By Mansour Ahmed
The last decade or so has witnessed an unprecedented worldwide demand for English such that it has been arguably termed the world’s lingua franca. People the world over aspire to communicate with ease and facility in this language. As a consequence, most non-English-speaking parents, namely in second and foreign language settings, strongly believe that the sooner their children start learning the language, the better. From a sociolinguistic standpoint, language behavior is formed in school owing to the number of hours that students spend interacting with their fellow students, teachers and school staff (Van Herk, 2012). While this could be true in the case of first language (although Van Herk didn’t elaborate on what aspects of language behavior are exactly affected), I wonder to what measure this claim could be extrapolated to English-speaking schools (i.e. content-based instruction “CBI” contexts or even immersion contexts) in countries/places where the primary language of communication is not English.
Right after I completed my undergrad degree in English Studies, I taught English in a school that adopted the CBI approach. Half way through my one-year of teaching, I began to wonder about the value of this approach given the command of the language the students had. After spending over four years in this program, their English was merely chunks of phrases and sentences that lacked grammatical accuracy and communicative fluency. In a study conducted by Joanna Rokita, it was found that achievements of the young instructed L2 learners she studied were rather unimpressive. Their command of English consisted largely of parroting formulas and very rarely had anything resembling a spontaneous, communicative dimensions (Cook & Singleton, 2014). Given this, it could be argued that teaching English to young learners may not be as advantageous and successful as the vast majority of parents believe. Unfortunately, contrary to parents’ aspiration, such a learning situation is disadvantageous as it results in semi-lingualism – a situation in which the children learn neither their first language nor the second language to the level attained by native speakers. Therefore, Van Herk’s argument that intense exposure to and use of language in schools contributes significantly to the formation of language behavior may not be applicable in foreign language contexts. For Van Herk’s claim to be working in these contexts, the students should have a massive exposure to the target language outside the school boundaries.
I know that immersion programs are so popular in Canada. I wonder how successful L2 acquisition is in these programs, i.e. do long hours of exposure and interaction in English or French inside the schools affect the formation of language behavior? I understand that French immersion programs in Ontario and British Colombia resemble, to a certain degree, the CBI context alluded to above, so the rate L2 acquisition may be comparatively similar, I suspect. The case of English immersion in Montreal must be more successful given that there is a considerable exposure to English outside the school environment. Does anyone have any primary/secondary experience with these programs, what are they like?
Van Herk, G. (2012). What is sociolinguistics? Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
Cook, V. and Singleton D. M. (2014). Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition. Bristol: Multilingual matters.