Ch. 4 – ESL vs. Bilingual Approaches

Throughout my travels, I have encountered several commonly believed philosophies presented in media, books, people, and other resources regarding learning a second language. I seem to recall a sink or swim attitude toward language acquisition presented to me quite a few times as I was growing up. How many of the learners from that era were sinking? Chapter 4 acknowledges that there are many myths about how we should teach a second language. However, focusing on fact rather than the opinions of the past, like the book suggests, seems to hold the most promise for the future.

Given the controversial nature of this topic it is not surprising that multiple approaches have been attempted when dealing with it. The book breaks the approaches down into two basic categories:
bilingual and ESL. There are also variations to these two approaches. The variations make the situation a bit confusing I guess but also offer a chance for some great scientific investigation. Which approach is the best?
I had often heard that people will learn a second language in a situation where the need is extreme. (sink or swim) This myth supports ESL and full immersion but the facts from the chapter and my own views seem contrary.

THE FACTS
There were many studies referenced in the chapter but I found Thomas and Collier’s 1997 and 2002 studies the most interesting.(p.66-68) They pointed out a few interesting things:
1. Learning in all programs seems to begin to trend downward around middle school.(grade 5-7)
2. Bilingual programs seem to offer a much better chance for LEP learners and those native english speakers studying to obtain a second language.
The highest scores in their study were NCE(normal curve equivalent) of 61. This came from bilingual programs. In comparison, a NCE of 34 and lower was obtained in the ESL programs.
Other variations of the bilingual approach also offered various positive results.(maintenance and dual-language) For example, those who attended these bilingual programs were less likely to dropout of school.
Given that and the other data it is hard to argue against the use of bilingual services.
[However, do we have the teachers to allow for this? >> Perhaps a change is in order.]

MY VIEW
When students are young, totally immersion makes sense. Most younger learners are followers. With older learners it seems wrong. Older learners can choose what they want for themselves. They will not be happy or learn as much if it is not their choice. The question becomes how do we make them interested in choosing it.
The Thomas and Collier data in the book seems to point to something happening right about middle school time. This is the time kids begin to become individuals and make more choices themselves. This is where I feel a change needs to be made.
With the internet there is really never a situation where total immersion can take place. Therefore forcing this environment will fail.
A pure ESL approach doesn’t seem to work according to the data and I would argue this is because the learners don’t feel a “connection” with what is being taught. They choose not to give it 100% because it doesn’t relate to them. I thought the discussion of BICS vs. CALPS(p.70) may also be an argument for why pure ESL approaches are not connecting as well with older students.
I have seen first hand several attempts at second language acquisition here in South Korea. By far the best implemented plan I have been a part of, involved a bilingual approach. Students study for a few hours in English and the rest of the day in Korean. This was from grades 1-5. Because the kids studied the same things in both languages it was easier for them to make “connections”. Suddenly those new big phrases in English didn’t seem so scary because they had talked about it in their stronger language, Korean. They had the CALPS in their own language so it was easier to identify with.
These are a lot of assumptions but I feel from the book’s data and my observations:

  1. Older learners need a different approach altogether
  2. The common myths need to be debunked
  3. Further testing needs to be done with age in mind, not just approach

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As part of my ongoing pursuit of a masters in ed with an ESL focus I will be posting my reflections from readings I am doing.

Currently I am reading:

Assessing Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students: A Practical Guide ISBN: 1-59385-141-3

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