After reading and investigating about different widespread beliefs and theories on language learning, I’ve arrived to the conclusion that society is concerned about foreign language education and is aware of the need to have good commands on those foreign languages, basically English, for good job opportunities and communicating effectively among others. During the last 10 years approximately, new educational trends have been spread all over the Country, promoting early language courses and introducing new methodologies both for adults and young children. Bilingualism in Catalonia is also in the spotlight, due to the recent Catalan-Spanish politics crisis. Therefore, some contradictory and confusing beliefs regarding foreign language and bilingual education had been widespread. I’m going to analyse some of the beliefs and contrast them to what experts in the field state, so as to arrive to a clear conclusion among the effects of bilingualism and foreign language learning.
Is it better to learn a foreign language at an early age?
This is a common question that usually goes hand in hand with the statement ‘the sooner the better’. Learning a language depends on many things, as the attitude, the social context, the language background or the maturity of the person. Some language learning tasks are easier for older learners because of experience and ability, as in the case of acquiring grammar, syntax or literacy, in which they already have developed proficiency in their first language (or languages L1+L2) and which actually helps to transfer it to the new language. However, native-like pronunciation is better acquired for young children, due to language learning is more natural, as similar as the mother tongue learning. I deeply explained the benefits and reasons about starting learning a foreign language during Primary education in my previous post Age effects on foreign language learning.
In my opinion, people believe learning a language at an early age is more effective because they probably couldn’t have the chance to study English at school and had to study it as adults, or in some cases they can’t even speak English at all, and therefore they want their kids to have better language education to achieve better English commands. There’s also the confusion between being motivated and being at the right moment to learn it. Motivation is a key element on language learning, but it is not true that kids are more motivated than teenagers or adults, as it is proved motivation grows over the years. You can read more about this topic on this post: The best age to learn a second language, from the online British newspaper Independent.
Are students more exposed to a language going to learn it faster?
There is the common belief that if someone is exposed to massive hours of a foreign language, listening to music or watching TV programmes, is going to achieve higher and faster language proficiency. This is not true, as being exposed to a language is no guarantee that we will learn it. It all depends on two main factors: the type of interaction and the language input received.
When learning a language we can’t forget about the importance of output and interaction because it is only by speaking when we negotiate meaning, correct mistakes and receive feedback, that is actually what accelerates the process of learning. When mistakes are corrected at the same moment they are produced students are likely to remember them and not making them again.
On the other hand, if children are exposed to language input that cannot been understood, because it is too complicated and not adapted at their cognitive level, will be useless. Nevertheless, if children receive comprehensive input, language that has been adapted at their age and cognitive characteristics, learning is going to be better and faster. This leads us to the following common belief.
Do you need to live abroad to learn a language?
Living abroad is an extremely valuable experience that everyone should try, but it is
not necessary in order to learn a language. One wrong idea about language immersion is believing that your location determines the amount of immersion you receive. Due to multilingualism, nowadays it is not difficult to travel abroad and easily find someone to speak with in your mother tongue, or at least, to communicate without the need to have good foreign language commands (helping yourself with gestures or body language). In fact, there are plenty of people who live in a country for many years and never learn the language at all. Motivation has an important role to play, as well as effort and tenacity. These won’t change whether you are liv
ing in a foreign country or not.
There are still a lot of good reasons to go spend some time in a foreign country, as this experience will help you to better understand the people and the culture. Knowing people from different cultures will open your mind, becoming more tolerant toward different nationalities and traditions. It is also easy to grasp different accents and everyday expressions that may be difficult to learn or remember from a regular class.
Is the “sink or swim” language programme effective?
This is a type of monolingual education programme based on language submersion, a situation where students are made to study exclusively through the medium of a language that they are not yet proficient. Colin Baker (2006, p. 219) stated the negative consequences of submersion education and highlighted that listening to a new language demands high concentration and could be tiring, to think about the form of the language and, consequently, having less time to think about curriculum content. This will end up in students with lack of self-confidence, aversion and negative language filters. The ultimate goal of this programme is to become monolingual, not taking into account their heritage language or culture.
Other immersion programmes have been shown to be more effective, such as the case of the Canadian model, which promotes additive bilingualism. During the first stages, and for a short period of time, children are taught only in the target language. Afterwards their first language gains more importance. The main objective of this programme is to learn both languages, without any process of assimilation or subtraction.
Aren’t bilinguals confused with such an amount of input?
It is commonly believed that the interaction of two or more languages can sometimes frustrate an individual. There is some truth to that, as sometimes young children would start thinking in L1 (Catalan) when talking to someone who speaks Spanish, L2. That’s very common in young students to know the Catalan word for one thing or another, and not the Spanish word. It could be little frustrating at the beginning, until they learn how to make the shift more smoothly. But this experience is just an example of what learning a language is; being involved in a learning process that will bring individuals to finally dominate two or three languages. Contrary to the idea that two languages confuse people, there is evidence that well-developed bilingualism has benefits when learning a third language.
According to Cenoz, bilinguals show more advantages on metalinguistic awareness, which is the ability to think about language and talk about it. When a learner obtains metalinguistic awareness they become conscious of their listeners and how these listeners affect the choice of language to use. This means the learner uses vocabulary, varies intonation, tone, volume, etc, depending on the context and situation exposed to. Cognitive flexibility is also advantaged in bilinguals, defined as the ability to adapt the cognitive processing strategies to face new and unexpected conditions in the environment (Cañas, Quesada, Antolí and Fajardo, 2003). Bilingualism also improves creativity, having the chance to experience diversity by learning two languages and, therefore, exercise creativity.
Do bilinguals learn at a slower rate?
Bilingual children tend to have smaller vocabulary in each language than monolingual children in their language. Nonetheless, their understanding of linguistic structure, the metalinguistic awareness mentioned before, is at least as good and often better than the monolinguals. The same happens when reading; children learning to read in two languages that share a writing system, e.g. Catalan and Spanish, show accelerated progress in learning to read, in comparison to a monolingual student.
This is because bilinguals language awareness and language processing system is different than monolinguals; there is an interdependence between the languages in the brain, as Cummins analyzed in his Interdependence Hypothesis, which concludes that bilingual speakers develop proficiency that enables transferring concepts and strategies across languages and results in metalinguistic abilities. First and second languages background serve as the basis for third language acquisition, meaning that it is important to activate or build solid background knowledge, acquire a higher degree of cognitive academic language proficiency, in order to benefit from the positive effects of bilingualism on third language acquisition. For instance, if a student knows a concept in native language, or a structure of a simple sentence, it will be easier to transfer it into English. Besides, hundreds of words in Spanish and English have common roots in Latin, many of these words are similar or almost the same, called Cognates. Some examples are animals or vocabulary, two words exactly the same in both languages. This could be used as a basis for language learning.(Watch this video to know more about Spanish-English Cognates)
Other researchers conclude the same, as the case of Muñoz, who dedicated her research on several hypothesis about age and bilingualism effects on foreign language learning. It was confirmed her hypothesis that first levels of competence in L1 and L2, as in the case of Catalan and Spanish, would have a high level of competence in L3, English. Her research also concluded that neither of the two languages seems to have a higher influence on the third one, although there is an interdependence between L1 and L2. Moreover, significant differences were found in writing skills; learners who had started English at the age of four obtained higher results in both L1 and L2 languages writing tests. Being said that, we can conclude multilingualism doesn’t have any negative impact, on the contrary, it can help develop more cognitive strategies and obtain proficiency levels of learned languages.