If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll
Part of the debate that rages around French as a Second Language and French Immersion is the everyone-knows statement that very young children learn languages faster than older people. The response to that is: yes, BUT.
The BUT lies in the difference between implicit and explicit learning. Explicit learning takes place when there is direct instruction. For example a teacher sets out to teach a grammatical rule, correct pronunciation or use of an equation; the students are experiencing explicit learning.
Implicit learning is often taught by experience. A toddler copies her parents’ greetings to a neighbour or an adolescent is very clear on what is cool and what is not. This is also called naturalistic learning.
Given the same amount of time spent in explicit learning, young adolescents are the most effective at learning grammar and literacy in a second language (compared to adults and young children). However, when it comes to pronunciation, the younger children are most effective at learning pronunciation in a naturalistic setting. French Immersion works as well as a naturalistic setting. On the other hand, adolescents and adults have achieved near native accents, but with less frequency, so this is not a hard and fast rule, nor is there a point where abilities such as acquiring pronunciation or learning grammar switch on and off. This is a crude summary of years of research summarised in Rod Ellis, 2008. I refer you to his excellent book for more detail and direct references to the research.
The answer is that young children who live part of their lives in a second language or take early Immersion in an L2 do learn pronunciation faster and more effectively than older learners. This is probably why they seem to learn languages so well. One thing few researchers mention is that very young children have the vocabularies and the grammar of the very young so while they may be fluent in the language of children (and we wouldn’t expect more), this is not a full command of the language. Just as their L1 will need development, so will the L2.
Some researchers have argued that children have all the grammar they need by a very young age; having taught children from Grade 2 to Grade 8, I disagree. They may have the basic grammar and be able to use complex sentences, but agreement of tenses and persons and accurate use of tense, for example, often remain a mystery for some years. High school French Immersion teachers have commented to me on the propensity of EFI students to retain language errors and one researcher has observed a kind of pidgin French developing among some EFI students. This suggests that they are not sufficiently grammar conscious to self-correct or seek correct forms.
If children are not in Immersion, then starting a second language early has no major advantage. In fact, a solid foundation of literacy in their L1 may be more effective, in the long run at helping them acquire an L2. The skills in one language are transferable to the other. By skills, I mean the kind of things that give the learner more scope and flexibility in developing language: skills such as the capacity to infer meaning, guess at vocabulary from context, tolerate ambiguity, take risks and use resources. These kind of skills are necessary in all academic subjects as well so wherever the student learns them, there will be considerable benefit as the skills transfer. Most researchers seem to assume that they will transfer automatically; my own experience has been that students often need a nudge to recognise that the context may be different but the situation is similar. But a nudge is usually all that is necessary.
From this, one might infer that a comparatively late start, such as Grades five, six or seven in learning French might be effective. Starting language training as late as Grade seven or eight is probably too late because as puberty descends, peer pressure increases. Self consciousness makes it difficult for students at this age to give French the attention that good language learning requires. This is not an issue only in French. When we can successfully address it for all subjects, French will not suffer from it, either. In the meantime, it makes these grades the poorest choice for the mandatory beginning of a second language program.
Except for the perils of puberty, the research supports a later introduction to a second language. The one exception is that students will be less likely to acquire near-native pronunciation. How important is near-native pronunciation? As a former second language teacher, I can tell you that if a student learns the rhythms of a language and her accent does not impede comprehension, she is doing very well. Daily work listening to news broadcasts, Quebec singers and watching Quebec television shows will help with oral comprehension and accents.
The oral component being satisfactory, we know that the students will learn to read and write in French with more ease, as the skills will transfer from what they have learned in English and their other subjects. Core French and French Immersion, both early and late were not the only options under consideration in New Brunswick.
The Intensive French Program was based on the concept of the skills transfer described earlier. In a nutshell, Grade 5 students did five months of only French at the beginning of the academic year. The program was project based so the students were using French to do or create things. The creation of the projects was used to teach skills such as co-operative and independent work and concentration. Both the projects and language arts in French were used to teach literacy skills. The last five months of the academic year were devoted to a compacted curriculum of the rest of the academic subjects.
The pilot project in New Brunswick proved to be very effective. The students’ French improved very quickly as did their concentration and enthusiasm for school. The skills learned in the first half of the year enabled them to deal with the second half of the year effectively. The researcher, Paula Kristmanson of the University of New Brunswick, recorded positive responses from parents, teachers and students about the effectiveness of the program in her report on the pilot programs.
The one thing the report doesn’t mention directly is whether the students had studied French before. My own assumption is that they had been taking 30 minutes of French a day since Grade 1.
Intensive French was not new. It originated in Quebec in 1969 and has continued as a method for teaching French to immigrants. In 1980 not long after the beginning of French Immersion and its success, researchers reported on the effort of educators to use Intensive French as a means of teaching Anglophone children French. IS was used with Grade 1 and Grade 6 students. The conclusion was that although it was effective with both groups, the younger children required more time to benefit. Intensive French was more effective with an older group of children. The method is still used in Quebec to teach English as an L2.
Canadian Parents for French used the lack of knowledge of long-term effects of IF as one reason not to allow the implementation of the Croll-Lee report. I’m not sure how long they felt was necessary but I think 25 years should be enough. Since 1980 researchers have explored the possibilities of Intensive French. From Billy’s research in 1980 to Kristmanson’s in 2005 and the work of Netten and Germain among other researchers between the two, there is probably sufficient work to have confidence that Intensive French is effective in the year it runs and unlikely to do any harm to the following academic years.
In fact, the pilot programs in New Brunswick that Kristmanson reports on in 2005 were based on the design of Netten and Germain’s programs in Newfoundland and Labrador from 1998 to 2001. By the time Kristmanson was doing her research in 2005, the children studied by Netten and Germain in 1998 would have been in Grade 12. The second cohort would have reached Grade 12 the year of the Croll-Lee Report.. Finally, in 2004 in the The Canadian Modern Language Review, Netten and Germain referred to 25 years of success in Quebec with this method. The only difference was that they were using it to teach English. For more information on Intensive French see the research list below
When people refer to research to support their arguments for or against specific forms of FSL, they take for granted that all the FSL teachers will have native or near-native competency in French. This is not the case in Canadian FSL classes. The Croll-Lee Report (2006), for example, refers to FSL teachers in New Brunswick whose French is poor. Netten and Germain in describing the parameters for their research into the effectiveness of IF from 1998 to 2001 stipulated three things about the teachers delivering the program:
· a good command of French,
· the ability to use effectively interactive teaching strategies in the classroom, and
· a desire to use innovative teaching methods.
A good command of French was the first stipulation. Without that, any method of teaching French is working under the heaviest of handicaps.
Paula Kristmanson, University of New Brunswick, Beyond Time on Task: Strategy Use and Development in Intensive Core French, 2005
J. Netten et C. Germain, Intensive French – An Introduction, Intensive French in Canada, Revue canadienne des langues vivantes/The Canadian Modern Language Review, Vol. 60, no 3, pp. 263-273. 2004
Ellis, Rod. The Study of Second Language Acquisition: second edition. 2008