Children who speak a language other than English enter U.S. schools with abilities and talents similar to those of native English-speaking children. In addition, these children have the ability to speak another language that, if properly nurtured, will benefit them throughout their lives. In school, children who speak other languages will learn to speak, read and write English. However, unless parents and teachers actively encourage maintenance of the native language, the child is in danger of losing it and with that loss, the benefits of bilingualism. Maintaining the native language matters for the following reasons.
Personal: The child's first language is critical to his or her identity. Maintaining this language helps the child value his or her culture and heritage, which contributes to a positive self-concept.
Social: When the native language is not maintained, important links to family and other community members may be lost. By encouraging native language use, parents can prepare the child to interact with the native language community, both in the United States and overseas.
Intellectual: Students need uninterrupted intellectual development. When students who are not yet fluent in English switch to using only English, they are functioning at an intellectual level below their age. Interrupting intellectual development in this manner is likely to result in academic failure. However, when parents and children speak the language they know best with one another, they are both working at their actual level of intellectual maturity.
Educational: Students who learn English and continue to develop their native language have higher academic achievement in later years than do students who learn English at the expense of their first language.
Economic: Better employment opportunities in this country and overseas are available for individuals who are fluent in English and another language.
Collier, V. “Acquiring a Second Language for School,” Directions in Language and Education (1995) 1(4).
Cummins, J. Bilingualism and Minority-Language Children (Toronto, Ontario: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1981).
Cummins, J. et.al. Schooling and Language-Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework (Los Angeles, California: California State University, School of Education, 1994).
Wong-Fillmore, L. “When Learning a Second Language Means Losing the First,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly (1991) 6, 323-346.
Reprinted with permission from the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education's “AskNCBE” web site (www.ncbe.gwu.edu/askncbe/faqs). NCBE is funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs (OBEMLA) and is operated by the George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development, Center for the Study of Language and Education. Comments and questions may be directed to IDRA via e-mail at
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