On Language Acquisition

My younger brother and I were born in India, and our first languages were Hindi and Punjabi. We moved to the United States when I was five, so by that point, I was already comfortable communicating in our first languages. I formally learned English in school in India, too, but it wasn't the language we spoke at home, so I didn't learn it in earnest until we moved to the United States. But becoming fluent in English was fairly easy for me because by the time we moved here, I already understood how languages worked, and had a strong language acquisition model.

My brother, on the other hand, was less than a year old when we moved to the US (so, for all intents and purposes, it might be easier to think of him as native-born). When we first moved here, we all spoke mostly in Hindi at home, and his first experiences with talking were in Hindi. However, after a year, I started speaking English at home, and my brother actually stopped talking completely for a few months (naturally terrifying my parents in the process), reflecting his confusion in language acquisition, due to the introduction of a new and fundamentally different language at home, while he was still developing his basic language acquisition model. Eventually, we switched to only-English at home, which helped him start talking again (but only in English from then on). Today, he has perfect fluency in communicating (extremely well) in English, but not in speaking Hindi or Punjabi.

The moral of this story: Immigrant kids and Native born kids have different Language Acquisition Models

Multicultural education is about understanding the cultural characteristics of different groups, including their values, traditions, communication patterns, learning styles, contributions, and relational patterns (Gay, 2002), but too often, cultural competence training focuses on general bias reduction, and not on actually improving teachers’ literacy in their students’ cultures. I am even more inclined to believe this because of my own research interests, as well as my own personal experiences growing up as an immigrant student of color in school environments where I was (falsely) assumed to be a model minority student.

Multicultural education should manifest for all teachers working with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) students every day, because it impacts all five components of Banks’s (2015) multicultural model: (1) curriculum and content development, (2) helping students to see the implicit biases in the content covered, (3) reducing prejudice through instruction and resources, (4) coming to the classroom with a strong background in equity pedagogy, and (5) contributing to building a school community that empowers CLD students (and ideally, staff as well). However, many schools likely just aim for “respect,” but are likely more situated in “tolerance” or “acceptance.” 

Nieto’s (2008) ideal for educators is that they affirm and stand in solidarity with their students, as well as engage in self-reflection; while I have, no doubt, made missteps in my efforts to embody this ideal as a teacher, this goal has been central to my philosophy as an educator, likely due to my own experiences growing up as a CLD student, as well as due to my research interests.

Why do we fall short in supporting CLD learners?

The problem, as Gay (2002) points out, many teachers are simply "inadequately prepared to teach ethnically diverse students" (p. 106), which is something many educators can recognize about themselves and their colleagues. My ongoing research suggests problem is genuine (and unintentional) ignorance. Gay (2002) might assert that this is a consequence of insufficient emphasis on multicultural education within professional programs, and I would concur.

In order to embrace (and fully comprehend) a culture, we need to understand it, or at least have some basic familiarity with it. In order to reach a higher "level" of multicultural support (as in Nieto, 2008), we have to first move past the first few levels. Thus, teachers' lack of knowledge about a particular cultural group absolutely impacts pedagogical choices. For instance, in my own research, I have come across findings suggesting that due to the "model minority stereotype," whereby Asian American students are (often falsely) presumed to be highly capable and less in need of help than their peers from other groups, they may tend not to ask for help, even when they need it, in an effort to maintain this image (Lee, 2015). Thus, it may become that much more important for a teacher to offer help to these students, given that they may not ask for it.

Supporting CLD students

In order to support CLD students, we as educators must find an answer to the question:

How do we find a balance between "shaping thinking" and respecting CLD learners' backgrounds?

This is an intriguing question, and one that I struggle with when teaching about world cultures (especially to young students). I cannot help but think about a relevant situation I encountered a few years ago with a class I taught, filled with almost entirely CLD (and ELL) students. A student asked me about "what all this gay marriage stuff" was about, and initially expressed disgust after I explained it to her (this was prior to the federal changes).

Besides being an incredible teachable moment, it occurred to me during my conversation with her that her reason for not being able to understand or accept this "otherness" was born out of a lack of exposure: for her, the Western world itself was foreign and other; and coming from a culture (and home life) where homosexuality is not accepted or discussed openly or even mentioned in passing, she could not demonstrate respect for it, because she had never learned tolerance for it (having never even heard of it). Lack of exposure or awareness of anything, like monoculturalism, inhibits tolerance, acceptance, respect, or affirmation.

There's no easy answer... how do we attempt to shape thinking while still respecting CLD students' backgrounds?

Supporting ELL students

In supporting so-called English Language Learner ("ELL") students, teachers should first think of them as “students who already know another language.” I watched a video recently that was made in the UK, and in it, the presenters discussed English-learning students as students who have “English as an Additional Language” (EAL) as opposed to as students who are English Language Learners. As is the case in discussing individuals with disabilities, using person-first language makes it clear that the individual is more than just that one thing. Further, EAL sounds less like a label and more like a point of pride, whereas ELL sounds like a diagnosis (as a note, I would ideally like to see EAL used here rather than ELL, and will use EAL for the remainder of this post).

Next, teachers should be taught the differences in the needs of native-born students with EAL and foreign-born students with EAL, as well as recognize their different perceptions of themselves. It may be that native-born students with EAL have a lower sense of self-confidence and a more negative self-image as a consequence of their potentially negative views of their home or family culture; thus, these students might benefit from their teachers doing more to demonstrate a value for diversity and their backgrounds. Teachers should be particularly aware of the possibly weaker language acquisition skills of native-born students with EAL, given that they may have a weaker first language model.


Banks, J. A. (2015). The dimensions of multicultural education. In Cultural diversity and education: Foundations, curriculum, and teaching (6th ed., pp. 3-22). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53 (2), 106-116.doi:10.1177/0022487102053002003

Lee, S. J. (2015). Unraveling the" model minority" stereotype: Listening to Asian American youth. Teachers College Press.

Nieto, S. (2008). Affirmation, solidarity and critique: Moving beyond tolerance in education. In E. Lee, D. Menkart, & M. Okazawa-Rey (Eds.), Beyond heroes and holidays (pp. 18-29). Washington, DC: Teaching for Change.