The definition of first language
Ideally, British-born children are expected to have English as their first language. However, according to the definition given by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), “the ‘first language’ is the language to which the child was initially exposed during early development and continues to use in the home and community” (DfES, 2006). In other words, for a British-born child who comes from home where English is not the first language, English is not considered the child’s mother tongue, no matter how proficient the child becomes. As a result, the dominant view is that children of immigrants from non-English-speaking homes should not integrate with students who are from English-speaking homes. Critics argue that this categorisation is more likely to lead to the labelling of children as non-English-speaking (Strand et al., 2015). Schools recognise that these children have distinct home languages and put them under a single label based on the fact that they are not considered as native English speakers. Evidence has revealed that children of Horn of African refugees who are placed in EAL class are often placed into lower, vocational and, in some cases, special education programmes (Kuyok, 2010). Following the mainstream definition of the first language, the existing studies on the poor academic performance of Black African students draw a uniform conclusion that their poor academic achievement is due to language difficulties and low parental human capital (Aspinall & Chinouya, 2016; Mitton & Aspinall, 2009).
Regarding linguistic minority students, Lee’s (2005) ethnographic study examines the impact of ESL placement on students. Her study sheds new light on how ESL placement might influence access to institutional resources that promote academic success or failure. In terms of children of non-English-speaking parents, institutionalised practices such as ESL placement (Faltis & Arias, 2007; Lee, 2005) have negative consequences for their academic outcomes. The placement of students into differential curricula as a result of such placement can independently determine students’ immediate opportunities to learn, their motivation and their long-term educational trajectories. The studies mentioned above illustrate one of the systematic ways in which schools have been organised to create opportunities for some and close others’ chances to access support. Similarly, American scholars have used Rosenbaum’s (1978) notion of structure of opportunity in school as a conceptual framework to explain how language policy structures failure or success for some native-born minority and linguistic minority students (Gandara & Rumberger, 2009; Lee, 2005). They applied the concept of the structure of opportunity to understand how EAL status mechanisms have influenced the academic and social failure of students.
Other researchers have extended the argument that the EAL/ESL placement of linguistic minority students has impacts that go beyond learning
English. At a school policy level, the language policy in EAL placement produces organisational constraints in the schooling process itself. In such a setting, EAL students are more likely to be placed at an academic disadvantage in programmes designed for newcomers or for the students who are new to the English language. Explicitly focussing on native-born minority students, one non-academic factor that influences course placement is ESL/EAL status (Callahan et al., 2009). Therefore, Callahan and colleagues (Callahan et al., 2010) conclude, similar to the tracking system argument made by sociologist, Jennie Oakes (1985), that EAL/ESL placement is a better predictor of English learners’ academic performance than proficiency in English. Researchers (Callahan et al., 2010; Messele, 2014) explain that placement often limits linguistic minority students’ exposure to varied academic content and leads to both social and academic segregation. In her study, Lee found that American-born Hmong felt that they do not belong in academia and had very little aspiration for academia careers. More specifically, evidence suggests that ESL classes create unequal access to positive social circles, role models and fully qualified and skilled teachers (Gándara & Rumberger, 2009), and also create differential expectations and instructions (Oakes, 1985; Weiner & Oakes, 1996). Although researchers have acknowledged that EAL/ESL placement has a positive impact on new arrival and first-generation3 immigrant students, language critic such as Lee (2006) do not believe that classifying linguistic minority children is always in the best interest of the child. Minority social scientists, thus, raise a critical point in noting that many immigrant students who come from non-English-speaking homes appear to overcome their obstacles and excel academically, while others fail. In their view, language has become a new way to segregate linguistic minority students and deny them access to institutional support, which leads to the groups of reproduction of educational inequalities between or within different ethnic minority students. As a result, American scholars remind us that any discussion of social capital is incomplete if we do not account for how school practices and language policies such as EAL programmes and setting/tracking reproduce social inequalities in schools (Conchas, 2006; Gándara & Orfield, 2012; Lee, 2005; Oakes, 1985; Rosenbaum, 1978).