Part-time PhD student Sarah Coles is currently researching UK-born children’s lived experiences of growing up in more than one language. In this blog, she considers the place of the home language in the linguistic landscape of bilingual children from linguistic minority communities.
My research focuses on the development
of both first language (L1) and English (L2) of bilingual children growing up
as members of linguistic minority communities in an L2 context. It’s a longitudinal study that follows a
small sample of bilingual children through their first year of schooling. Using picture sequences, I elicit stories
from each child, one in L1 and another in English, their L2. This will be done once at the beginning of
the fieldwork phase and again at the end.
In this way, I hope to be able to identify how the children’s two
languages evolve over time and to document any shift in dominance from one
language to another that may occur. I
will also work with each child to explore their lived experiences of growing up
in two languages. Additional contextual
information, including the detail of their own language use, will be gathered
from the children’s parents. Ultimately,
through the children’s own narratives, I hope to deepen practitioners’
understanding of bilingual children in the Foundation Stage and to pinpoint
some practical ways in which support for such children might be tailored to
improve their engagement with their learning.
Setting the scene: two
broad-brush models of bilingual development
Across the globe, monolingualism is not the norm for all
children; exposure to more than one language and bilingual development from an
early age is in fact more prevalent than a monolingual model. Children may experience different routes in
their journeys to bilingualism dependent on their immediate family contexts. Some children will be born into households
where each parent speaks a different language and the child has access to both
from birth. This might be described as simultaneous
bilingualism. Other families may be part
of a settled immigrant community and the child may experience a monolingual
start, being exposed to a minority language at home and, later in their
development, the majority language outside of it. This would describe sequential
The outcomes for children growing
up in bilingual settings are varied. Some
will go on to develop comparable skills - receptive and productive – in their
two (or more) languages and will be able to function in different contexts –
school, home, community – equally well in both/all. At the other end of the spectrum, it is just
as possible for a child to have exposure to two (or more) languages yet to
learn to speak only one themselves.
The possible impact of differential linguistic prestige
There are various factors that may
influence the course and outcome of a bilingual child’s language
development. One that seems to be significant
relates to people’s perception of the relative prestige of the child’s two – or
more - languages. A child from a linguistic
minority community may experience a monolingual start to life with exposure to
the minority language in the home from their main care-givers from birth. Later, and because it is the language of
schooling, the child is required to develop a second, additional language,
English. For such a child, the second
language is where the cultural capital resides, it being the language of the majority
community. Because of its sociocultural
dominance over the minority language, it is often the case that this second
language becomes the child’s preferred one, eventually replacing their first,
This is a scenario experienced by
many children of Hampshire’s UK-born ethnic and linguistic minority communities. They may, in their early years, be exposed to
– let’s say – Nepali at home but later, when they start school, English. From that point onwards, families may notice
their child gradually ceases to use Nepali, preferring to respond in English
even when addressed in first language (L1).
This end result is sometimes referred to as ‘passive bilingualism’
although as De Houwer (2009) notes there is “nothing passive about
understanding two languages and speaking one”.
The possible impact of quantity of input experienced
A second consideration is the quantity
of language input experienced by the child.
In a monolingual context, the language of the home is the same as the
language of the wider community and – often – of education too. Everywhere the child goes and everyone they
meet speaks the same language. Hence the
child has multiple models of the same, single language. In contrast, linguistic minority children born
in the UK may have exposure to L1 at home and L2 (English) outside of it. Hence their overall exposure to L1 is – in
most cases - reduced.
The impact of reduced exposure to
each of the bilingual child’s two languages has been explored by researchers
with an interest in child language development.
One thing that’s emerged is the observation that a child’s lexicon (the
words they know and use) in each of their languages reflects the amount of
exposure the child has to each language – which is typically less for each
language than the total exposure to their one language experienced by a
monolingual child of similar age. When
their vocabularies in both languages are combined, however, the overall picture
of these bilingual children’s lexical development has been found to be on a par
with their monolingual peers.
Further, research has identified
that if the words known by a bilingual child are listed, only about one third
represent words that are translations of each other; i.e. two thirds of the
words a bilingual child knows in one of their languages are known only in that
language and are not shared with the child’s other language. This is likely to be directly related to differences
in the contexts in which each language is used and the communicative purpose being
The possible impact of context
Some researchers have found there to be discrepancies
between UK-born bilingual children’s skills in L1 (the heritage language)
compared with those of children of comparable age but growing up in a
monolingual context. They suggest that
the L1 skills of bilingual children growing up in the UK are unlikely to reach
a level comparable to monolingual children growing up in country of origin. This, they say, is largely due to reduced
exposure to the heritage language from adult L1 models who may themselves be
experiencing language loss due to lack of use.
The overall outcome, some have suggested, is likely to be ‘incomplete L1
Elsewhere in the literature, the notion that ‘incomplete first language development’ exists at all attracts criticism. Some have argued that all intergenerational first language transmission, including that which takes place in monolingual settings, evidences change. According to this view, what others may see as ‘errors’ in L1 in fact represent “normal intergenerational language change accelerated by conditions of language contact” (Otheguy, 2016). According to this view, in immigrant populations new L1 norms will naturally develop, resulting in divergence between L1 use in an L2 immersion context compared with L1 use in a monolingual, home country context. Hence context has a bearing on the language models to which a bilingual child might be exposed.
The possible impact of the language modelled
Another important consideration when it comes to a child’s
language development is the nature of the language models to which they are
exposed. Typically, linguistic minority parents
themselves do not function in a monolingual context and this can have an impact
on their everyday language practices.
The result is often an incremental increase in both code-switching (characterised
by swapping from one language to another at word/phrase level) and code-mixing
(combining grammatical structures from both languages) where in their
speech they move in a fluid, natural way between languages, swapping a word or
a phrase here and borrowing a grammatical structure there.
In the literature, code-mixing and code-switching are identified
as common linguistic practices amongst bilingual populations. Having been found to be rule-based and
systematic, code-switching and code-mixing are these days viewed in a
favourable light as opposed to the deficit view that prevailed in the past that
stigmatised them as “…the haphazard embodiments of “language confusion”
Although limited in terms of the number of empirical studies into the impact on bilingual children’s language development of code-switching and code-mixing by their parents, research suggests that bilingual adults frequently engage in these practices in interactions with their children. This is in line with trends identified in the broader sweep of studies into bilingual code-switching and code-mixing. What it means for a child growing up in more than one language is that they are likely to experience code-switching and code-mixing in language inputs modelled by family members and other significant adults around them. This may in turn prompt them to code-switch and code-mix themselves in their own speech.
Code-switching and code-mixing in
parental inputs appear to influence L1 development in children growing up as
members of language minority communities in other ways too. Some studies have found a negative
correlation, with higher rates of code-switching and code-mixing by parents resulting
in lower comprehension and production vocabulary sizes in young children. Others have identified that code-switched
input, arguably more challenging to process than input in a single language,
has positive outcomes but only for those children with greater verbal working
memory capacity who are capable of processing it.
What this means for my research
To draw to a close, the above
whistle-stop tour illustrates that bilingual language development is a complex,
multi-faceted phenomenon. It is affected
by multiple influences, each impacting in different ways and to different
degrees on the individual child in their own specific context. Through my research, I make space for a small
sample of UK-born bilingual children to explore these differences and to focus
on their first-hand experiences of growing up in more than one language. Once this has happened, any findings relevant
to practitioners working with young, UK-born bilingual learners will be shared
so that all bilingual children in Hampshire schools and settings receive a Year
R experience that is sensitive to their developmental needs.
De Houwer, A. (2009). Bilingual
first language acquisition (1st ed., Vol. 2). Multilingual Matters.
MacSwan, J. (2017). A Multilingual Perspective on
Translanguaging. American educational research journal, 54(1), 167-201.
Otheguy, R. (2016). The linguistic competence of
second-generation bilinguals Romance linguistics 2013 : selected papers from the 43rd Linguistic Symposium on
Romance Languages (LSRL), New York,
17-19 April, 2013, New York.
Regular readers may recall from the Hampshire EMTAS blog a series of journal style articles documenting Sarah Coles’ PhD research into the language learning experiences of UK-born bilingual children. Now in the third year of her part-time studies at the University of Reading, Sarah has carried out some piloting of key data gathering instruments and is now focusing on recruitment for the data collection stage proper. In this blog she reflects on what was gained from the pilot phase of her PhD research.
I write this two weeks into the third national lockdown with mixed feelings about how the pandemic will impact on my research. Since the last time I wrote about my PhD studies back in 2019, I have kept myself busy reading and writing for my Literature Review and Methods chapters, completing two compulsory research methods modules run by the University, one on qualitative and the other on quantitative methods, and piloting the use of both visual methods and the Multilingual Assessment Instrument for Narratives (MAIN) with a small group of Nepali-speaking children who attend schools in Rushmoor.
I had just finished the pilot phase when the first lockdown happened. It very quickly took over everything as most children stopped attending school, staff started grappling with the many challenges brought by a shift towards remote learning and we were all prompted to wonder if we should be wearing masks, stocking up on tinned tomatoes or taking day trips to Barnard Castle.
But much as I dislike how my glasses keep misting up when I put on my now compulsory mask, and much as I rue that I am obliged to continue to live in ignorance of the tourist attractions held by Durham and environs, I don’t want to spend too much time lamenting the impacts of the pandemic. Here, I want instead to refocus, remind myself and you of the purpose of my research and talk a little about the experience of the pilot phase and what was gained through it from working with the children, their families and practitioners at participating schools in Rushmoor.
My PhD research focuses on UK-born bilingual children. I aim to document the children’s language learning journeys from a point just before they start school through to the end of Foundation Stage. This is, I believe, a critical period of the children’s young lives, one that will have a profound and lasting impact on them socially, culturally and linguistically. It is my hope that my research will lead to new understanding of UK-born bilingual children’s lived experiences of growing up in two languages and that this new understanding will be useful to practitioners working in linguistically diverse Foundation Stage classrooms.
The reason for my interest in UK-born children is due to the ways in which they have appeared to me to differ from bilingual children newly arrived from overseas. Initially drawing on only anecdotal evidence, it seemed to me that the language development of UK-born bilingual children may differ substantively from that of the international new arrival. This I saw as important in an educational context mainly because of the way I was hearing practitioners talk about how they were noticing differences in terms of both the children’s home languages and their English. I started to wonder if UK-born children might benefit from subtly different kinds of support and a good starting point in determining what that might look like would be to first develop a better understanding of their experiences and their needs – hence my research focus.
So how are our UK-born EAL learners different? Well, for one thing their home languages are often not as well developed as those of children born overseas. Reasons for this are relatively easy to comprehend if we think about how children acquire language from those around them, both as participants in exchanges and as observers. In a monolingual context, they will hear only one language spoken both in the home and when out in the community. A monolingual experience in the early years, such as that experienced by children born in the UK into an English-only family, has informed practitioners’ expectations of typical language development for children in the Foundation Stage. However, the language learning experiences of children born in the UK into families where a minority language is spoken, eg Nepali, will differ in that they will have some experience of Nepali with family members and friends in the home and in some community settings and some of English, for instance when shopping at the supermarket, playing in the park or attending pre-school. In the EAL world, they may be classed as simultaneous bilinguals, acquiring their two languages together from an early age. This means that when they start school, they may not so uniformly match practitioners’ expectations of their language skills in either Nepali or English. Indeed, research tells us that such children will very likely know as many words as a monolingual child if you count both their languages but if you only count one language, then they may appear to have an under-developed vocabulary. Interestingly, it has been found that the overlap – those words the child knows in both of their languages – is very small; more typically the majority of the lexicon they have in each of their languages is discrete.
A second difference is that UK-born bilingual children are more likely to share with their monolingual, English-only peers experiences of such cultural icons as Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy and of places such as the local library or soft play centre. This means they may have more experiences that are shared with the monolingual majority population than a child who comes as an international new arrival as well as some that most likely are not, such as taking part in Diwali celebrations.
A third difference can arise from the child’s position in the family. The first child is likely to have more experience of the home language than any siblings who follow. Often, parents report that especially where the first child has started school, more English is spoken in the home, particularly amongst the children. The younger siblings may in consequence have more English and less home language when they start school. Parents report that in these circumstances it becomes more challenging to keep the home language going, many observing that their children choose to respond in English when addressed in the home language.
In the pilot phase of my research, the children’s backgrounds were explored through the use of visual methods. Having first gathered information about the family context from parents, each child produced a visual representation of the people who were important to them and talked about the languages they used with those people. This ‘social mapping’ activity showed that for some children their concept of family was global, including geographically-distant relatives. For others, it revealed their personal fascinations, for example one boy depicted a dinosaur as a member of his family, alongside his parents. When talking about their languages, one child confidently asserted that she knew both her languages whilst another child was much less certain about there being present two discrete languages each of which had its own name. Talking about this with parents, it became apparent that in this child’s family everyone code-switched all the time, mixing English and Nepali in the same sentence so there was no clear delineation.
In addition to the social mapping, each child was seen on two further occasions to do some story-telling activities using the MAIN. The MAIN is designed to be used to assess narrative skills in children who acquire one or more languages from birth or from an early age. It evaluates both comprehension and production of narratives. Each child involved in the pilot phase had two experiences of the MAIN, one in first language and one in English. Each time, the session began with a model story using one picture sequence and then the child was asked to tell their own story using a different picture sequence. Only one child chose to use her home language, Nepali, to tell her own story after hearing the model MAIN story in Nepali; the others all chose to use English on both occasions. When analysing the children’s stories, the attributes I was able to identify included examples of code-switching, aspects of story structure the children had used and their use of particular grammatical features.
When analysing other data (transcriptions of the audio recordings) by coding them, which is part and parcel of qualitative data analysis, the code “confidence” seemed relevant across the children who comprised my sample. There was evidence of confidence when talking about their home culture, where clearly the children felt most secure, whereas when talking about school and their learning, especially their experience of early literacy (in English), more hesitation was apparent.
In the data collection for my substantive study, should confidence again emerge as a theme I will have more opportunity to explore it in depth as I follow each child through their first year of compulsory education. During that time, each child will produce a scrap book documenting their engagement with my research, which they will get to keep at the end. They will also be party to my field notes and they will share in the co-creation of their own personal narratives, all of which will give them first-hand experience of personal reflection and of research in education, hopefully experiences from which they will derive some personal benefit. At the end of the year, the MAIN story-telling activities will be repeated, enabling quantifiable comparisons of the children’s languages to be made.
As the fieldwork phase progresses, I will simultaneously be making observations of the children at school and gathering interview data from the children’s teachers and from their parents, these being key participants in the children’s lives. Parents’ and practitioners’ views of bilingualism and of the children’s home languages and cultures will be sought with teachers having the opportunity to talk about how they shape and adapt their practice to accommodate their diverse cohort. This part of my data collection will necessitate great care so as to avoid making unreasonable demands on people’s time. In exchange, I will be sharing my findings as people see fit, whether it be through an input to staff in participating schools at a staff meeting or through network meetings aimed at a wider audience of practitioners working in Foundation Stage or – already on the cards – at the EMTAS Conference on 9th July.
For now though I want first and foremost to extend my thanks and gratitude to all school-based colleagues who supported me in the pilot phase, and to the EMTAS Bilingual Assistants who accompanied me to work with the children. I would also like to invite anyone out there who works in a school in Hampshire and who thinks they might like to be included in my research to get in touch. At this stage, you will need only to have a fair chance of having at least one UK-born child with either Polish or Nepali as their home language starting in your Year R class in September 2021. And, of course, the willingness in principle to allow me access to your classroom to do some observation, to work directly with participating children as described above (adapted as necessary to be Covid-safe) and to carry out a couple of short interviews with you about your views and experiences of working with young, bilingual learners.
Do email me – with questions, requests for more information
or offers of support: email@example.com
In this blog, Debra Page, PhD student at the University of Reading, shares two video updates with us on her research on the Young Interpreter Scheme.
Hello readers. First of all, a huge well-done on making it through a very difficult term!
In this first video, I update you on where I am at with my PhD research evaluating the Young Interpreter Scheme. The project is now all online and I am looking for schools to take part...
In this second video, I talk about some new resources that I will be using during the research project:
If you would like to be involved in the research, or have any questions, please
email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We look forward to hearing more from Debra soon!
PhD student Debra Page updates us on her progress with her research on the Young Interpreter Scheme and invites schools to participate in the next steps of her project – extra brownie points for your EAL Excellence Award submission guaranteed!
Hello readers. I hope that you’re familiar with my name by now. I am conducting research on the Young Interpreter Scheme under the supervision of the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism at the University of Reading and with Hampshire EMTAS as a collaborative partner. Our aims are to evaluate the scheme’s impact on children’s language use, empathy and cultural awareness by comparing Young Interpreter children and non-interpreter children. Additionally, we need to hear your experiences of teaching children with EAL and of running the Young Interpreter Scheme.
It’s been an interesting 5 months since my last blog and the world has changed. The team and I are busy adapting my PhD to fit in to this new normal. On May 4th, I was invited to speak at the first virtual Basingstoke EMTAS network meeting about contingency plans. It was great that so many were able to join and share their thoughts - and are still interested in being part of the research. If you didn’t make it, you can read some information below, with more details available on the PowerPoint slides from the network meeting (attached).
What’s happened so far?
MSc questionnaire findings
Some of you may recall completing my questionnaire for my MSc. This was about working with children with EAL and experiences of running the Young Interpreter Scheme. The main findings from this are available in my previous blog. The team also presented a poster summarising the findings at the NALDIC conference last November.
Planning and preparation
The first 8 months of the PhD have involved finalising the logistics of the research and data collection. Albeit now plans have had to change and we are working with schools on how best to adapt the data collection. Many decisions had to be made about how best to achieve our aims. This involved a lot of research, reading and discussions about the tasks to assess the children, the who, when and where of data collection, and all the requirements for ethical approval from the University of Reading.
Preparing assessment tasks
We have almost finalised a series of pupil-friendly tasks for the children involved. This includes non-verbal aptitude, vocabulary, empathy, grammar, intercultural awareness, and peer to peer interactions. Our job now is to think about how we can adapt these tasks to fit into schools’ new ways of working following the Covid-19 pandemic. My favourite task is the barrier game where children work together to reproduce a given route on a map of a school and school items. Further examples of the assessments are in the PowerPoint.
Young Interpreter Training
One focus of this project is to evaluate the Young Interpreter Scheme training with possible amendments. We want to see if specific training in word-learning strategies can enhance the set of tools Young Interpreters use with their buddies. After many ideas and discussions, I have modified two short stories to use in session 4 of the children’s training at KS1 and KS2. The stories use a strategy called Word Detective, which is from a book called Word Aware – Teaching Vocabulary. They should provide Young Interpreters with ways to help buddies understand new vocabulary using English. These were made in collaboration with EMTAS and we want them to be useful beyond the research project so please let us know your thoughts.
What would being part of the research look like for schools?
we would need agreement from your Headteacher, and they would need to complete our consent form
the Young Interpreter coordinator would need to identify 10-15 children ready to train as Young Interpreters. In total I aim to work with around 50 YI children and 50 non-YI children of the same age, across 3-5 schools
children need to be in Years 1-6 (some of the assessments we use require children to be at least 6 years old)
I will also assess non-Young Interpreter children of the same age and gender as the Young Interpreters you will have identified. These will be known as control group children and serve as a comparison between children who are Young Interpreters and children who are not
I would need help to distribute pupil information sheets and collect signed parental consent forms
I would need to liaise with you to arrange a suitable time for running the Young Interpreter training over a 4-week period; 1 training session per week
I would need to be involved with the 4th and final training session to deliver the training stories, either in school or via video chat
I need 1 week either side of the Young Interpreter training to complete the tasks with the children – 1 week for the pre-training assessment and another week for the post-training assessment. I will spend this time assessing the children immediately before YI training and immediately after training
6 months later I will liaise with the school to arrange an appropriate week for me to assess the YI and control children again
there are no assessments for teachers or parents to complete.
Adaption of the tasks
We will continue working on how our series of tasks can be adapted in light of social distancing rules and government advice.
Revised data collection plans
The original plans for data collection had me in school now, piloting the tasks with children to allow enough time for refinement before the main data collection in September 2020. Realistically now, piloting will not happen before the end of this school year. Hopefully, I can start working with children in October and complete all data collection in the 20/21 academic year. Watch this space.
Creating a YI diary
We want to capture how frequently Young Interpreters are working with EAL peers, what kind of activities they are doing, and what they enjoy the most. If we can understand what works, and what isn’t being used, this would inform future resources for your school and EMTAS. The number and type of interactions can also be taken into account in data analysis. The idea is for children not to have to write too much, or at all, unless they want to add writing. We are in the planning phase for this and your views on the format are welcomed. Perhaps a weekly view, with example activities where children can tick and draw a smiley face? Or stickers they can use? We want your input on this so it’s useful for you and the children as well.
After your responses to my MSc questionnaire, it has been revamped for the PhD. The team and I encourage as many staff as possible to complete the questionnaire. This includes people who are running the scheme, who aren’t running the scheme, and staff who work with children with EAL. This anonymous online questionnaire should take around 15 minutes to complete and will allow myself and Hampshire EMTAS to discover what you really think about the scheme, your experiences of participation, and working with children with EAL. Finding out your views in running the scheme (or not) will help EMTAS improve and expand it, plus you will be helping to shape its future. Take part now and tell us what you think.
Please refer to the PowerPoint slides for further details and opportunities for you to provide feedback on the project. You can e-mail me your thoughts and register your interest in taking part in the research at email@example.com. I am looking forward to seeing you all again in person. Stay safe and thank you for all for your work and help with my research. And please complete and share the questionnaire!
Sarah Coles shares the fourth instalment of a journal-style account of her reading for the literature review and methodology chapters of her PhD thesis.
12th October 2018
Continuing with my reading, this time I write again about interviewing, as it seems there is no end to the number of articles devoted to this particular subject. I read one about interviewing dementia care-givers, a cheery little number. Whilst you might not immediately think there’d be many parallels, I found there was much to gain from it, mainly to do with thinking about respondent vulnerabilities, ethical considerations and how to get the most out of an interview situation when you are really expecting people to talk about some highly personal stuff to a someone they barely know. A lot of this boils down to knowing your interview schedule really well (that’s the list you prepare in advance of the key things you want to cover in the interview). It was found to be off-putting if the researcher had to refer to a list as this seemed to depersonalise the interview experience for respondents, causing them to stop giving full, descriptive accounts of their experiences – so clearly it had an impact that was entirely at odds with the researcher’s aims and as such is a useful tip I shall be taking on board. Also, and in a similar vein to guidance we are periodically given relating to dealing with safeguarding concerns and disclosures, it is advised that one avoids asking leading questions and instead asks people to describe their situations. O’Connell Davidson and Layder (1994) suggest that in qualitative approaches to interviewing, the researcher should be prepared to respond flexibly to whatever the respondent may say and should maintain a strong focus on listening and encouraging talk rather than on ensuring all the questions they have prepared are covered. Their book, ‘Methods, Sex and Madness’, is an entertaining caper through issues of gender identity, sexuality and witchcraft, all linked to research methods. I find it a refreshing change from the way research methods are discussed in more traditional academic writing, and it certainly raises some important points to ponder in relation to my own research. These points are reiterated by a guy called Seidman writing in 2013, who advises that in-depth, qualitative interviewing should have as its goal to encourage respondents to reconstruct and express their experiences and to describe their making of meaning, not to test hypotheses, gather answers to a set of pre-determined questions or corroborate opinions. Seidman goes on to expend some wordage decrying the use of the word ‘probe’ in favour of ‘explore’, which is the point at which I had to go and make a cup of tea. The last advice I need to take from this week’s reading is to listen more and talk less. This I will endeavour to practise at work, and I have asked colleagues at EMTAS to let me know how I get on. I am fairly certain I will find it particularly challenging, and I can already hear those of you who know me well chuckling quietly as they are very well aware that I can talk for England and many other countries besides, given the opportunity.
by the lack of feedback on my academic ramblings, I shall persist as I am sure
at least two of you will be properly interested in this week’s topic, which is
the concept of ‘semi-lingualism’.
pejorative term has been used to describe an individual whose first language
has not developed fully in that they are not considered to be ‘proficient’
users of that language. When introduced to another language, such an
individual would not be able to reach ‘proficiency’ in that language either,
lacking the linguistic framework yielded by proficiency in the first language
on which to hang the new language. Or so the theory goes. This
being the case, rather than becoming a ‘balanced bilingual’ (more on that
nebulous notion in a future edition) with comparable ‘proficiency’ (ditto) in
both languages, such an individual would never attain proficiency in
either. Scary stuff indeed.
inherent difficulties push their way to the fore here. The first is that
there is no universally accepted definition of ‘proficiency’ in either a first
language or a subsequent one. In the US, there have been attempts to
measure first language proficiency and MacSwan (2005) discusses the use of
various ‘native language’ assessment tools in the US to determine the
proficiency of speakers of Spanish as a first language in particular. For
MacSwan, there are issues with construct validity with these tests. How,
he questions, can such a test assess a child brought up in a monolingual,
Spanish-speaking household as a “non- or limited speaker of Spanish” given that
the child has no attendant learning difficulties and given what we know about
language development 0-5 years? A review of the types of questions asked
in these tests and the test rubric itself demonstrates a strong bias towards
answers given in full sentences. For instance:
Required student response
[What is the boy doing?]
El (niño) está leyendo/estudiando.
[The boy is reading/studying.]
Picture of boy looking at book
In the above example, most people would give the response “Leyendo” or “Estudionado” (“reading/studying”) rather than responding using a full sentence – and they would be rewarded with a score of zero for this. MacSwan suggests that to give an answer to that particular question using one word reveals “detailed covert knowledge of linguistic structure”, which sounds terribly learned. To what MacSwan says I will therefore add my own two penn’orth and call it an example of “linguistic economy” – a new concept I have just invented to describe beautifully succinct language use in which no syllable is superfluous yet the full meaning is evident. Add to these observations the fact that we only learn about the ‘need’ to answer in full sentence in school, where these US tests are used prior to a child being admitted to full-time education, and a picture begins to emerge of Spanish-speaking children in various states in the US being found linguistically wanting and in consequence penalised and denigrated for having poorly developed first language skills before they have even got off the starting blocks. Furthermore, it is widely held that children exhibit from an early age complex knowledge of such language-related things as word order, word structure, pronunciation and appropriate use of language in particular situations, whatever their first language may be. Most children achieve this by the age of five, in fact, bar perhaps just the latter stipulation which brings to mind those priceless examples drawn from one’s observations of one’s own child’s completely inappropriate use of language in various public fora. Do please send in your own examples of these as mine, which took place at Marwell Zoo just outside the zebra enclosure, is unrepeatable in this context. Back to the matter in hand and for MacSwan, then, it is not the child’s first language proficiency that is being measured with the test question above; it is the child’s ability to suspend his pragmatic linguistic knowledge in favour of compliance with an arbitrary requirement to couch an answer in a complete sentence - in itself an unrealistic requirement, given the child has yet to start school. Hence definitions of ‘language proficiency’ and the ways in which this might be measured are open to debate and, in consequence, so too is the concept of ‘semi-lingualism’ for which I for one am thankful.
Keep tabs on Sarah's journey using the tags below.
Sarah Coles shares the third instalment of a journal-style account of her reading for the literature review and methodology chapters of her PhD thesis.
Week 5, Autumn 2018
Last time I focused on sequential and simultaneous bilingualism with a light touch on the Critical Period Hypothesis, specifically referencing the age at which one starts learning an additional language, a cause for personal lament. I mentioned how there is a general difference between early starters and late starters, with the acquisition of phonology being the key area in which a difference can be discerned. Apart from that, the notion of there even existing a Critical Period is open to debate, so the jury’s still out. Undaunted I will keep up my efforts, practising asking for things in Turkish when in France.
There are, of course, various factors that are important in second language learning and in this instalment I will talk about two more: aptitude and attitude/motivation. First to aptitude, and the literature reveals that…wait for it…some people are better at learning a second language than others. Ground-breaking stuff you’d never have thought of for yourself, eh? Anyway, in the 50s and 60s, aptitude was a popular area of study and there were many tests developed, each designed to assess language aptitude. These were largely geared towards formal second language learning in the 1960s classrooms of the UK, where students conjugated verbs, did precis and dictation and learned lists of vocabulary (in fact exactly how I was taught French in the 1980s) but rarely – if ever – used the new language to communicate with others. How weird is that? Anyway, when teaching practice evolved to include experience of actual communication (must’ve been after I left secondary school), aptitude testing fell out of favour. There ensued a tumble-weed period of about 30 years until the debate bump-started again in the 1990s when working memory was put forward as a key component of aptitude, conventional intelligence testing having become a subject of much controversy. The net result has been to propose language learning aptitude needs to be redefined to include creative and practical language acquisition abilities as well as memory and analytical skills. Mystic Sarah predicts the conclusion will still be that some people are just better at it than others but that a lot more hot air will have been generated along the way.
Now, if you’re all still keeping up, to attitude and motivation. As you might presume if you give it 5 minutes’ thought, these are difficult things to measure. Gardner and Lambert (1972) helpfully distinguished integrative motivation and instrumental motivation. These go as follows. Integrative motivation is based on an interest in the second language and its culture and refers to the intention to become part of that culture. I wonder if by this they were really talking about assimilation, given they were writing in the 1970s, but that aside they developed tests to measure motivation and attitude. These included factors such as language anxiety, parental encouragement and all the factors underlying Gardner’s definition of motivation. A sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, then. For Gardner, the learner’s attitude is incorporated into their motivation in the sense that a positive attitude increases motivation. This is not always the case, some astute observers note, citing by way of an illustrative example Machiavellian motivation in which a learner may strongly dislike the second language community and only aim to learn the language in order to manipulate and prevail over people in that community. They do like to quibble, these academics.
Instrumental motivation is all about the practical need to
communicate in the second language and is sometimes referred to as a ‘carrot
and stick’ type of motivation. The learner wants to learn the second
language to gain something from it. I can see the carrot here, but where
the stick comes in is less clear, unless it means putting in the effort
required to make progress. Back on planet earth, it is often difficult to
separate the two types. For instance, you might be in a classroom
learning a second language and you might have an integrative motivation towards
your progress in acquiring the second language. You might, for instance,
yearn to have a Spanish boyfriend and fancy going off to live in Madrid or
Barcelona to find him. But you might at the same time have an
instrumental motivation to get high grades in order to ensure you can get onto
the A level Spanish course next year, just in case he turns out to be nothing
more than a pipe dream and you need to rethink your strategic timescales.
People more recently engaged with this aspect of the discussion suggest this
dichotomy (integrative/instrumental) is a bit on the limited side. They
put forward ideas such as social motivation, neurobiological explanations of
motivation, motivation from a process-oriented perspective and task
motivation. So nowadays motivation is seen as more of a dynamic entity,
in a state of constant flux due to a wide range of interrelated factors.
That said, motivation is a good predictor of success in second language
Sarah Coles shares the second instalment of a journal-style account of her reading for the literature review and methodology chapters of her PhD thesis.
Week 3, Autumn 2018
Week three of the PhD experience and this time I dwell on second language acquisition in early childhood and whether or not there is a difference in one’s eventual proficiency in a language due to acquiring it simultaneously or successively in early childhood. Simultaneous bilingualism is where 2 (or more) languages are learned from birth, ie in a home situation where both languages are more or less equal in terms of input and exposure, a child would develop 2 first languages. I am not volunteering to try and explain this to the DfE, who seem thus far only able to comprehend home situations in which children are exposed to just the one language, but maybe some followers of this blog don’t find it such a strange notion. If so, then perhaps they are in the company of researchers who suggest children growing up in this sort of situation proceed through the same developmental phases as would a monolingual child, and they are able to attain native competence in each of their languages. I personally think there are many variables at play in any teaching and learning situation, things like motivation, confidence, opportunity, resilience and the like, and they all play a part in our lifelong learning journeys. I also think the concept of “native competence” is problematic. What do we mean by that term? How are we measuring it? Do we mean just listening and speaking or reading and writing as well? What about the different registers – does – or should - fluency in the language of the streets count for as much as academic English delivered with Received Pronunciation? Who says so? Then I consider the many monolingual speakers of English I have known; they are not all comparable in their competence in English, despite experiencing a similar sort of education as me, many of them over a similar period of time. Thus ‘native competence’ is not a fixed, immutable thing – in an ideal world, you don’t stop developing your first language skills when you meet the ARE for English at the end of Year 5, do you? ‘No’, I hear you chorus, clearly agreeing with me that it’s a moveable feast. So now even the yardstick implied by the term “native competence” is starting to look a bit flimsy and unfit for purpose. Funnily enough, it wasn’t nearly so problematic until I started all this reading.
Moving swiftly on: if, however, two or more languages are acquired successively, a very different picture emerges from the literature. It has been argued that in successive bilingualism, learners exhibit a much larger range of variation over time with respect to the rate of acquisition as well as in terms of the level of grammatical competence which they ultimately attain. In fact it is doubtful, asserts a guy called Meisel writing in 2009, that second language learners are at all capable of reaching native competence and he says the overwhelming majority of successive bilingual learners certainly does not. Controversial or what? And Meisel is not on his own here; there are many people who agree with the “critical period hypothesis” which essentially boils down to the idea that there is an optimal starting age for learning languages beyond which, and no matter how hard you try, you will never become fully proficient (whatever that means). Johnson and Newport (amongst others) say this age is between 4 and 6 years - which makes me feel a bit downhearted, like I have completely missed the bilingual boat here. Curses.
It all makes for a rather depressing prognosis for older EAL learners, those late arrivals for instance, yet we know from other research that those of our EAL learners who’ve had long enough in school in the UK can achieve outcomes at GCSE that are comparable with their English-only peers, and this can only be a Good Thing, opening doors for them as they go through their teens and into adulthood. For next time, I will try to read something more uplifting, though I expect whatever that turns out to be it will raise more questions than it answers. Keep tabs on the journey as it unfolds using the tags below.
Sarah Coles shares the start of her PhD journey with the first two instalments of a journal-style account of her reading for the literature review and methodology chapters of her thesis. She is planning to research the language learning journeys of UK-born EAL learners as they enter Year R but before entering the field, there are books and articles to be read and planning to be done.
Week 2 of Term 1 (2018-19) and the summer has faded in more ways than one, which coincides with an interesting bit of a book I have been reading for my PhD. The book is about Second Language Acquisition and makes the point that most research into this has a focus on learning the new language. While this is of course interesting with many, often competing, views vying for attention in the literature, the authors suggest that language attrition – or ‘forgetting’ – is equally interesting. They say that all our languages form part of a complex, dynamic system in our brains that changes continuously and they put forward a simple rule which states that information we do not regularly retrieve becomes less accessible over time and ultimately sinks beyond our reach. In relation to our languages, these are in a constant state of flux, they argue, depending on the degree of exposure we have to each. Talking to colleagues about this in the EMTAS office, they said they had noticed changes in their own languages over time. Kamaljit talked about how her ability to write in Hindi has decreased due to lack of use, whilst Ulrike and I had both experienced difficulties with word retrieval and with one language affecting the other in different ways. For instance sometimes, because of immersion in Turkish all those years ago, I would respond in Turkish to members of my immediate family who don’t speak the language when I went home for a holiday. They were grateful that this passed fairly rapidly, though I observe my languages have been shuffling around in my mental filing cabinet ever since. Mostly, English sits at the front and comes out first, Turkish is a bit further back but in front of French, pushing French out of the way when I am in France much to the bemusement of the French – the majority of whom don’t speak Turkish either.
Week 3 of term 1
Alongside the day job, I have carried on reading for my PhD studies and my focus this week has been on qualitative research methods. One thing I need to consider carefully is my own impact on the situations I will be researching because even if I am only there to observe, this in itself will influence not only what happens but also how I interpret what I see. Clearly in a classroom situation you cannot see absolutely everything that happens, never mind be able to record it all in handwriting that you can read back afterwards. There will be much that you don’t see at all, and also much that you do see but that you don’t record – which isn’t to say it’s not useful or relevant to the area of research, just that there will be inevitable casualties due to the pragmatic aspects of what you’re able to do as the researcher. Anyway, the long and short of it is that researcher bias is something I will need to be aware of as according to several different authors, you can’t remove it from the equation. Rather, you need to be aware of your point of view, your previous experiences and prior knowledge and how these things colour the way you see and hear and interpret events in order to manage the impact of your own bias on your research. It is interesting to me to consider too how language and cultural differences might impinge on methods like interview, and there is a lot to think about when you are planning to use this as a tool to elicit data from people. You could, for instance, have a set of predetermined questions and you could just ask people those. Or you might find this too interrogative a way of doing an interview which just doesn’t fit with what you are trying to achieve – which in my case is a full, rich picture of people’s lived experiences and views. So I am thinking about a more flexible approach, possibly around doing some mapping of languages, people, communities and the like while people talk, which won’t look much like the sort of interview I mentioned first but will hopefully give me the sorts of data I am looking for. I have yet to read the chapter on coding, so there is a chance I may change my mind about this. Keep tabs on the journey as it unfolds using the tags below.