Instructed L2 in Schools: a sociolinguistic view

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.


2 thoughts on “Instructed L2 in Schools: a sociolinguistic view”

  1. Hi Mansour,
    I appreciate your critical read of Van Herk. You commented, for instance, on how he has explained learning language behaviour (and equating this to number of hours spent learning. I agree this is simplistic and you’ve raised a really important question – is earlier really better? This is a pervasive ideology that is influencing national language policies (Japan is a good example) that are shifting towards more English instruction time earlier in elementary school. But, as you have pointed out, the research doesn’t always support this. I wonder if these policy decisions are always made with pedagogy in mind, or if there are other political and economic forces at play at well. What do you think?
    Something else that came to mind as I was reading your post is that you might like reading some of the language socialization literature (see Schieffelin & Ochs’ early work, 1986; and there have been many developments on this theory since); that is, “socialization through the use of language in and socialization to use language” (p. 163).
    Finally, I’d like to respond to your question and share some of my personal experience in French immersion in Ontario. I was in the “early immersion” program in the early 80s. It was probably still considered quite experimental at the time because there were only about 4 classes of each grade in the whole city where I grew up, so we had to be bussed around (I went to 4 schools before high school, to follow the FI class). I can’t really speak for the success of the program as a whole, but I can say that my French has always felt limited to classroom discourse and rather un-natural question and answer patterns. I’m not sure starting in kindergarten gave me any particular advantage. I know people who were in the core French program who have had better outcomes in their adult lives with French, but this, I attribute to motivation and life circumstances (e.g., types and locations of work; relationships; etc.).
    I’ll stop for now, but I think we can keep this conversation going. Thanks again.

    Schieffelin, B. B., & Ochs, E. (1986). Language socialization. Annual Review of Anthropology, 15(1), 163–191. doi:10.1146/


  2. Hey Mansour,

    I’ve been meaning to respond to your post for a while now and haven’t gotten the chance. Merrill Swain did a LOT of research on French Immersion schools in Canada in the 70’s and 80’s. She found that levels of proficiency were *generally* parallel with the number of hours in immersion. So, students in grade 4 who did part-time immersion from kindergarten had similar levels of French proficiency as grade 2 students who had done full-time immersion since kindergarten (Swain, 1987). That being said, she found that even after eight years in French Immersion, students still hadn’t reached the grammatical accuracy in production of L1 speakers (even though students had receptive skills similar to L1 speakers). At the time, she assumed this was because students were developing their own, in-class functional French that allowed the meaning of content to be expressed even though the grammar might not be ‘perfect’. She also suggested that teachers were not providing adequate feedback (negative evidence) to students, and that students needed to communicate with native-like speakers of the language to maximize grammatical competence. She also discovered that student French production in immersion programs was extremely limited, especially in speaking (Swain, 1974). She went on to develop these ideas in support of her ‘Output Theory’, which promotes the idea that output, in the context of meaningful interaction, might lead the speaker to ‘notice the gap’ in what the learner can say, and what they want to say. Activities that promote this kind of interaction, in theory, may bring the learner closer to native-like grammatical competence than what is possible in the more input/content-based approaches that we see in most Immersion programs (Swain, 1985). At any rate, there is a lot of data in this early immersion research if you’re looking to see the effectiveness of immersion education compared to both non-immersion peers, and L1-speaking peers. Further, I’m aware of the problematic terminology used here, but I’m using the language of the cited studies to discuss the topic!

    Swain, M. (1974). French immersion programs across Canada: Research findings. Canadian Modern
    Language Review, 31, 117-129.

    Swain, M. (1978). French immersion: Early, late, or partial? Canadian Modern Language Review, 34, 577-585.

    Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensive input and
    comprehensible output in its development. In S. Gass & C. Madden (Eds.), Input and second
    language acquisition (pp. 235-253). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.


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