What is it, and why should we care?
As early as kindergarten, we learn that when we add, the result is a greater sum, while when we subtract, we end up with less.
Now, take that principle and apply it to language learning.
Across the United States, many ESL/ESOL programs practice Subtractive Bilingualism—that is, reducing the native language in favor of the target language: English.
This process can be a gradual, “immersive” approach, or it may take on an approach that’s closer to throw-you-in-the-water-and-hope-you-can-swim.
When ESOL students display slow progress in English, teachers and admin may even suggest parents stop using the native language with the child, and instead adopt an English-only home.
I will be frank. My purpose for writing is not only to inform you, but convince you that a suggestion like this can have devastating consequences on a child’s development, cultural connection, and self-esteem.
Stripping the mother tongue from the home is not the way to English acquisition. Or to better test scores. It won’t result in sudden, spontaneous English literacy development.
Subtractive Bilingualism sets out to replace the child’s native tongue in order to foster their English skills, but evidence has shown that this language loss can actually slow down the child’s development in the target language.
In fact, subtractive bilingualism does more than stunt a student’s L1 and L2 growth; it also sends a profoundly negative message: Your native tongue–and all that comes with it–-has no value here.
On the contrary, the research says there is great value in bilingualism, and speakers of multiple languages benefit tremendously in school and in life, regardless of age.
- Enhanced critical thinking skills and ability for abstract thought
- Understanding complex math concepts and solving word problems
- Increased self-control
- Greater job opportunities in a global world
- Delayed onset of Alzheimer’s disease
So, what can we do?
Whether you’re a teacher, parent, or caregiver, you might be overwhelmed by the small role you play in what must be a systematic change to the current educational paradigm in the United States.
And we’re not asking you to burn down the system.
You’ve already got a lot on your plate.
You may be teaching in a school that adopts a subtractive approach. But that does not mean your classroom must be subtractive.
Encourage respect and tolerance by building a classroom community that values cultural and linguistic diversity. Read diverse books that integrate your students’ native languages and home countries, and ask students to consider how their language compares and contrasts to English during everyday lessons.
Parents, you may be sending your children to schools with ESOL programs that adhere to a subtractive approach; but that doesn't mean you should stop your work with your children in the native language at home.
Show pride in your native language and culture through music, books, and media that portray these aspects of you and your family authentically.
And no matter who tells you otherwise, bilingualism in any form only adds value to your child’s life.
It does not, and will not, subtract from it.