Research summary on Language

The post below is based on the background research I did for INF538 Value Added-information Services in June 2014.  Please cite me as the author should you wish to quote / use any of this.

Bailey, N. (2014, November 12). Research summary on Language. Retrieved November 23, 2013, from


Background Research

This study has presented the typical knowledge management dilemma – there is a considerable amount of information and research, both academic and practical but it is widely dispersed and personal experience is often not documented.


Most research into BML (bi- and multi-lingualism) concerns itself with assimilation of immigrants (Fillmore, 2000; Slavin, Madden, Calderon, Chamberlain, & Hennessy, 2011; Slavin et al., 2011; Winter, 1999); maintaining minority (or majority) languages in a dominant language environment (Ball, 2011; Dixon, Zhao, Quiroz, & Shin, 2012) or language immersion or bilingual programmes; (Caldas & Caron-Caldas, 2002; Carder, 2008; Cummins, 1998; Genesee, 2014; Hadi-Tabassum, 2004; Soderman, 2010) aspects of which may or may not be relevant to this study or its population.
Until fairly recently the situation of high socio-economic status (SES) students in international schools is given at best a glancing mention and appears to have been a marginal area amongst researchers, as they are considered to be a privileged elite with more options and choices and greater economic means than immigrant or minority students (Ball, 2011; Carder, 2006; de Mejía, 2002). There are calls for “celebrating diversity” in the classroom, (Stauft, 2011) mentions of international food fairs, the involvement of the Parents’ Association and ensuring that the school conveys the message to parents on the importance of maintaining MT  (Hayim-Bambe, 2011), while most research looks into integration and scaffolding to English.  


Researchers distinguish between three types of bilingualism. Simultaneous bilingualism – exposure to two languages from birth; early successive bilingualism – first exposure aged 1 – 3 years; and second language bilingualism – first exposure aged  4 – 10 years. There is considerable debate as to what exactly the “critical” ages are for successful language learning. As Kirsten Winter pointed out “Language learning is a continuum and bilingualism is not a perfect status to be achieved.” (Winter, 1999, p. 88).  Typical language learners cycle through alternating stages of passive (receptive) and productive (expressive) skills, usually in the order of listening, speaking, reading and then writing.

Figure 1: Continuum of language learning

Initially children learn phoneme production, syntactic competence and build vocabulary while phonological awareness then helps to develop literacy skills. The ability to understand both the ‘microstructure’ of sentences and a ‘macrostructure’ of the relationship between ideas results in language comprehension (Beech, 1994).

An important distinction is made between the surface skill of listening and speaking, which is usually acquired within two years (BICS – Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills), and the literacy skills of reading and writing at an abstract academic level (CALP – Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency), a targeted five to seven year process – as will be discussed later under “concerns” (Cummins, 1998). Due to transferability, concepts learnt and established in one language are more easily learnt in another language but only if a child has achieved CALP (Cummins, 1998; Dixon, Zhao, Shin, et al., 2012; Shoebottom, n.d.).

Figure 2: Elements of CALP

Factors Impacting Acquisition

Researchers agree on a number of factors which impact on the successful acquisition and retention of a second or subsequent language in the BML population. These relate to the student, family, school and the community or society.


A child’s language learning aptitude is a mixture of cognitive and personality factors (Ehrman & Leaver, 2003; Stauft, 2011).  Cognitive factors include learning style and strategy while personality factors include “motivation, self-efficacy and affective self-management” (Hayim-Bambe, 2011, p. 59)Low motivation, low self-esteem, and high anxiety result in a ‘mental block’ and impede language acquisition (Krashen, 1982). Extroverts tend to monitor their language use less than introverts, perfectionists and children who lack self-confidence.  Moving beyond individual differences, considerable research has been done on the strategies that so-called “Good Language Learners” (GLL) employ, particularly in the field of second-language acquisition (Abhakorn, 2008; Griffiths, 2008; E. Le Pichon, de Swart, Vorstman, & van den Bergh, 2010; Emmanuelle Le Pichon, De Swart, Vorstman, & Van Den Bergh, 2013; Wang, 2013).  These competencies, which improve with age, include directed attention, control of emotions, anticipation, mime, cooperation, imitation, clarification and asking for assistance, can arguably be taught or encouraged in a learning environment by teachers or parents.
Research often attempts to identify critical periods or ages of language acquisition, with inconclusive results, as motivation and meta-cognitive skills can be confounding variables since older students have better developed meta-cognitive skills (Barac & Bialystok, 2011; Beech, 1994; Bowden, Steinhauer, Sanz, & Ullman, 2013; Cummins, 1998, 2003; Genesee, 2014; Granena & Long, 2013; Emmanuelle Le Pichon et al., 2013; MacSwan & Pray, 2005; Saito, 2013).  Less has been written about the socio-psychological aspects, including the impact of the teenage years where adolescents disengage from the family and identify with their peer group in an attempt to construct an identity outside of the family, which may or may not include their cultural/linguistic identity as a bilingual. Ensuring ample venue or context based immersion in the MT with access to meaningful peer relationships (particularly during vacation time) can help with the maintenance of the MT in this period (Caldas & Caron-Caldas, 2002).


A large vocabulary in any language contributes to overall “oral proficiency, word reading ability, reading comprehension, and school achievement”(Dixon, Zhao, Quiroz, et al., 2012, p. 542). Vocabulary is influenced by the parent’s level of education, access to and availability of resources, and the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions, including shared reading, frequency of story telling and conversations.
Parent’s level of education influences language aspirations and is often correlated with a positive view of bilingualism, ensuring the quantity and quality of resources and amount of support provided to children (Lopez, 2005, cited in Dixon et al., 2012). Whether the child was born in the home country, and the length of time they lived there, impacts on the level of language maintenance.  Many children in the international school environment were born in a third country (neither the home nor resident country).
In looking at the role of parental involvement it is important to acknowledge and cater for the diversity of families within an International school (Sears, 2011)Table 1 below is based on Sears’ analysis of the types of families, their views on the role of English versus MT and what types of maintenance effort can be expected, with advice to the school.  Caution should be exercised in interpreting these generalisations, since within a family siblings may be different depending on their linguistic and birth country history, and the existence of a strong national curriculum may influence choices.

Table 1: Families and Languages


The International school context results in a number of issues that complicate MT provision, including the multicultural and multilingual nature of the student population, resulting in ‘fictive monolingualism’ and the transience of both the student and teacher population, with the resultant socio-psychological implications on learning (Caldas & Caron-Caldas, 2002; Hacohen, 2012; Hornberger, 2003). However, where the “cultural capital” of the school included valuing language diversity in its environment and teaching practise, students had an increased sense of belonging, higher levels of reading literacy and they scored significantly higher academically. Continued development of ability in two or more languages on a daily basis resulted in a deeper understanding of language across contexts. Best practice includes a well structured MT program with at least some inclusion in the school timetable and fee structure, inclusion of other subject matter in MT lessons, support for English acquisition through a daily ESL/EAL program, a socio-culturally supportive environment, better awareness and training for subject teachers, affirmation of students’ identity as bi- or multi-lingual and collaboration with parents, while block scheduling was not optimal for language learning (Carder, 2014; IBO, 2011; Tramonte & Willms, 2010; Vienna International School, 2006; Wallinger, 2000).  Research in heritage language (HL) teaching and learning indicates that macro-approaches and other specific strategies that build on learners’ existing language skills could be leveraged to improve reading and writing abilities, increase motivation and participation and validate students’ identity although specific teacher training for HL is recommended (Lee-Smith, 2011; Wu & Chang, 2010).

Figure 3: Success of MT based education policies
Source: (Ball, 2011, p. 46)

In her work for UNESCO, Ball suggested a number of policy dimensions that enhance the success of an educational policy. These are depicted in Figure 3above. 
Literacy is seen as crucial for development of CALP. External and internal factors affect literacy motivation in language learning.  Factors in schools include classroom environment, appropriate text availability and teachers. Collaboration among teachers and in the school-home nexus can enhance the perception of reading and writing as a pleasurable activity outside of the learning context. Although research generally favours intrinsic motivation, in the case of language learners, extrinsic motivation including recognition, grades, social acceptance, competition, rewards related to reading and compliance can play a role in creating a positive association with and nurturing literacy while not negatively impacting on intrinsic motivation (Fong, 2007). A well equipped library, organisation of international book fairs, other tongue events, culture clubs, reading hours with older to younger / parents to students a language buddy system and national days at school are other ways literacy can be focused on (Brewster, 2011; Krashen, 2004).

Community and Society

The support of a locally based language community, including faith and cultural communities had a positive impact which could mitigate socio-economic status (SES) factors and enhance learning through beliefs and practises, classes and cultural and religious activities (Dixon, Zhao, Quiroz, et al., 2012). Finally the availability of and access to learning resources, complementary schooling, books and other materials impacted on acquiring and maintaining language(Scheele, Leseman, & Mayo, 2010)
While languages associated with upward mobility and high SES thrive, languages considered to have a lower SES risk being neglected or suppressed by dominant or higher SES language (Gulf News, 2013; Srivastava, 2012). The profile of parents’ language use at home as well as peer pressure in the adolescent years impacts on children’s language use, in this context parents may speak just the MT, the MT plus English, just English or a third “common” language – irrespective of what their MT may be or a combination of these depending on the context, while at school, English dominates (Caldas, 2006; Dixon, Zhao, Quiroz, et al., 2012; Scheele et al., 2010). In this respect, the languages Hindi and Mandarin form a special case.  They are considered to be higher status languages than other Chinese “dialects” and Indian languages, and also serve as a “common” language in those populations. If parents are not proficient in these languages, or have a lower vocabulary, they are less likely to use them at home, which in turn impacts on the child’s language proficiency (Dixon, Zhao, Quiroz, et al., 2012; Saravanan, 2001; Srivastava, 2012; Wei & Hua, 2010). Amongst Chinese diaspora the dominant view was “to qualify as Chinese, one must know the language, and to know the language means to be able to read and write the written characters” (Wei & Hua, 2010, p. 159). While: “Young Indians with high SES and high educational achievement generally changed their primary language to English” (Saravanan, 2007 cited in Dixon et al., 2012, p. 558).
The final factor is the function attributed to that language by society.  In Singapore, the government “has assigned different functions to English and the ethnic languages. While ethnic languages constitute cultural identity, intra-ethnic communication, and ethnic solidarity, English is promoted for interethnic communication, national unity, and to facilitate science learning, higher education, and economic advancement” (Bokhorst-Heng, 1999, cited in Dixon et al., 2012, p. 547).  The question is whether international schools similarly assign these functions to language.


Although the value of BML has become more widely accepted and most parents and educators appreciate and encourage the process, a number of concerns have rightly been voiced on the process and efficacy of reaching the goal of a BML child. In the first instance, the quality of the productive language – oral and or written skills – of one or all of the child’s languages may not develop to a sufficiently high level for academic or employment purposes  (Cummins, 1998)

Figure 4: Context / cognition matrix
Source: (Carder, 2014, p. 72)

As Figure 4 shows, there is a significant difference between cognitively demanding and undemanding tasks, and the ability to use language in a context reduced environment (Carder, 2014). Secondly, studies have shown that speech and language problems that underlie both or all languages may be misinterpreted as natural delays in learning English and children from a BML background compared to monolingual children with the same problem, are often referred much later, or not at all, for help (Winter, 1999). Related to this, other research has found that behavioural or emotional problems may result from language problems including speech disorder, isolated expressive disorder, mixed receptive-expressive high level language disorder, specific language impairment and other language disorders and delays. They emphasize the importance of fully assessing language skills in these BML populations (Grizzle & Simms, 2009; Toppelberg, Medrano, Morgens, & Nieto-Castañon, 2002).
Figure 5: The “thin ice” of BICS vs. dual-iceberg of CALP
Source: (Carder, 2014 p.72)

Then there is the “drop-out” risk.  Literature distinguishes between early-exit bilingual education which is seen as “subtractive” and late exit or “additive” bilingual education (Ball, 2011; Cummins, 1998).  Subtractive bilingualism is where children do not develop language beyond the BICS stage due to suppression by the dominant school or societal language and their MT cannot be used to leverage learning in the school or societal language.  These children run the risk of not having high, abstract and academic level in any language which impacts negatively on their academic proficiency.

Another problem can be misguided parental interference and effort. Research has found that parents mainly rely on their own experiences in language learning in making choices for their children, referring to a combination of popular literature and expert advice to justify these decisions. BML families tend to form “family language policies” on home communication.  Parents’ efforts could be better supported, their uncertainties addressed and misconceptions clarified as few parents were properly aware of the challenges, issues, consistency and effort of raising BML children, nor of the fact that children raised in bilingual homes often become active users of only one language depending on the context (Caldas & Caron-Caldas, 2002; King & Fogle, 2006).


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