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Focus on Bilingualism: Language Loss in English Language Learners (ELLs)

By: Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Roanne Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
Initial data analysis in a study being conducted in Florida indicated that the majority of the students being studied were showing English dominance and less than proficient Spanish oral language skills. Hence, the following questions emerged. Are the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade bilingual students experiencing language loss of their home language (L1) or is it that they have never fully developed their first language? It appears that the answer may be a combination of the above two factors. Developmentally children continue to develop language skills and proficiency into their teens and late adolescence (sometimes continuing into their twenties) (Brice & Brice, 2009). It is also known that learning a second language may take 2-3 years for oral speaking and listening skills and 4-6 years to develop academic language skills (Cummins, 1984; Thomas & Collier, 1997).
What is also involved is the early introduction of English into the home environment and its displacement of the native language in terms of popularity, use, and proficiency. Brice, Carson, and O’Brien (2009) noted that even in largely Spanish speaking environments (i.e., Miami and Orlando, Florida) young four-year-old children coming from Spanish speaking homes showed strong influences of English on their Spanish phonology and vocabulary skills.
What happens when students are exposed to two languages under ideal conditions? Research has shown that if students are exposed to two languages in a somewhat equal amount (e.g., 60% English, 40% Spanish) over time, such as in dual language programs, then balanced bilingual language development can occur (Brice & Wertheim, 2004/2005). However, language loss can occur under less than ideal bilingual language exposure conditions (Anderson, 1999). Language loss occurs when the native or home language develops minority status, a frequent result of transitional bilingual models. Given that English is very predominant in the environment (i.e., school), the media (e.g., television, the internet), and in general communication for children (e.g., teachers, friends); it is inescapable that English will become dominant and the first language (L1) will become a minority language. The acquisition of English while losing the native language has strong consequential effects: (1) the child’s language may resemble a language learning disability; (2) communication with parents may diminish; (3) it may take significantly longer to develop full academic language skills in English (Thomas & Collier, 1997); and (4) ) transference of learned language skills from L1 to English will be diminished (Cummins, 1984, 1998).
Cummins (1984, 1998) postulated a threshold hypothesis, which stated that certain levels of language proficiency must be achieved in the first language before language transfer can occur and before the cognitive advantages of bilingualism can be promoted. If this threshold is not achieved then subtractive bilingualism (i.e., L1 language loss) occurs. However, if the second threshold is achieved, then language transference can occur between the two languages.
In summary, it appears that language loss among typically developing bilingual students may be more common than many speech-language pathologists and educators may suspect. It is to the benefit of the child and the school that bilingual, ELL students maintain their home language (i.e., less referrals for speech-language tier two or tier three interventions as these students may appear to be language learning disabled). Research has demonstrated that promoting bilingualism promotes English language development and acquisition (Brice & Brice 2009; Brice & Wertheim, 2004/2005). Brice, Miller, and Brice (2006) offered some suggestions in educating English language learners. Some specific language recommendations include: (1) Model correct English language; (2) Provide grammar drills with direct instruction; and, (3) Allow for code switching to occur. In conclusion, speech-language pathologists should promote bilingualism and encourage teachers, family members, and students to be proud of their native language and to use it often.


Anderson, R. (1999). Impact of first language loss on grammar in a bilingual child. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 21(4), 4-16.
Brice, A. & Brice, R. (2009). (Ed.s). Language development: Monolingual and bilingual acquisition. Old Tappan, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Brice, A., Carson, C., & O’Brien, J. (2009). Spanish-English articulation and phonology of four and five year old preschool children: An initial investigation. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 31(1), 3-14.
Brice, A., Miller, K., & Brice, R. G. (2006). Language in the English as a second
language and the general education classroom: A tutorial . Communication Disorders Quarterly, 27, 240-247.
Brice, A., & Wertheim, E. (2004/2005). Language differentiation in young bilingual children. Tejas. Texas Journal of Audiology and Speech Language Pathology, 28, 24-31.
Cummins, J. (1984). Bilingualism and special education: Issues in assessment and pedagogy. Avon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Cummins, J. (1998). Beyond adversarial discourse: Searching for common ground in the education of bilingual students. Presentation to the California State Board of Education, Sacramento,
Thomas, P., & Collier, V. (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
This Month’s Featured Authors:
Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP – University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Roanne Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP – University of Central Florida
Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP – Bilinguistics, Inc.

Many thanks to The Authors for providing this article for this months newsletter
Dr. Alejandro E. Brice is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in Secondary/ESOL Education. His research has focused on issues of transference or interference between two languages in the areas of phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics related to speech-language pathology. In addition, his clinical expertise relates to the appropriate assessment and treatment of Spanish-English speaking students and clients. Please visit his website at or reach him by email at [email protected]
Dr. Roanne G. Brice is the Assistant to the Chair for the Department of Child, Family and Community Sciences at the University of Central Florida. Her research interests have focused on language and beginning literacy skills in bilingual children and students with disorders/disabilities. In addition to teaching at the university level, Dr. Brice has been an itinerant and self-contained classroom speech-language pathologist as well as a general education classroom teacher. She may be reached at [email protected]
Dr. Ellen Kester is a Founder and President of Bilinquistics, Inc. She earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She earned her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She has performed workshops and training seminars, and has presented at conferences both nationally and internationally. Dr. Kester teaches courses in language development, assessment and intervention of language disorders, early childhood intervention, and measurement at The University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at
[email protected]

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