When Learning a Second Language Means Losing the First.pdf...

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Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6, 323-346 (1991) When Learning a Second Language Means Losing the First Lily Wong Fillmore* University of California, Berkeley In societies like the United States with diverse populations, children from linguistic minority families must learn the language of the society in order to take full advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the society. The timing and the conditions under which they come into contact with English, however, can profoundly affect the retention and continued use of their primary languages as well as the development of their second lan- guage. This article discusses evidence and findings from a nationwide study of language shift among language-minority children in the U.S. The find- ings suggest that the loss of a primary language, particularly when it is the only language spoken by parents, can be very costly to the children, their families, and to society as a whole. Immigrant and American Indian families were surveyed to determine the extent to which family language patterns were affected by their children's early learning of English in preschool pro- grams. Families whose children had attended preschool programs con- ducted exclusively in Spanish served as a base of comparison for the families whose children attended English-only or bilingual preschools. THE PROBLEM In this article, we address a problem in second language learning that has long been acknowledged, but which has not received the attention it deserves from researchers.' Specifically, this article deals with the phenomenon of "subtractive bilingualism," the name given the problem by Wallace Lambert who first discussed it in relation to French-Canadian and Canadian immi- grant children whose acquisition of English in school resulted not in bilin- gualism, but in the erosion or loss of their primary languages (Lambert, * This article was written on behalf of the No-Cost Research Group (NCRG), consisting of the 300 + individuals across the United States who participated in this study, preparing research materials, recruiting and training interviewers, interviewing families, processing and analyzing data and interpreting findings. It includes many members of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), and the No-Cost Research Group acknowledges the support of NABE's national leadership in this effort. Correspondence and requests for reprints should be sent to Lily Wong Fillmore, Professor of Education, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720. ' Merino (1983) and Pan and Berko-Gleason (1986) are notable exceptions. 323
324 Wong Fillmore 1975, 1977, 1981). The phenomenon is a familiar one in the United States. It is the story of countless American immigrant and native children and adults who have lost their ethnic languages in the process of becoming linguistically assimilated into the English-speaking world of the school and society. Few American-born children of immigrant parents are fully proficient in the

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