NEW YORK, March 29 (Reuters Life!) - Preschoolers who speak Spanish as their first language at home are losing their native tongue while also struggling to speak English, according to American researchers.
After comparing four-year-old children in the United States and Puerto Rico, they said they were shocked that their Spanish was so poor and at such a young age .
"The most surprising finding was that the levels of Spanish oral language ability was as low as they were for the sample in the mainland of the United States," said Mariela Paez, a professor at Boston College in Massachusetts.
"A large percentage of the mothers and the families of these children are speaking Spanish at home and so we expected that their Spanish, their oral language ability in particular, would be at higher levels and that wasn't the case."
Paez, who has a bilingual family and speaks Spanish at home, and her team studied 319 bilingual children in Massachusetts and Maryland in their first year of preschool. The children were from homes where Spanish was at least one language spoken.
The researchers compared them to 144 children in Puerto Rico who spoke Spanish. All of the children were assessed in the autumn of 2001 and the following spring.
They measured the children's letter and word recognition, writing, spelling, vocabulary and language recall in the study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.
The bilingual children were tested in Spanish and English.
"We need to start paying attention to oral language ability both in the child's first language and in English," Paez said.
Some children demonstrated high abilities in both languages and in just one language. But the youngsters to worry about are the ones with low levels in both English and Spanish, particularly those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, according to the researchers.
"There's no doubt that children and everyone in the United States needs to learn English in order to succeed but it doesn't need to be at the expense of the first language," Paez said.
"Children's first language skills can provide a foundation for learning English."
While Spanish speakers are the largest non-English speaking group in the United States, Paez said the education system needs to address the needs of young children and their language development.
"But you still have to think about language diversity, what to do with those other 100 languages represented in some school systems," she said.