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‘Colloque International: la didactique de l’enseignement bilingue’ at the University of Strasbourg. 
Participation report - some initial feedback: Ann Thorogood

 I wanted to address the following questions:  

1.   How can we best meet the needs of bilingual children in a school with many multi-lingual children? 

2.   What is the relationship between language acquisition and cognitive development? 

As a second language teacher in a school with many multi-lingual pupils, parents ask me which language section would be best for their child, or which second language should their child take as they already speak three languages fluently.  To be able to answer that question well, I wanted to know more about the relationship between language acquisition and cognitive development.  Does a child just become confused with more languages and their development slowed down in all?  Or does this benefit the child who becomes able to express themselves as a native speaker comfortably in many languages? 

The presentations at the conference were all interesting, useful and informative, including one from the Université of Luxembourg by Béatrice Arend.  However, I have based my initial feedback on the presentations and workshops listed below as these provided information which was most relevant to answering my questions.

Presentations and workshops which have informed this document:

1.   Apprendre une discipline scolaire en langue etrangère – une approche socio-cognitive unifié par Rita Carol Universite de Strasbourg

2.   Semiotic competences: The languages of non-lingual subjects by Wolfgang Hallet, Justus-Liebig-Universitat, Glessen

3.   A Bilingual Education Continuum: Practices, beliefs, assumptions by Peeter Mehisto, London, Grande Bretagne

4.   The role of the home language by Else Hamayan – Director of the Illinois Resource Centre in Arlington Heights, USA

5.   Double Culture et bilinguisme: approche clinique Hossain Bendhaman, Universite de Strasbourg

I have also referred to the book, ‘L’enfant bilingue’ by Elizabeth Deshays.

I am going to structure this information by writing under the following headings:

1.    What is language?
2.    All language is learned in context
3.    Contexts are themselves different languages
4.    Who creates the context and what effect does this have on the child’s ability to learn?
5.    The transition from early years to older learning styles and building on the home language

What is language?

Language is the way in which we describe our world.  We give an object we see and understand, a verbal label.  We then internalise this label and it becomes a point of reference for our understanding of the world.  This label enables us to understand other objects and concepts which relate to it.  The word which has been internalised and understood becomes a building block to knowing more language.  We understand what a bird is and we learn that there are different types of bird.  These have different characteristics.  Then we learn that in English bird is also slang for a woman which is used in a slightly derogatory way to refer to women, mostly by men from a certain socio-economic class.  We understand colour by linking a particular colour to different objects.  We have to be able to make that link in order to understand what is meant by a colour, to understand that we are not referring to the object itself but to its colour.

The verbal label also gives us a shared understanding of what the object is with others. It enables us to communicate with others, to share our understanding of the world and to describe our world with them.  Language is therefore a way in which we express and develop our understanding of the world.  It is also the way in which we communicate and relate to others and share our understanding of the world.

All language is learned in context

Lord Polonius:   What do you read, my Lord? 
Hamlet:              Words, words, words.  
From the play ‘Hamlet’ by William Shakespeare

Hamlet’s reply perfectly demonstrates the idea that words are meaningless unless we understand the context in which they are said.  In the context of the play, Hamlet deliberately misinterprets Lord Polonius’ question because he is pretending to be mad. He is dislocated from a normal perception of reality (or at least pretending to be) and this is reflected in the words that he chooses to use. 

A child’s early nurturing which can impede or encourage his or her ability to use language well.  If there is a disfunction in their early experience then they will have more difficulty making progress at school and expressing  themselves in any language. 

In Shakespeare, Lord Polonius suspects that Hamlet is mad.  He wants to know what Hamlet is reading about to see if he can test this.  He wants to know what is going on in Hamlet’s mind.    He wants to know if they still have a shared reality or is Hamlet losing his perception of reality around him?

Language is only a shared reality if the understanding of what is being expressed is the same for both parties. 

Our understanding of the language we use is also anchored in how we first learned it.  The implications of this are far reaching and an integral part of any learning process.  Language is more than just a way of labeling the world around us.  As I’ve established it reflects what we understand of the world around us with reference to everything else.  It also provides building blocks with which we develop and internalise our understanding of the world.

The way in which we first learn language is inextricably linked to many other understandings we have of the world.  By this I’m referring to factors like our cultural awareness, our visual perception of the world, our memories and our emotions.

Hamlet’s dislocated use of language when he is asked what the title of the book he is reading is, or at least to be given an idea of its content, is a reflection of what is going on inside him.   The dislocation of language from reality is part of his process in trying to come to terms with what has happened, whether it is real or feigned.  For a child the process of language acquisition intertwines with a child’s experience and understanding of the world around them. 

Contexts are themselves different languages

The Shakespeare text conveys meaning on different levels.  The audience has a different understanding to the characters in the play.  Hamlet cleverly and accurately answers Lord Polonius’ question but actually tells him nothing.    If performed, the play draws us into the world of the characters in different ways.  We respond to how they look, to how they are dressed, to the tone of voice they use and the emotion this evokes in us.  We also respond to their gestures and body language.  We would interpret what is going on in response to the setting.  Some of the play is set in a castle.  This has a visual impact which we interpret from our own cultural understandings and experiences.  These different responses and understandings have been learnt and are like languages themselves.  The process is complicated and the different languages are connected.  They interact.  They are ways in which we interpret the world around us, relate to others and then internalize that understanding within ourselves.

 A child learns language in relation to all these other languages.  As the child acquires new language, he or she builds on their existing language and relates their new understanding to their existing understanding.  Language acquisition is not a process which takes place in isolation but one which has many inter-dependencies.   Therefore the success of learning a language and subsequent success academically is often governed by how the children learn their first language or languages and also quite importantly the context in which they learn these languages.  The context is important as this enables the child to link their knowledge to other contexts and develop cognitive processes.  For example, if the child learns the language in a stressful environment then the stresses are also learned and associated with that use of language.

Who creates the context in which language is learned and what effect does this have on the child’s ability to learn?

Hussain Bendhaman describes the development of a concept of self in the early years.  When a baby is born he or she has no awareness of who they are.  The principle carer, usually the Mother, gives that child a sense of who they are and teaches them to place their identity in the context of the world around them. 

Parents will make inherited, subconscious choices about the way in which they teach their child to understand and function in their environment.  The example he gives is of a parent in a toy store who subconsciously drags a boy away from a toy oven, saying that it’s for girls, and leads him to the area where there are ‘boys’ toys. 

If the process of the development of an identity does not work because the initial relationship they have with a significant other who interprets the world for them is abusive or damaging, then the child may well have difficulty acquiring language.  He or she may also have difficulty achieving in school because its understanding of the world and its place within it is not good.  This will be reflected in the language the child is able to use.

Sometimes a child is able to overcome difficulty with the development of their identity in their first environment when they go to school.  If they relate well to their peers and understand their new environment then they can develop their concept of self and can achieve academic success.

There are also inherited cultural understandings of the world and consequent use of language which limit some children’s ability to achieve at school.  Dr Bendhaman spoke of his own childhood and his understanding of the world in Arabic which he had to unlearn in order to become a clinical psychologist.  He would not have been able to follow a career in his field without being able to speak French.  The difference in cultural understanding and the concept of God in his Arabic culture would have prevented him from analysing the world as he currently does.

He also gave the example that his French wife would tell their children to ‘fermez la porte d’entrée’ if they had left the front door open, whereas he would tell them to ‘fermez la porte de dehors’.  This says the same thing in two very different ways revealing a very different view of the world grounded in very different cultural perspectives. 

 There are a number of reasons why sometimes the learning process in the early years does not enable the child to function well at school.  He states that when a child comes to school they are physically alone but in reality they bring all those who have influenced their lives with them, in particular, their close family.  The child does not function as an island in isolation but interacts with all of these influences on their lives.


The transition from early years to older learning styles and building on the home language.

It appears that how a child is parented at quite an early stage is one of the most important factors in facilitating a child’s language acquisition and their development of cognitive processes.  These two processes it appears are inextricably linked and interact.

Peeter Mehisto refers to the process by which neural pathways are created in a child’s brain.  Imagine rain falling on a hill.  The rain will form channels which run through the hill in little pathways.  These become larger as more and more water gathers together.  He described the process in very early childhood as being one that it changing and fluid.  However, as we get older these pathways become more entrenched and it is much, much harder to change the course of them.  The brain is being trained to make connections in a certain way by its parents and by its experiences in the world.  Once these ways of thinking are in place then it is very difficult to alter their pattern.

In teaching languages we know that young children have a different learning style to older children.  Older children can cope with grammar and meta-language.  They can understand and apply grammar rules and patterns and their learning is accelerated when they can link information to their existing knowledge.  Elizabeth Deshays states that there is a key switch in the brain’s development which happens in the older child.  She states that by the age of 7 the child's thought processes become more established and it becomes increasingly difficult for them to change how they think. 

The preferred teaching style for languages in the UK in the early 1990s when I trained was ‘communicative’.  This meant that the teacher creates an experience of the language being learned without translating into the home language.  This is to imitate the way in which we first learn to speak.  This was a movement in second language teaching which reacted against the traditional progression of learning where the child learned to read and write before speaking a language.  The traditional teaching style meant that pupils might leave school fairly proficient in grammar but without being able to converse easily in the second language.  However, my subject tutor also explained, if you have an able group, it’s probably best to explain the grammar as this will accelerate their learning.  The reason for this is evident when we understand this process of the creation of neural pathways and how, once we have understood and internalised language, we are then much more proficient at building knowledge using our existing understandings as building blocks or stepping stones.

Else Hamayan spoke about the role of the home language and how important it is to value what has already been acquired in the home language.  In the USA, sometimes there is an attempt to replace the child’s existing language with English and this is counter-productive as it impedes the child’s progress.  Learners can assimilate new skills much more effectively if they acquire new language with an understanding of how the new language fits with their existing knowledge.  This is of course also in the context of other non-linguistic ‘languages’ with which they understand the world and which parents and the home environment have a key role in developing.

In conclusion, therefore, the process of language acquisition and the development of cognitive processes are closely linked.  They are inter-dependent and the growth of one is inextricably linked to the growth of the other.  What are the implications of this?  The child’s whole experience in the early years facilitates their learning.   The context in which the language is learnt is vital, indeed the different contexts being languages themselves. 

For teachers - I have more information for colleagues from these and other speakers which I'm very happy to share if anyone is interested.  This can be roughly grouped under the following headings: 

1.   C.L.I.L. (content and language integrated learning) with teaching methodology and examples

2.   Raising awareness of contexts (different representations of information are in themselves languages – maps, mathematical formulas)

3.   The importance of knowing the language of schooling or correct learning register

4.   All teaching is language sensitive teaching, and techniques such as ‘scaffolding’ text

5.   Whole person teaching and neural networks

Finally, I would like to thank all the speakers at the Colloque.  I would particularly like to thank the Deputy Director of Luxembourg II, Mamer, Gian Luca Longo, who circulated information about the Colloque and enabled me to attend, on condition I share my findings with colleagues.