Understanding Bilingualism and Language Acquisition_Transcript of Interview with Dr. Alejandra Mielke

Understanding Bilingualism and Language Acquisition_Transcript of Interview with Dr. Alejandra Mielke
Bilingual Education Parenting Bilinguals Podcast Series

Dr. Alejandra Mielke Podcast Interviews In English and Spanish

On March 21, Think Bilingual Austin posted our podcast interviews with Dr. Aljeandra Mielke.  Because the information Dr. Mielke provided was so insightful, we are bringing you a transcript of the podcast with headings to highlight the key points discussed.

Realistic Expectations on Levels of Bilingualism

Social versus Academic

Angela: Hi, welcome. This is Angela Pack Zia with think bilingual Austin, this is our second podcast and thank you for joining us. Today we have Alejandra Mielke. She is a consultant in English language learning. She has her doctorate in language acquisition and she’s worked with a number of schools, educators on how to improve language acquisition. Thank you for joining us. Alejandra.

Alejandra: Thank you for having me.

Angela: Alexandra is here today because she’s going to help us understand some of the most common misconceptions in language acquisition. No matter what second language you’re learning, whether you’re a Spanish speaker learning English or an English speaker learning Spanish and any other language, there are often misconceptions about language acquisition. So, what is the most common one that you have come across?

Alejandra: Well, there are many misconceptions regarding the phenomenon of learning a second language. I found in my work with students learning English as a second language in many Texas schools. What I have found is that a lot of people, including teachers and parents, have a misconception regarding the amount of time it takes for these kids to learn a second language. There is this idea that perhaps a second language can be learned in one or two years.

While students can acquire language or certain language in that amount of time for them to acquire academic language or a more sophisticated version of the language, it’s going to take longer. I mean, I could give myself as an example, I’m a second language learner myself and I think after living here in this country for 18 years, I’m still learning new words, new phrases, new ways of saying things almost every week. There’s always this constant learning that should be happening.

One of the problems that– or why people believe that students can learn English in one or two years or the second language so quickly is because students are able to learn what we call a social language faster than a more sophisticated form of the language, the academic language. There has been a lot of research about this and specifically we can read or we can pay attention to what Jim Cummings have said about this.

He [Jim Cummings] is a researcher who works out of Canada; he’s been very proliferate. He has written a lot of things about bilingual education. What he has talked about–he has discussed these ideas or these two notions of what is called BICS, B-I-C-S, the Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and CALP, the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. What he describes is how students or children, when they start learning the second language, they get into the social interactions in the playground or with friends or with other speakers and they interact socially and they develop this very casual, informal knowledge of the language. They learn how to ask for water, they learn how to ask for a ball, and they want to play in the park, they learn how to ask for the bathroom.

That is a language that develop pretty quickly and it’s present and is visible. The problem is a lot of the teachers or educators can see that and say, “Oh my God okay, this kid is learning the new language, he’s doing fine, he can interact with other people in the park, in the playground, but it doesn’t mean that students have acquired the whole competences of the language. Cummings also talks about or gives another notion in contrast to this BICS. He talks about CALP, what is Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. By that [CALP], he is talking about all this more sophisticated language that is needed too– for example, for school. What I call [language that is needed] for school, like reading, and debating, and discussing a concept, and presenting, and understanding the textbook, that is another set of skills that students need to learn to really be fully bilingual and to really have access to the learning that happens in schools.

There are two different things and I think that is a big misconception because as soon as the kid has or is able to use the language in a social context, a lot of people believe that, “Oh, okay, he’s ready, he’s fine, he doesn’t need any more instruction,” or he doesn’t need any more support when learning the second language.

Angela: That goes back to the idea of why misconception exists to begin with, because the idea is that, “Oh, they’re speaking the language,” so then there’s this automatic assumption that their language capacity goes far beyond what is really ready [or required] for the academic studies, is that correct?

Alejandra: Yes I think a lot of people obviously want to help the kids and they want to see results. As soon as they see something they’re like, “Okay, this kid has learned [the language], he can do it,” and yet there’s a lot more that [still] needs to be done–that’s the thing.


Younger doesn’t Mean Greater Level of Language Acquisition

Importance of Metacognition and Metalinguistic Awareness

Alejandra: Another misconception that is related to this [is the notion] about the younger kids –[that they] are going to learn the language faster and better and more efficiently than older individuals. While a lot of that is true, there are younger kids who can– especially when we talk about sounds of the new language–the younger kids can grasp those very quickly. Younger kids are learning everything [about communicating], so they’re going to have this ability to learn and absorb sounds and concepts and knowledge. [However] there is a lot about how older students can also learn maybe as fast with the appropriate instruction and with appropriate input.

Also, sometimes it’s the matter of the kind of language demands that are required for a younger kid than for an older kid. A younger kid might need language for less sophisticated activities. So, the language that this kid produces matches those demands [and thus the] language [he] uses might be less sophisticated [than that of an older kid]. That’s why it might be easier to assess and too easy to say, “Oh, this kid can do it [speak the second language] because it [his language output] matches those demands. But when the situation gets more complicated or more complex, whether in school or whether in the social context, then students are going to need more sophisticated language skills, [with limited language skills language learners] are not going to be that easily saved.

Angela: It works with what you were saying earlier. More explicit instruction in the language to help [language learners] really develop the terminology, the understanding of the [language] on a higher level, especially also providing literacy skills, correct?

Alejandra: Yes, this is the whole purpose of these two main misconceptions and what I feel very strongly about is that as kids, regardless of the language that they’re learning or regardless of age, they need to have a very purposeful education, a very purposeful teacher who can teach and be very explicit about how the new language works. If it’s talking about– if we’re going to be learning about how to debate in a classroom, or how to present, we need to be sure that all the students have this very good models of the second language of how that language works so they can present that information to the student.

The students can see how it works and teachers can also be very explicit about, “Oh, okay, you have to do it this way, you’re going to have to create a sentence this way, you’re going to have to create a question this way, this is the way that we’re going to form a paragraph.” It just becomes or it needs to become a more explicit process not only allowing the kids to hear the second language.

Angela: I think this also develops more metacognition of the language and languages when you have this type of explicit instruction. The child is also becoming more aware of the differences in languages from the native language as well as the language they’re acquiring.

Alejandra: When we talk about older students like teenagers and we talk about upper elementary students or even adults, one thing that they have that maybe younger kids do not have is their native language. That native language is or can be used as a very important base or a very important foundation for learning the other language. If I have my language, if I understand how my native language works in terms of writing a sentence or in terms of formulating a question, if I have that knowledge, I know a lot about how languages work and that’s what you’re talking about metacognition and I can apply this knowledge to my learning of the second language. That’s one tool that is sometimes not taken into account. I think we should do a lot regarding second language learning when we use that foundation.

One example of this is the concept of cognates. When we have these students or these individuals that come to the task of learning another language and they have all these words and all this new knowledge because they have learned those words and concepts in their native language. Then when they learn a second language, they can use the new label that they learn in a second language and put it on a concept that they know in their native language. For example, in Spanish or in any language, the concept of war; a fight between two individuals or countries with different perspective, we have the concept of war [regardless of which language you first learned it in].

Once you understand that concept in your native language and you have that concept, when you go into a second language learning context, you just put a different label to that concept that you already have. It is essential to take advantage of all that knowledge that students or individuals have in their native language while learning a second language.



The Importance of Building and Maintaining Native Language While Learning Second Language

Quality Input, Consistency & Appreciation for Native Language

Angela: That’s really important. One thing that also, as you’re talking, what I’m thinking about is the dual language programs or programs that support both the native language as well as language acquisition. It sounds like what you’re describing is a perfect reason for maintaining native languages while you’re also adding the second language.

Alejandra: That’s one of the key things that I always tell parents and teachers, every work or everything you do regarding the development of your native language, sooner or later is going to impact positively the development of the second language. Anything that you do regarding that native language, reading in that native language, playing in that native language, reading poems, singing and telling stories, all that is going to develop language and sooner or later is going to [have an] impact, and is going to help develop the second language.

That is another thing that I always say whenever you have a student or your kid who is learning a second language and you don’t speak that other second language, my advice has always been, don’t worry, develop the native language– read, sing, even watch movies in that native. Just develop a native language, then whenever they have the access to the other language, they will get it and they will use that native language to support their second language development.

Angela: That’s another great understanding because I found from talking to many adults who began with a native language [but switched to English only], because their parents were discouraged from speaking to them because of the educators’ fear that their children would be confused. My own husband when we were speaking Spanish and English with my daughter, he became worried when she was four and five years old that she was starting to say sentence in English the way she would say it in Spanish. What advice would you give and what understanding can you give to quash those fears.

Alejandra: Well, I’ve always approached this kind of this question in this way, you have to be as a family, as a parent, very clear in the goal that you want for your kid regarding languages. Once you have that very clear, like “I want to have a bilingual kid” or for me it’s essential that my kid speaks our native language and the language is spoken in the society. Once we have that, then you have to move in that direction. The way that I do that is, like I said, we develop native language because that’s the one that we as parents sometimes can do; it is our native language, the family language, for example, or the mother language or the father’s language. We develop that and we ensure that the kid receives high quality linguistic input in that language. We make sure, like I said, we read the books, we bring movies, we bring the songs, we bring the games, we bring everything to develop that. At the same time, we have to share because our goal is to develop bilingualism in our kids and that our kids also have high quality language input in the other language.

Because our goal is very clear to us, we have to ensure that this input in both languages is of high quality and that it is consistent. That is the only way that we can ensure that our kids are going to be bilingual, which is not an easy task. We should not be afraid of giving too much Spanish because they’re not going to learn the English or giving too much English because they’re going to forget the Spanish. We have to give as much as we can, the same amount of language input in both languages and high quality language input.

Angela: When the child is learning a new language, isn’t it common for them to mix a little bit as they’re starting to acquire? But that’s only a temporary situation.

Alejandra: Whenever you have two languages in contact, it is only natural for the two languages to interfere with each other it is only natural. One good way to think about this is if you can picture in your mind a big iceberg and that you can see only two points or two picks of ice sticking outside the water and underneath that iceberg has one single root. That one single root is our language mechanism that we have in our minds. As we learn these languages, we have this single root that is completely entangled as one single thing. With time our kids are going to develop these two picks, one for each language, but at the beginning when kids are young, they have a not completely separated both languages.

It is very common for them to mix the languages, sometimes they go to the point of creating blend words, they may put the beginning of a word in one language and the end of the word from another language. I’ve heard the case of a kid who had French and English and he said ‘shot,’ from chaud, [he used] the first part of the word [with the sound “sh,”] which is the French word for hot and for hot in English, he put the last part of that word so he created his own word ‘shot.’ And there are a lot of examples like that and it’s completely normal.

This mixing will gradually disappear with time as these kids start learning how to separate their languages; but at the beginning what they’re doing is like comparing and contrasting languages. Kind of, “Oh, I can’t use this but I can use this.” Also, they’re very purposeful in the way they use this mixing or this code-switching– they’re very purposeful. There is a reason– to become more involved with one person, to be part of the conversation, to make a joke in one language but doesn’t apply to the other language–all this mixing and code-switching is very natural. It should not be scary, people should not be confused or– I mean, you shouldn’t be surprised that they can do it so easily. [laughs] It’s a skill that only bilinguals can do, code-switching cannot be done by monolinguals.

Angela: Well, I love the analogy of the iceberg, you’ve got the base which you can’t see in the ocean underneath and that’s representing the language, but then you have the picks that are creating that, this is Spanish this is English or Arabic or French, whatever the languages may be. I love that analogy, I think it’s a great visual to think about how the brain is processing [languages].

Alejandra: Yes, and goes back to my first point is like whatever you do with native language is going to become part of that single root under the water that is going to help and support the English pick that will come out of the water later. I think my main concern with parents of bilingual kids because I’m a parent of a bilingual kid, is to not be afraid of giving high quality language input to your kid as much as you can. Living in the society, of course, English is very powerful, is omnipresent, is everywhere. You might not be that worried about providing English input because it is going to be there, it is everywhere, and will be everywhere.

In my case, my main focus has been to provide as much Spanish, high quality Spanish input since he [my son] was a little kid, because I know that he needs that to balance the English. I have spent years and years bringing books, buying books in Spanish, reading, putting CDs in Spanish, even watching movies in Spanish. All this, having visitors come here too so they can interact with my kid in Spanish, taking trip when possible to a Spanish speaking country. I have been very purposeful by providing him that language input because I think that is essential.

That’s one thing that as my number one advice– don’t be afraid to give your kid the language that you want them to learn and give it a lot, a lot, a lot. It is going to take longer than we think to develop fully bilingual individuals. However, it doesn’t matter if they are not fully, completely 100% bilingual in each language. There’s always going to be, generally speaking, a weaker language, but again, it doesn’t matter. If you want your kids to be bilingual, they don’t have to be completely fluent, with a perfect pronunciation of every single English sound or a Spanish sound, for them to be fully bilingual because remember, language is social and accomplishes many functions of being part of the community, being part of a world and part of a society.

Angela: What I’m hearing too is the fact that language is a process and it’s one thing that’s more of a life-long goal of just consistency; and that consistency is [based on the] quality of input. And to not get bogged down by [ideas] like, “I’m going to be fluent in x number of days or years” or something like that.

Alejandra: No.

Angela: I think that’s a really great message.

Alejandra: No, I don’t think you should worry about that. You should worry about providing the language input, making sure that the kids are aware of what they’re accomplishing also. That’s very important, especially with older kids who can be aware of what they’re doing, of their ability, their skills– that they shouldn’t be taking it [their bilingualism] for granted. It’s something very important, and that they have these opportunities to develop that language and to listen to good input and be able to provide good output.

Angela: Yes, well, thank you so much for this time and all the information you’ve given to us. I think this is really a helpful session to help us as parents, educators and individuals to think about language. It really provides a lot of insight. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Alejandra: Of course, you’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Angela: Thank you.

[00:23:36] [END OF AUDIO]

To listen to the full audio podcast, please click on our link here.