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When a family chooses to send their child to a local school, they must typically also choose to give up their home language. Few schools offer language programmes at all, especially at elementary level, and those that do rarely offer programmes at the level need to achieve and to maintain literacy and fluency.
Research shows that the home language invariably dies out by the third generation, and typically in the first.
Additionally, what is spoken at home is increasingly colloquial and informal, lacking detailed and specific vocabulary, levels of formality or subtleties of tense and with significant inroads by the outside or dominant language.
Famileis who claim they "speak the language at home" in fact do not. At IST, we interviewed a potential Chinese teacher who had grown up in the US "speaking the language at home", but who confessed that when she visited China she had challenges speaking to her modern, and somewhat westernised cousins, but was absolutely unable to speak to her grandmother. Her lack of the more formal language, and her restricted vocabulary required interpreting assistance from her cousins.
She further recounted how she had been scremd at in a train station for having used the wrong door; despite "speaking the language at home", she was unable to read the door signs.
We also heard that Sears recently interviewed Tucson Hispanics for a Spanish-language call centre who "speak the language at home". The candidates failed the language assessment because their Spanish was not at a sufficiently high level.
And we know of a Punjabi-American couple who had each grown up speaking Punjabi at home, but who feel more confortable in English, especially with complex or abstract ideas. The language they use in their home with their children is English.
We know of several familes who came to Tucson for one or two years and chose an "English" school so their children could learn English. In every case, when returning to their home country and even after a relatively short time, their children were behind academically and behind in language. In several cases, their children had to repeat a grade, or were not admitted to a higher level school. (Every such student who attended IST went back to the appropriate grade, in some cases promoted to a higher grade, or was accepted into a "tier one" school.) Language loss seriously affected their preformance, and "speaking the language at home" had been insufficient.
The only way to preserve the spoken language, to access complex grammar and vocabulary, to differentiate between narrow shades of meaning, to respond to nuance, to be able to speak nicely to grandma or to speak publically or to speak to very important people is to study the language at school. We learn and maintain language through literacy, and we develop literacy through study.
Spanish-speakers moving to Tucson (or Chinese or French or German) can now maintain their home language, and improve it through formal study, without having to drop it to learn English. IST's programme allows these children to become biliterate, and so truly bilingual.