Rethinking Academic Language in Second Language
Arizona State University
Most people - laymen, practitioners and researchers alike - seem to share a fundamental
assumption about the effects of education on language proficiency: that in school we learn a superior
version of our language, a version which affords greater opportunities for those of us who master it, a
language form which increases our cognitive development.
In other words, studying standard English
in the U.S. not only helps prepare students for higher education and greater access to high status jobs,
it enables students to think more clearly, to better analyze, synthesize, evaluate, use logic, and so forth.
The basis for this belief undoubtedly lies in the fact that only standard English is widely used in
literacy in the U.S, where literacy is inextricably linked to academic development.
English literacy, children are very much at a disadvantage in the U.S., not only socially and politically,
but, according to this argument, also intellectually, because cognitive development can be fully
realized only through the development of the school dialect.
This argument has been elaborated by
psychologists and other experts in the U.S. and elsewhere for decades, and studies have been
conducted to provide evidence to support it.
Hart and Risley (1995), psychologists who specialize in language development in early childhood,
conducted a longitudinal study that showed that, prior to kindergarten, poor children are already so far
behind in language development that there is no way they can ever catch up.
Bereiter and Engelmann
(1966), psychologists who have focused on ethnic influences on language development, reported that
many African American children have such limited language development that they can make no
statements of any kind whatsoever.
Cummins, an educational psychologist who is a world-renowned
expert in bilingual education, argues that conversational language and academic language are vastly
different, and actually follow different developmental patterns (Cummins, 2000).
He argues that the
reason children fare better when their bilingualism and biliteracy is fostered in school is that they
receive the early cognitive advantages that the study of academic language bestows on them.
These researchers are known to care deeply about improving the lives of linguistically-
disadvantaged children; their findings are powerful, persuasive, and the implications of their findings
The early childhood experts demonstrate the need for educators to reach out to children
long before kindergarten to begin their education in standard English, while working at the same time
to educate their hopelessly ill-prepared parents in an effort to minimize the damage that the parents’
lack of literacy and underdeveloped speech inflict on their children.
Bilingual educators are urged to
teach academic language to English learners, academic English at least, if not also academic Spanish