In CRBLM Research Spotlight articles, we provide accessible summaries to highlight current and ongoing work being produced by our members on various themes. “Research-Policy Connections” posts each focus on a single published article, giving a very short summary and highlighting potential applications to real-world policy matters.
Research-Policy Connections: How do students learn a second language in the classroom?
Blog post by Mehrgol Tiv
Reference article: Bell, P., Fortier, V, & Gauvin, I. (2020). Using L1 Knowledge About Language During L2 Error Correction: Do Students Make Cross-Linguistic Connections?. Language Awareness. 29(2): 95-113. Published, Taylor & Francis
How do students learn a second language in the classroom? Researchers at l’Université du Québec à Montréal and the Center for Research on Brain, Language, and Music found that English second language students do not make many spontaneous, conscious connections from their first language, French, when completing a language task in English.
Learning a new language, much like learning a first language, is more than just learning individual words. Learners also build an understanding of how language works, and this knowledge about the nature of language can be used to reflect on the similarities or differences between the different languages a person knows. For example, someone who knows French and is learning English may reflect on how some words in the two languages are spelled similarly but pronounced differently (e.g., table) or how other words are spelled similarly but have different meanings (e.g., chat). Previous research has looked at whether teachers may use these cross-linguistic connections (e.g., Horst, White, & Bell, 2010; Dault & Collins, 2016), but whether students use cross-linguistic connections when learning their second language has not received research attention. The researchers wanted to know whether learners of a second language themselves use cross-language connections from their first language when learning their second language.
11- and 15-year-old French students learning English at schools in Montréal worked in pairs to find, discuss and fix linguistic errors in a short English paragraph. For example, one error involved a verb whose past participle was incorrect, such as “have ever experience” instead of the correct version, “have ever experienced.” The students’ discussions of these errors and why they were incorrect were recorded and later coded by the researchers. Any cross-language connections made between French to English were categorized into three groups: stating a cross-language rule and explicitly referencing French, stating a cross-language rule without explicitly referencing French, and not stating a cross-language rule despite apparent use of a cross-language connection.
Only about 14% of students’ reflections about the linguistic errors were cross-language in nature, meaning that French-speaking learners of English rarely used cross-language connections when they were working in English. Of the cross-language connections that were used, most fell into the third category where no rule was explicitly stated but one was implied. This means that most students did not demonstrate they were conscious of using cross-linguistic connections. However, in situations where the students were conscious they were comparing across languages, linguistic errors were corrected more accurately. Older students used cross-language connections more than younger students, likely because of older learners’ more developed metalinguistic knowledge.
These findings have implications for educators, parents or guardians whose children are enrolled in second language education, and government agencies involved in setting educational standards. Some educators have indicated that available instructional materials for teaching grammar in a second language classroom remain decontextualized. Cross-language connections may be one way for educators to contextualize grammatical rules. Consequently, highlighting rules that overlap across languages may orient students to understand that languages are complex systems. This overarching understanding of the nature of language seems to help students in many other educational domains. Furthermore, secondary educational programs in Quebec explicitly address the importance of incorporating knowledge of the first language, French, in English educational settings. Since students are not naturally making these cross-language connections, as the paper finds, then it may be beneficial to create additional guidelines and materials to encourage cross-language practices in the classroom. Finally, as people use their second language in non-classroom settings, such as at home or in public, it could be helpful for parents, guardians, or caretakers of children learning second language education to incorporate, where and if possible, cross-language connections when using first and second languages. This may involve pointing out similarities and highlighting differences between languages during day-to-day tasks, such as comparing the English and French menus at a restaurant or remarking on bilingual signs posted along a street. Altogether, these practices may encourage students to naturally apply their cross-language knowledge and gain a deeper understanding about language.