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Bilingualism and First Language Retention on English Language Learners: Impact, Effects, and

Virginia N. Sanz Ramirez

Texas A&M University-Commerce



But what if I cant understand my son anymore? Her worried eyes asked for

reassurance. Mrs. Flores was concerned that Juan, her son, would stop speaking Spanish if he

exited the bilingual program. Many bilingual teachers face this question again and again; there is

not a simple way to answer.

Many students like Juan have the opportunity to cultivate their home language and

English in the context of bilingual education. But do bilingual students, ELLs, maintain their first

language once they exit the program? Some of them do, and are able to converse, read and write

effortlessly, while others understand but would switch to English rapidly.

What determines whether theyll accomplish a bilingual literacy or not? What happened

to Juan was he able to navigate the academic system successfully? Did he lose his Spanish?

What did that mean for his family?

Many bilingual students like Juan have the innate possibility of being fully literate in two

languages. Are they taking advantage of this opportunity, or not?

Statement of the Problem

In the context of a globalized world, multilingualism and bilingualism are assets of

value. Even more, researchers have found neurological benefits from the bilingual brain such as

concentration, focus, and even dementia protection. Currently, in the state of Texas, we have a

growing bilingual population. The Texas Education Code states that students whose home

language is other than English should be provided bilingual education or the opportunity to

participate in the English as a Second Language program.

According to Tex. Educ. Code Chap 89 89.1201 Adaptations for Special Populations.

Subchapter BB. Commissioners Rules Concerning State Plan for Educating English Language

Learners, the goal of bilingual education programs shall be to enable English language learners

to become competent in listening, speaking, reading, and writing in the English language through

the development of literacy and academic skills in the primary language and English. (p.1)

School districts can choose from four models: Transitional Bilingual early/exit, Transitional

Bilingual late/exit, Dual Immersion two-way and Dual Immersion one-way. Eventually, all of

these programs will transfer the students to a monolingual setting.

The focus question of this study is what happens next, what is the likelihood for bilingual

students to maintain their first language as they navigate through our education system. District

officials are concerned about ELL's achievement in Standardized Testing, administrators

question TELPAS ratings and scores; bilingual teachers use their best judgment to determine

student's testing language. Bilingual teachers have the responsibility of deciding whether a

student is ready to exit the program or not, often wondering if they will retain their first

language, and crossing fingers that they will.

The purpose of this study is to explore what are the factors that could impact whether an

ELL will be able to become fluent in both languages or will eventually lean towards one.

Although the dominant academic language is English, there are many other instances

where being fully bilingual (able to speak, read and write) will benefit our students, for example,

the marketplace has a high demand for bilingual individuals. On the contrary, losing their first





Research Questions

1. Why do some bilingual students lose literacy skills in their first language?

2. What factors contribute to some bilingual students being able to maintain two


3. What are the consequences of an ELL becoming a monolingual speaker?

Hypotheses Statements

It is not a lack of resources or practice opportunities that lead ELLs to privilege learning

one language while neglecting the other, but rather the perceived value of the first language on

the eyes of the learning community, including peers, family, teachers and administrators.

Students might not foresee the possible consequences of abandoning their first language,

such as isolation and deterioration of family relationships and loss of future opportunities.

Review of Related Literature

Multilingualism and bilingualism are common situations in many countries, Canada,

Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, South Africa, China, India, etc where two or more language

cohabit in a society and educational system. Multiple studies had research about the possible

effects of multilingualism and bilingualism. The mere coexistence of multiple languages implies

linguistic, social, political and cognitive effects. Research reports about the social benefits of

multilingualism, such as intellectual flexibility, social adaptability, competitive edge in the

marketplace (Okal, 2014).

There are also many cognitive benefits of bilingualism; studies have demonstrated an

advantage of bilingual individuals over monolingual in general cognitive abilities, especially task

shifting and mental flexibility. Christoffels et al. (2013) state, Bilingual education is associated

with better cognitive control skills and a bias toward a more focused spotlight of attention. (p.


Throughout the history of the United States, there had been diverse and conflicting views

and policies about bilingual education, from banning the use of languages other than English at

the beginning of the XX century to the current immersion and dual language bilingual programs.

Historically, these changes and shifting views have to do with sociopolitical and economic

factors like the European colonization in the early 19th century, the World Wars, the Cold War,

and Civil Rights movements (Ovando, 2003). However, currently, the main concern when it

comes to supporting a bilingual educational model or not seems to be student achievement

outcomes. Recent English Only policies such as Proposition 227 in California or Proposition 203

in Arizona haven't been able to demonstrate a significant improvement in ELL academic

outcomes (Baker, Basaraba, & Polanco, 2016).

Of course, the question is what is the goal of bilingual education. Is it only to achieve

English proficiency, or to assure academic success for all students regardless the language they

are tested? There are achievement gaps between ELL and English proficient individuals,

specifically a lower scoring trend in Math and Reading, but this gap reduces over time and it is

not only due to the language learning factor (Barrow and Markman-Pithers, 2016). When it

comes to student achievement, language proficiency is just one variable; poverty, parent's

literacy, and educational level play also an important role (Feng, Gai, & Chen, 2014).

If the goal is just to promote English proficiency, the bilingual education model of choice

is just a tool; other factors like quality of instruction, family and community environment are

crucial for the students success in achieving English proficiency (Barrow and Markman-Pithers,

2016). In 2004, Hofstetters studied the effectiveness of the transitional bilingual program (ALA)

compared to the Structured English Immersion (SEI) finding no significant difference in scores

in both content based tests and the listening, speaking and reading portions of the California

English Language Development Test.

The attitudes towards the first language have a great impact in the learner. Language can

be seen as an obstacle that interferes with the learner's ability to develop in the educational

system, or as an asset that can enhance the learning experience and benefit the learner in the long

term. Ruiz (1984) offers a framework to understand the bilingual experience describing two

ideologies: Language as problem or Language as right and resource. These opposite ideologies

permeate instruction, planning, and policy making in our education system.

Bilingual teachers draw and navigate between both paradigms; but unless there is

ideological clarity in the learning community, students are not able to cultivate and achieve

fluency in both languages (Zuiga, 2016).

It is important and possible for students to achieve full biliteracy if they dont; there are

more than just linguistic consequences such as social alienation from their original communities,

broken connection with background culture and history, unclear cultural identity and loss of

marketplace opportunities. As Zuiga (2016) concludes: a failure to acknowledge linguistic

rights alongside resource ideologies will only continue to alienate subjugated communities from

their linguistic heritage along with the benefits of their language resources. (pp. 351-352)

In order to make possible for ELLs to attain complete biliteracy in all four-language domains,

first, we must fully comprehend and explore what are the factors that determine whether an ELL

would be able to develop both L1 and L2 with the same level of competency. We need to extend

the exploration to the whole learning community, administrators, regular education teachers,

students, and parents. Therefore, this study will offer different perspectives that would help

further understand the complex panorama that bilingual students go through as they navigate our

educational system.

Significance of the Study

This study will explore and observe the attitudes towards language amongst different

members of a learning community in order to determine how they affect the likelihood of an ELL

to maintain fluency and develop full literacy in both L1 and L2. These observations will

contribute to the current literature by describing the language ideologies and how they interact

and crossover with each other. Administrators, teachers, parents and peers perceptions and

beliefs about bilingualism have a direct and powerful impact on the potential of an ELL

becoming a true bilingual individual. Shedding light on these attitudes and their effects will

contribute to creating awareness in the learning community. By bringing clarity and monitoring

the language ideologies that cross over the learning environment, we could provide ELLs a better

opportunity to cultivate both languages giving them a connection to their roots, and resources for

their future.


This qualitative descriptive study will focus on interviewing and observing students,

teachers, administrators, and parents regarding their attitudes and beliefs towards bilingualism,

finding factors that contribute or hinder ELLs ability to maintain and develop literacy skills in

both languages and describing the possible consequences of disregarding one.


Participants of this study will be selected randomly amongst volunteers of the learning

community of three major school districts in the DFW area, Mesquite ISD, Dallas, ISD and

Garland ISD. Invitation letters will be sent to Elementary, Middle and High schools to request

administrator, teacher, parents, and students participation. The projected sample will be

conformed by at least two schools of every stage from every district: one administrator, two

regular education teachers, two bilingual teachers, four regular education students, four bilingual

students and their respective parents (an estimate of 306 participants).

Upon school districts approval, letters will be sent to Administrators to request meetings

to explain the research and their participation. Administrators would facilitate a meeting with

teachers on their campus, and teachers will recommend students. Letters will be sent to students

parents explaining the project and requesting their participation.

Administrators participation is important because they guide their campus ideologies;

their experiences and attitudes permeate in the staff and students. General education and

bilingual teachers approach to language acquisition and bilingualism impact students

perceptions. Bilingual and monolingual students are the core of the learning community and their

point of view is important to their peers. Also, parents own views regarding language might have

the most impact on the students development.

It is also important to select participants from diverse grade levels to observe the process

of language assimilation or coexistence. Elementary students that are in bilingual and

monolingual classes, middle and high school students who have exited the program or that

continue on ESL.


After the initial informative meetings, a short survey will be administered to the

participants. The purpose of this survey is to gather baseline information about language

acquisition and bilingualism. Using a Likert scale format participants will be asked their opinion

about bilingualism and language habits. The next step will be interviewing the participants about

their experiences with language learners, and their observations about language development.

Since the participants represent different aspects of the learning community, the questions

will vary. A flowchart will help to guide through the interview process.

For administrators, the questions will revolve around their observation about ELLs

achievement, trends of test taking language and exiting students from the bilingual program at

the elementary level. General education teachers will be asked about their observation about

linguistic choices, and student achievement of ELLs in their classes, whether they had been

exited from the program or are denials. Additionally, bilingual teachers will be asked about the

parameters they use in order to select students test taking language, and exiting


Monolingual students from general education students would be asked about their

opinion about language acquisition and personal linguistic experiences. Some of them, although

attending general education classes, might come from bilingual homes. Bilingual students that

are currently participating or had been exited from the program will be asked the same questions,

plus how comfortable they feel when using each language. Parts of these interviews will be done

in Spanish to verify the speaking and listening fluency of the students. A short questionnaire with

open-ended questions in Spanish will also be part of the procedure. Since the students will be at a

different stage of their academic journey, we will be able to observe whether the students

maintain their bi-literacy or not.

Special attention will be put on high school students, if they demonstrate fluency in both

languages or a predilection for one language, additional questions about their speaking, listening,

reading and writing habits will be asked.


ELLs parents will be asked about their language preferences, habits, and expectations for

their children. Parents from bilingual children that cant demonstrate fluency in Spanish will be

asked to describe how that matter had impacted or not in their family and social interactions.


General ELL achievement (Across all levels)
Teacher ELLs linguistic choices both formal and
informal interaction (Across all levels)

ELL achievement (Elementary Level)

Bilingual ELLs linguistic choices both formal and

Education informal interaction (Elementary Level)
Test taking language selection parameters
(Elementary level)

Exiting program
Linguistic recommendations
experiences and interactions (Across
Monolingual (Elementary Level)
student all levels)

Language acquisition value (Across all levels)

Bilingual Linguistic experiences and interactions (Across

student all levels)

Level of comfort in each language (Across all


Linguistic preferences
Language habits at school and at home (Across
and expectations for
Parents of all levels)
ELL students their children (Across all levels)

Linguistic habits at home (Across all levels)

Parents of Language preferences and expectations for

ELL student their children (Across all levels)
that cant
demonstrate Linguistic habits at home (Across all levels)
fluency in L1
Impact or change on family and social
interactions. (Middle and High School level)


A grounded theory approach will be used to conduct this research. Given the complexity

of the language acquisition process, the multiple points of view at play in the learning

community, and the exploratory purpose of this research, this design will be the most

appropriate. To find the factors that contribute to maintain or to lose literacy skills in both

languages, and the consequences of the latter, categories must be found in the fieldwork,

listening to the participants of this complex phenomenon. The open coding and axial coding

procedures will be helpful to determine the categories, compare the data and elaborate a visual

paradigm that reflects the relationships between the themes found in the field work. Also, this

design allows us to collect, analyze and go back to the field to refine the findings. The final

propositions will provide light on the perceptions about language in the learning community and

how they impact the ability of the students to achieve full literacy in L1 and L2. Supporting the

hypothesis that its the perceived value of L1 on the learning community and how those language

ideologies permeate on their actions that determine whether an ELL maintains both languages or

not. Also exploring what are the possible effects on the community when an ELL prioritize L2

over L1.

The first step will be to obtain permission from the School Districts involved in the

research. Once the authorization has been cleared and a list of school administrators from each

level is acquired, letters describing the research purpose and requesting an introductory meeting

would be sent to school administrators. The goal is to obtain two elementary, middle and high

schools from each district involved in the project. At each site, we will follow the same

procedures to implement the research.


Data Analysis

The data collection will be done in different stages. First, an initial meeting with campus

administrators will be held, in this meeting, a short baseline survey with general demographic

questions, language habits and opinions about bilingualism will be administered. Following this

initial step, a semi-structured interview will be held to explore the administrators experiences

with language learners, their achievements, and test taking trends.

Once these interviews are finished and upon administrators approval, campus teachers

will be contacted. Again, an introductory letter will ask for their participation in the research. The

goal is to obtain two regular education and two bilingual teachers participation on the

elementary school level, and two regular education and an ESL or Spanish teacher at the middle

and high school levels.

With the teachers agreement, an observation period would start. Short visits to the

participants classrooms will be held to observe and collect data about language use and habits in

formal and informal settings. After this observation period, teachers will be interviewed. Once

again, the same survey instrument will be administered first, and then followed by an interview

with guidelines and probes about experiences with ELL, language habits, and test taking trends.

The next stage will be the students participation. A group of four students from each

classroom will be selected based on the researchers observation. Focus group interviews will be

conducted to explore the students attitudes, beliefs, and habits about language learning and

biliteracy. The previously noted survey will be administered to the participants, but with an

additional open-ended questionnaire to demonstrate language proficiency.


The last data collection stage would reach out to students parents. Theyll be contacted

through mailed letters accompanied by a survey and an open-ended questionnaire. Upon

analysis, some parents might be asked to further participate in a one on one interview.

Additional documents and artifacts such as journals, compositions, achievement rate

reports, might be collected with teachers and students permission.

All interviews will be recorded and transcribed. Observation, fieldwork documents will

also be noted for further analysis. The information will be organized by the participants role in

the learning community and by sites.

The preliminary exploratory analysis will be done to verify if there is a need for

additional collection, and to explore possible topics. Then the coding process will start finding

common topics, themes and relationships between the language attitudes of the learning

community and students ability to maintain literacy in both L1 and L2. A conceptual map or

figure will come forth connecting the themes to the central phenomenon.

Upon this initial analysis, further information and questions might arise, and a second

round of interviews might be needed with students and family members.

Finally, a narrative presentation will describe the findings of the research, a personal

reflection, and suggestions for further research.


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