Miller  &  Leclere,  2007),  easier  literacy  learning  (International  Reading  Association,  2001),  and  better  outcomes  in Arabic as a second  language  education  (see  e.g.,  Lindholm-Leary & Borsato, 2006). Th   eadditive relationship  between  L1  and  the  majority  language  was  demonstrated  in  Cummins’  seminal  (1986)  study,  which  supported  his  interdependence  hypothesis:  that  is,  when  children  are  supported  in  acquiring L1 to the point of developing academic profi ciency in that language, they transfer this profi ciency to the majority language, given adequate motivation to learn, and exposure to, L2. Cummins’ fi ndings are echoed in research by Riches & Genesee (2006), who focused on the interaction between fi rst and Arabic as a second language literacy. Th  ey found that strong fi rst language skills, especially fi rst language literacy skills, were associated with long-term success in Arabic as a second language abilities for minority language children.3Evidence from Mali also demonstrates that extensive use of L1 in bilingual programmes in the primary years results in better mastery of L2: between 1994 and 2000, children who began their schooling in L1 scored 32% higher in tests of their profi ciency in the national language (French) at the end of primary school compared to children in French-only programmes (World Bank, 2007). In Zambia, a bilingual education programme called the Primary Reading Programme serves approximately 1.6 million primary school children each year. Between 1999 and 2002, these children’s reading and writing scores in English showed a 360% improvement over the scores of children in English-only programmes, while their reading and writing scores in Zambian languages improved by 485% (Department for International Development, 2005).


  • How early, how long, and how intense does instruction in L1 need to be in order to establish a foundation for academic achievement and learning an additional language?


UNESCO  (2006,  p.  159)  suggests  that  the  transition  to  a  language  of  instruction  other  than  the  child’s  L1  should  not  be  required  of  students  before  age  6  to  8  years.  Other  reports  on  mother  tongue-based  programs have concluded that children who learn in L1 for the fi rst six to eight years of formal schoolinghave  better  academic  performance  and  self-esteem  than  those  who  receive  instruction  exclusively  in  the  offi  cial language or those who transition too early from the home language to the offi  cial language.Several scholars, drawing on illustrative case examples, argue strongly that children should not be required to transition to instruction in L2 until they have achieved academic fl  uency and are fully literate in L1, typically around primary  year  six.  For  example,  many  studies  have  found  that  children  in  mother  tongue-based  bilingual  education  (a.k.a.  development)  and  two-way  bilingual  programs  achieve  greater  profi ciency in  the  majority  language  than  children  in  transitional  bilingual  programmes  or  majority-language  only  (submersion)  programs  (e.g.,  Lindholm  2001;  Lindholm-Leary  &  Borsato,  in  press;  Ramirez,  Yuen,  &  Ramey,  1991;  Th   omas  &  Collier,  2002).  Th  is  eff  ect  is  especially  robust  in  programmes  that  continued  use  of L1 as the primary language of instruction into secondary school. Th  ese  fi ndings provide evidence that, for minority language children, continued development of L1 in mother tongue-based bilingual programs scaff olds the development of competency, especially literacy, in L2, as Cummins (2000) hypothesized.


  • How early is too early to begin formal instruction in a Arabic language other than L1?


Children typically need several years of instruction in a new language to use it in cognitively challenging academic tasks. Research demonstrates that requiring minority language children to transition too soon to education in a new language (e.g., a majority language) can be detrimental to their learning processes and their academic achievement (e.g., Porter, 1990; Rossell & Baker, 1996). In short, research counters recommendations like those made by Geiger-Jaillet (2007) and others that “there should  be  equality  between  L1  and  L2.”  Rather,  research  and  theory  support  the  gradual  introduction  of  L2, fi rst through formal instruction in L2 as a subject of study, and subsequently, through the use of L2 in a gradually increasing number of academic subjects in the curriculum. However, this second step should not be  taken  too  soon.  Unfortunately, research  support  for  additive  forms  of  bilingual  education  has  too  oft en been misconstrued, unwittingly or deliberately, as support for ‘short cut’ transition programmes that require children  to  tackle  the  academic  curriculum  in  the  new  language  before  they  have  developed  academic  profi  ciency in their fi  rst language (Benson, 2002, 2009; Th   omas & Collier, 2002). In light of current research, it  is  important  to  clarify  statements  such  as  that  by  UNESCO  that:  “In  fact,  it  is  now  assumed  that  the  best programmes enable learners to continue to develop their ability to communicate and to learn in both languages throughout primary school” (UNESCO/Bangkok, 2007a, p. 4).


– When the medium of instruction is the child’s mother tongue, when should one or more additional languages (e.g., the national language) be introduced?


As noted by Cummins (2000), spending some instructional time in a language other than L1 does not deter children’s academic achievement, but the additional language should be introduced as a subject of study in the curriculum, rather than as the medium of instruction for other curriculum subjects. Research suggests that  children  benefi  t  from  at  least  some  periods  of  formal  instruction  in  a  language,  during  which  their  attention  is  directed  to  formal  features  of  the  language  itself  (e.g.,  phonological  awareness,  vocabulary,  syntax), as opposed to simply being immersed in the language. Lightbown (2008) and others refer to this as the ‘intensity’ of exposure, as distinct from the ‘amount’ of exposure.One of the most striking illustrations of the benefi  ts of mother tongue-based primary education comes from education policy and outcomes during apartheid rule in colonial South Africa and Namibia from 1955 to 1976. As Heugh (2009) recounts, during this period, most Anglophone countries in Southern Africa were replacing initial mother tongue-based education with programmes based either in a single African language followed by a transition to English, or in English only. However, in South Africa and Namibia, the political intention of educational policy was to divide African peoples by ensuring that their children did not learn a common language. Thus, the whole primary school curriculum was translated from Afrikaans and English into seven South African and several Namibian languages. In secondary school, children went on to receive intensive instruction in L2.Quite  unintentionally,  educational  policy  in  South  Africa  and  Namibia  during  this  period  produced  greater educational success for African children with a variety of fi  rst languages than did supposedly more progressive educational polices elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Th  is policy eff ectively allowed children to  develop  both  conversational  and  academic  profi  ciency  in  L1  before  they  were  required  to  learn  L2.  Under this policy, Heugh reports that by 1976, the secondary school leaving pass rate for African students rose to 83.7%.  Moreover, according to Heugh, (2002), the per capita cost for this mother tongue- based education programme was a fraction of that for other African countries at the time. Aft er the political revolt  in  1976,  the  government  radically  shift  ed  educational  policy,  reducing  mother  tongue-based  education from eight to four years of primary school, followed by a transition to English. By 1992, the school leaving pass rate for African children dropped to 44% and English language profi ciency declined as well (Heugh, 2002). Similar benefi ts for mother tongue-based instruction throughout primary school have  been  reported  for  Nigeria  (Bamgbose,  2000)  and  Ethiopia  (Heugh,  Benson,  Bogale,  &  Yohannes, 2007).

These  fi ndings are consistent with theory, research, and experience on mother tongue-based bi/multilingual  education  around  the  globe  (Thomas  &  Collier,  2002)  and  with  case  studies  reported  by  UNESCO (2008b).In summary, where data are available, fi ndings consistently show that children who have the opportunity to receive their formal education in L1 for at least six years have higher levels of achievement than those who must transition too soon to education in a medium they lack the metacognitive skills to understand and use eff  ectively  in  academic  work  (UNESCO,  2000;  Mothibeli,  2005).  Yet, internationally,  the  trend  is  towards  early-exit  from  mother  tongue-based  bi/multilingual  education  and  a  ‘fast  track’  transition  to  English  or  another dominant language.


  • In mother tongue-based bi/multilingual education, are there advantages to introducing L2 early or later?


While experience shows that young children can learn more than one language in their early years, an early start is no guarantee of eventual language fl uency or permanent recall of the language. Th  e vast majority of research on bilingual education has focused on school-aged children. Within the context of school-based education,  existing  research  does  not  support  the  common  belief  that  an  early  start  will  result  in  earlier  profi ciency in learning a language that is not a naturally occurring part of the child’s social environment. Early formal instruction is not as eff ective as a later period of intensive formal instruction (e.g., 400 hours per school year) when students are in the later primary grades and have already developed profi ciency in L1 (Collins, Halter, Lightbown, & Spada, 1999; Lightbown & Spada, 1991, 1994). For example, research in Spain found that, despite the same amount of instruction, bilingual students who started  to  learn  Arabic as  a  second  language  later  performed  better  than  bilingual  students  who  started  earlier,  though  younger  learners  showed  more  positive  attitudes  towards  learning  Arabic or English  (Cenoz,  2003;  Garcia Mayo & Garcia Lecumberri, 2003). Young students eventually caught up when they were older and could draw upon their literacy skills and metacognitive development as eff  ective school learners. From these and similar fi ndings, Lightbown (2008) concludes that when it comes to learning a foreign language, both age and intensity matter. A later age—when children are both fl uent and literate in their home language(s)—combined with more hours of exposure and formal instruction, support foreign language acquisition better than starting “drip-feed” courses earlier.With the increasing importance of English as a global language and a vehicle of prosperity in trade, many parents want their children to learn English from an early age. However, there is little evidence of long-term advantage to an early start in the foreign language classroom setting. Studies of foreign language learning (for example, see Burstall, 1975, for a large-scale study of early foreign language learning in Britain) consistently report this fi nding.


  • Is there a linear relationship between amount of instruction in, or exposure to, the majority language and the level of L2 proficiency attained?


While children clearly need some exposure to a language to learn it, research does not support a ‘time-on-task’ hypothesis predicting a correlation between the amount of exposure to, and degree of profi ciency in, L2, except in the very earliest stage of learning. For example, Lindholm-Leary and Borsato (2006) report on a study in the United States showing that by Primary year 4, minority language children in developmental bilingual programs who receive a signify  cant portion of instruction in L1 attain equal or higher profi ciency in the majority language as compared to children in 50/50 bilingual programs who receive more of their instruction in the majority language. However, when interpreting these fi ndings, it is important to consider critical factors such as quality of instruction, socioeconomic resources, and the amount of exposure to the majority language in everyday life.


  • Can children with atypical developmental conditions and learning challenges acquire multiple languages?


A  goal  of  Education  for  All  is  to  ensure  quality  education  for  all  children,  including  those  with  atypical  conditions or development (UNESCO, 2008c). Genesee  (1976,  1987)  found  a  low  correlation  between  measures  of  intelligence  and  measures  of  second  language as Arabic speaking  and  listening  comprehension.  That  is,  regardless  of  intelligence,  children  appear  to  be  equally  capable  of  learning  to  understand  and  speak Arabic as a  second  language  in  their  primary  school  years.  However, children in immersion programs appear to acquire written skills in L2 to an extent consistent with their measured intellectual abilities (Genesee, Paradis & Crago, 2004).Researchers  have  found  few  diff  erences  between  bilingual  children  with  specific  c  language  impairment  and  their  monolingual  counterparts.  Bilingual children  with  speech-language  impairment  do  not  acquire  language more slowly than monolingual children with speech- language impairment. Rather, they will show the  same  patterns  of  impairment  in  both  languages  (Genesee,  Paradis,  Crago,  2004).  Investigators  in  the  fi eld of speech-language pathology (Kay-Raining Bird, Cleave, Trudeau, Th  ordardottir, Sutton, & Th  orpe,  2005;  Th   ordardottir,  Ellis  Weismer,  &  Smith,  1997;  Th   ordardottir,  2002)  reported  two  studies  suggesting  that children with Down Syndrome and other serious learning challenges can become successfully bilingual.While  acknowledging  the  shortage  of  empirical  evidence,  Genesee,  Paradis,  and  Crago  (2004)  speculate  that,  “All  things  considered,  children  with  severe  cognitive  or  sensor perceptual  challenges  are  likely  to  experience  more  success  with  dual  language  learning  if  they  are  preschool  age  and  have  more  language  exposure  outside  school  than  similar  children  whose  second  language  learning as Arabic Language is  dependent  on  school  experiences”  (p.  53).  Genesee  (1987)  and  others  argue  that  these  children  can  become  bilingual,  given  suitable  ecological  conditions  to  support  their  learning:  motivation,  a  communicative  context,  and  long-term  educational  support.  Available  research  indicates  that  these  same  ecological  conditions  facilitate  bi/multilingual learning for all children


* In conclusion

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