Bilingual Learning Environments

Day 2 of the Bilingualism Class, and an interesting point came up. Demontrating that lots of the research on bilingualism reaches contradictory conclusions, the professor pulled quotes from two studies on the cognitive (specifically verbal) development of kindergarten-aged children attending school taught in a different language form the one they speak at home. One study (from 1980, can’t remember the source) came to the conclusion that such children showed stunted or at least slowed growth. The other (from 1963) was effusive in praise for their superior creative and adaptive skills.

What explains the discrepancy? According to the prof, the fact that the 1980 study was done in the US and the 1963 study in Canada, specifically Quebec. She’s quick to add, of course, that Canadian kids aren’t superior to American kids. But then this seems to be a pattern: we’re two for two so far on quick disclaimers that “what I’m about to say doesn’t imply anything bad about the US, but…” Par for the course in University these days, I suppose.

OK, so the explanation is supposed to be that the kids in the US study are native Spanish speakers attempting to adapt to the ambient language. The Canadian kids are native English speakers attempting to blend into a naturally bilingual environment.

Actually, as it turns out, Canada isn’t really bilingual (see also here for some bitterness about this). The vast majority of the population speaks only English, with native French speakers accounting for something like 80% of the “bilinguals.” So it’s really an English-speaking country with a large French-speaking minority. More to the point, Quebec isn’t even officially bilingual. If anything, its government discriminates against the English-speaking minority to the benefit of the French-speaking majority. So this “accepting environment” the professor imagines is just that – her imagination.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting that the two studies came to such opposite conclusions. Leaving aside, for the sake of argument, the probable explanation that the Canadian researchers might have been under some official pressure to praise bilingualism (ahead of the official policy – which was adopted in 1969), let’s examine the professor’s explanation – that the fact that the Canadian children were acquiring a “minority language” explains their success against the relative failure of the American children “forced” to learn “the majority language.”

First of all, why should there be a difference? Children spend most of their time at school or at home, no? The amount of time they spend in the outside world is minimal, and anyway largely sheltered. They don’t walk into shops to buy things, apply for jobs, hang out at cafes or any of the rest of it. So it seems logical to assume that, regardless of background, the children will acquire whatever language is spoken around them in class, where they spend most of their interactive time. In fact, the Wikipedia article on first language acquisition confirms this:

The order in which these languages are learned is not necessarily the order of proficiency. For instance, a French-speaking couple might have a daughter who learned French first, then English; but if she grew up in the United States, she is likely to become more proficient in English.

So the ambient language is likely to become dominant. And in fact, this point was made in class: the professor pointed out that although many of us have immigrant grandparents, few if any speak our grandparents’ native langauge. Either it’s the language that most of the kids around us speak, or it’s the ambient language of the coutnry – but in any case there don’t seem to be as many cases of bilingual children retaining their home language over the one they hear in society at large. If it’s the language that we hear spoken at school, then the two sets of kids should have had the same experience.

If, however, it’s whatever the “ambient” language is, it’s still not clear that the two sets of children differ in the way the professor suggests. French is, after all, the majority language in Quebec, both officially and demographically speaking. But OK, Quebec in the 1960s was a much more segregated but numerically balanced place – at least in the cities – so it’s possible that these children grew up in an English environment within Quebec. In any case, this was still a few years ahead of the national bilingual policy, so the nation as a whole would have had more of an English-speaking character than it does now.

So maybe, indeed, the directionality is as she suggests. What this fails to explain, unfortunately for her, is how the Canadian government managed to reach the conclusion that immersion learners do, in fact, show depressed verbal ability for a couple of years. They catch back up later, as it turns out, but for a brief time, they do show lower intelligence. And that’s understandable, I think. While other kids are only busy acquiring vocabulary items in one language, the bilingual learners have to divide their time. It’s not that the overall capacity for storage of new items is limited in any way, just that the rate at which they can be acquired is. Or at least, that’s the intuitive explanation.

So then what was going on with these kids in 1963? Well, of course it might be just as she suggests. But the more obvious explanation would seem to be that there was a crucial difference in background. One of the other fun facts on the Statistics Canada page linked above is that children enrolled in the immersion programs are from higher socio-economic backgrounds, on average, than those not – and, crucially, that this trend was especially pronounced when the programs began. In other words, our 1963 Canadian kids, more likely than not, came from a priviledged background. This is unlikely to have been true of the Spanish speakers in the 1980 US study. Of course, we can’t rule it out without more information, but most children of Spanish -speakers in the US are children of immigrants, and Spanish-speaking immigrants are not, as a rule, well-off or well-educated when they arrive from their countries of origin.

It seems more likely, in other words, that we’re looking at a background difference that has little or nothing to do with the language environment. Indeed, the fact that the Canadian kids were able to buck the established trend and test more intelligent than average when Statistics Canada reports that most bilingual kids suffer from a brief disadvantage lends credence to this interpretation. Had they never been exposed to immersion school at all, maybe they would have seemed even more intelligent and creative than they did in the survey!

But this was all just for the sake of argument. I suspect what is really going on here is that the 1963 survey was conveniently chosen from a time in Canadian history when immersion schools were trendy and the powers-that-be were actively encouraging the movement. The Official Languages policy was still 6 years away, but the conditions that created it were never more palpable than in those years leading up. Probably what we were given in class is one of the propaganda pieces that the Liberal Government encouraged while drumming up support for the policy it later made law.

In any case, we have at least two explanations – one political, one from the learners’ socioeconomic backgrounds – that seem more intuitive than the one we were given in class, neither of which was addressed. I can’t help
but think that the wool is being pulled over our eyes, and that this woman has a bit of an agenda.

One thought on “Bilingual Learning Environments

  1. Hi Joshua–I’ve come across contradictory research studies like these too. So much depends on the context and how the tests are administered; and then it’s rarely possible to generalize one study’s findings about bilingual kids. (I wrote about this in a book review on my blog at http://babybilingual.blogspot.com/2006/08/book-review-introduction-to_23.html.) Indeed, even defining “bilingualism” is tricky–it’s not simply having equal skills in two languages.

    Please stop by my blog (babybilingual.blogspot.com)! I’d love to have a student in a bilingualism class post comments and share ideas from his course, as my blog is more experiential and less research-based.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>