Le Panoptique

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Learning One Language is Good, Learning Two is Better

Publié le 1 juin, 2008 | Pas de commentaires
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Parents and educators often debate and struggle with the decision to raise a child bilingually or whether to focus on one language first. I spoke with Dr. Fred Genesee, a leading expert in the domain of bilingualism and child development, about the issues surrounding the topic of children growing up with two languages, a scenario that becomes more and more prominent in a globalized world.

Dr. Genesee is a psychology professor at McGill University and functions as a consultant for educators around the world on bilingual education.

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The Panoptique: How did you get into the field of bilingualism?
Dr. Genesee: In 1969, I started my graduate work at McGill with Brenda Milner on language and the brain. While there, I actually became more intrigued with developmental aspects of language acquisition partly because I realized that while I was interested in theoretical issues of language and the brain, I was also drawn to how research could inform us about relevant issues for educators and parents. After I graduated in 1974, I worked for four years at the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal doing research on French immersion programs and that’s when I became interested in the educational implications of research on second language acquisition. I like doing bilingual acquisition research because it has this double-headed feature to it, namely that you can do theoretical research and at the same time talk to the community-at-large about your findings and what they mean for those people.

The Panoptique: What would you consider the main advantages of learning a second language as a child?
Dr. Genesee: There is a clear advantage of being able to communicate in more than one language. In Quebec and in Canada, that is a big benefit as it enables you to speak with both French and English-speaking people and it also opens up the opportunity of having jobs that require bilingual competence and there are a lot of them. It is becoming increasingly true around the globe that knowing two languages really opens up a lot of job opportunities internationally; but it also opens up a lot of other opportunities such as travel. If you speak the language of the country you are travelling in, it brings you closer to that country’s culture and its people. I also think that there are advantages associated with developing more tolerance. Research that we did on French immersion programs shows that students who go to French immersion programs are more likely to identify with other French-speaking people because they speak French. If nothing else, I think people who speak other languages come to understand one another better. With so much contact between different people of different languages and cultural backgrounds, we need to be more tolerant of one another to deal with the issues that arise as a result of that contact.

The Panoptique: There are also some myths associated with bilingualism and development. Could you talk about those?
Dr. Genesee: I think one of the main myths associated with raising a child bilingually, is the belief that the human brain is designed to acquire one language and that learning two languages is challenging. Parents often contact me saying they use English and French at home but they worry that the child will be confused or delayed because it is twice as much to learn and because they spend less time in each language than monolingual children do. Another concern is that it might create language impairments or difficulties, which they wouldn’t have learning only one language.

The Panoptique: Is there scientific evidence for those beliefs or myths? Where do they come from?
Dr. Genesee: They come from the common sense notion that language learning takes time and requires effort and therefore learning two languages at the same time is twice as hard and takes twice as long. It is a fairly mechanistic view of language learning. There has been a lot of research on simultaneous language learning over the last 20 years motivated exactly by that issue. In the early publications on bilingual language acquisition, researchers argued that bilingual children who were starting to learn language went through a stage when they had a fused or unitary system. That is, they were treating the two languages as part of a single system. Those conclusions were based on the observation that when children started speaking in two- or three-word utterances they were sometimes mixing words from the two languages, which is called code-mixing. There was the notion that these children could not separate the two languages and therefore when they talked, they could not speak in only one language.

The Panoptique: Couldn’t this code mixing also be an indication that they are not fully proficient in either of the languages they speak?
Dr. Genesee: Yes, that is often how people interpret it. However, if you look at code-mixing in adults it is not that simple. Proficient bilinguals code-mix in a way that respects the grammatical constraints of both languages. In other words, they insert English or French words in the same sentence without violating the grammar. They are able to actually coordinate the use of both languages as they are talking in such a manner that the mixing that happens is actually grammatically correct. Sure, they are mixing languages, but they are not breaking grammatical rules. When people see that in children, they often think that they can’t keep their languages separate because they do not know either language well enough. However, when you look at what children are doing when they are code-mixing, they’re doing it largely because they do not yet have a fully-developed vocabulary in each language. When they are expressing themselves in French and they don’t know the French word but they know the English word, they’ll use the English word in the French sentence. In a bilingual environment, this is a highly resourceful strategy because it is a way of taking advantage of linguistic competence in both languages. Also, when you look at their code-mixing in a more technical way, we find that it does not break the grammatical rules of either language, which is similar to what we see in adults. So, it is actually an indication of how competent and how resourceful they are and the thing that is quite surprising is that in order to do that, you have to activate or access both grammars in your head at the same time, so that you can coordinate them while you are talking.

The Panoptique: Do you know of any disadvantages of growing up bilingually?
Dr. Genesee: From the learner’s point of view, I suppose there could be disadvantages if you are in a monolingual environment and you’re speaking two languages – you might not always fit in simply because you are different. It could also be the case that when you are in the process of learning another language and you are trying to use it with people who are completely fluent in that language, you may not be fully confident and you feel awkward or almost ostracized. For children, that can be very difficult as they can be quite intolerant of one another. From the parents’ point of view, the other disadvantage is that they have to make a special effort to ensure that their children are sufficiently exposed to both languages so that they can learn them. It takes time and energy on the part of the parents and not just the children.

The Panoptique: Are there any cognitive disadvantages or delays?
Dr. Genesee: No, it is pretty clear that they develop at pretty much the same rate as monolingual children.

The Panoptique: I know of bilinguals who complain that when it comes to writing, they don’t feel fully competent in both or one of their languages, despite the fact that they are very confident when speaking. What’s your opinion on this?
Dr. Genesee: I think it is true and where time really matters is in reading and writing. The more you read and write the more fluent you are. Research does not seem to indicate this but if you are a bilingual person and you are reading and writing in two languages, I can imagine that you might not have the same fluency in each language. However, you have to weigh this against the advantages of knowing another language. That is, someone who is monolingual is fluent in one language but that person can’t do anything in another language, whereas someone who is bilingual can at least read and write to some extent. Again, depending on where you live that can be a clear advantage over someone who speaks one language only.

The Panoptique: Could you talk on your recent line of interesting research that investigates bilingualism in children with impairments?
Dr. Genesee: One of the worries that people have is whether children who have language learning impairments should learn another language. This is a concern for people raising children bilingually at home, but it is also a concern for schools, for example French immersion programs, where people think English speaking children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) should not be in such a program. The reason for that is that these children have trouble learning a language, so the common sense notion is that they will have even more trouble when learning two languages. There are not a lot of data on this topic but we have done some research and there is some research being done in the US on that. Both studies compared bilingual children with language impairment to monolingual children with language impairments. The hypothesis was: if children with language impairment are at greater risk for language learning deficits if they have to learn two languages rather than one, then these bilingual children should have more severe difficulties or different types of difficulties than their monolingual peers. However, both studies found that the bilingual children had the same level of severity of language impairment as the monolingual children, a finding that was really quite surprising. We also found that the impairments the bilingual kids had in English and in French looked like the difficulties the English and French monolingual children had, respectively. This is remarkable because language impairments are different in different languages. So, it really looked like being impaired made it difficult but it did not make it worse when learning two languages.

The Panoptique: What advice would you give to bilingual parents on how to raise their children in terms of language?
Dr. Genesee: If they are raising their children bilingually at home they should start early – the earlier you start the better- and they should stick at it. So, they should start when a child is born and they should make every commitment they can to continue to do so for as long as they can because it takes time. Since bilingual children have half as much time in each language they do need as much time as they can get. Children like consistency and continuity. I think parents have to start early, be consistent and provide as much enriched exposure to a language as they can – that includes written as well as oral form of a language.

The Panoptique: Thank you very much for your time and your insights!
Dr Genesee: My pleasure.

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