Simultaneous vs. Sequential Bilinguals

According to research, emergent bilinguals (also known as English Language Learners, or ELLs) who are entering our schools in Kindergarten are developing their two languages in a different order than they did in the past.

When most people think of emergent bilinguals, they imagine sequential bilinguals.  Sequential bilinguals are those students who enter school clearly speaking a world language other than English and who are exposed to English for the first time only after starting Kindergarten.  However, the majority of emergent bilingual students who are born in the United States are no longer sequential bilinguals.  Instead, they are simultaneous bilinguals.  

Simultaneous bilinguals are those students who, before the age of 5, are exposed to both English and a home language other than English.  They may, therefore, know some concepts in their home language and other concepts in English.  They may speak one of the two languages better than the other or both equally well, but may not yet be proficient in either language.  Because of their developing proficiency in both languages, simultaneous bilinguals may score poorly on language proficiency exams in both the languages they are learning.  Therefore, they are often thought to “not have language” when in reality, their combined knowledge of both languages is developmentally appropriate. 

Fortunately, both sequential and simultaneous bilinguals benefit from the same language supports.  Teachers may provide instruction in both languages, use gestures, provide visuals, extend wait time, check for understanding, scaffold, and/or pre-teach vocabulary.  They are especially great candidates for Dual Language Education. With Dual Language Education, emergent bilinguals are not only poised to close the opportunity gap in English, they will be graduating with two languages under their belts.

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