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Part 2: Do multilingual students have a clear advantage when learning a modern foreign language in secondary school?

Literacy and multilingualism

This blog entry is the second of a series of two articles on foreign language acquisition. The previous article can be found here.

Published: 12/01/2023

Last week, we started looking into whether speaking more than one language may confer advantages when it comes to learning other languages. In particular, we started exploring the relationship between literacy and multilingualism.

To further explore the link between literacy and language acquisition, let’s look into Kathrine Mortimore’s strategies to support secondary students with weaker literacy skills (2020). Mortimore is a lead practitioner for English at Torquay Academy in Devon. She quotes, in particular, American lead researcher in the area of reading acquisition, Hollis Scarborough, and her “reading rope” visual representation of the elements of skilled reading ability. According to Scarborough, language comprehension and word recognition skills (the two strands of knowledge in this rope analogy) help students, when woven together, acquire skilled reading. I believe this analogy is extremely relevant to EAL students because they have already had to master another language at home, and therefore will definitely possess some if not all of these language comprehension skills, as determined by Scarborough, in particular: language structure (syntax, semantics, etc), verbal reasoning (reference, metaphor, etc) and literacy knowledge (print concepts, genres, etc).

Chalmers and Crisfield, in an article written for the Chartered College of Training, also agree that EAL students “bring learning experiences and linguistic skills to the classroom that form the foundation upon which new learning is built” and that “multilingual learners build competence in one language on the foundations laid by the other” (2021). Chalmers is the Course Director of the MSc Applied Linguistics & Second Language Acquisition at Oxford University and Crisfield is a Senior Lecturer in English Language and TESOL at Oxford Brookes University. Coming back to Mortimore’s research, she explains that when learning a foreign language, “a student is likely to be encouraged to look for the parts of the word they do understand and then infer the meaning within the context of the sentence. This skill (…) is fundamental to vocabulary acquisition”. Once again, that fundamental skill (looking for cognates, i.e., words that have similar roots in different languages) is a skill that an EAL student, used to navigating between languages and different language structures, is likely to possess. Consequently, one might argue that vocabulary acquisition in the new foreign language should be a lot easier for an EAL student than it is for their monolinguistic peers. This seems to be confirmed by the British Psychological Society: “children learning EAL are often able to develop strong word recognition and decoding skills. In this study, the children learning EAL were able to progress further through the reading comprehension passages, and therefore attempt more comprehension questions than the monolingual children “(2009).

Mortimore suggests that, in order to improve literacy levels, schools should also look into the relationship between bilingualism and improvements in cognitive brain function. Pr. Jeanine Treffers-Dalleris, who is a professor of Second Language Education at the University of Reading, has published widely about vocabulary learning and assessment in second language learners and bilinguals. In one particular article, Treffers-Dalleris explains that “There is a considerable body of research evidence showing that bilinguals or multilinguals outperform monolinguals in tasks that require high levels of cognitive control (for an overview see Bialystok, 2009). This difference is attributed to the fact that bilinguals constantly need to monitor which language they speak to different people and switch back and forth as the situation requires it.” She goes on to explain that the advantages of being a bilingual involve a better working memory, metacognitive skills, for example cognitive flexibility, creativity, inferential skills in oral narrative comprehension, and analytic thought processes. Cenoz also argues that “bilinguals have developed a wider range of learning strategies that help them to learn the third language” (2013). Thus, not only do language learners use a larger number of grammar-learning strategies, but they also use them more frequently than learners with less language learning experience. Treffers-Dalleris does add, however, that other factors, such as the degree of proficiency in each language and socio-economic factors, might play an equally important role. Literacy levels have also been shown to interact with cognitive efficiency and speed of processing. This leads Treffers-Dalleris to note that “some observers have started questioning the existence of the bilingual advantage itself (Paap et al., 2016).” Another issue in any study of EAL children is of course the lack of homogeneity amongst these groups as it is not uncommon in the UK for school populations to be extremely diverse, especially in inner-city schools, with ten different first languages being spoken in the same classroom by children from very different cultural backgrounds. Therefore, one should be very cautious before drawing any firm conclusions when it comes to attainment levels in EAL pupils.

As a multilinguist myself, who has been speaking both French and English daily for the past seventeen years, I would tend to agree with Bialystok that “language use is the most intense, sustained, and integrative experience in which humans engage” (2017) and that multilingualism does indeed require a high level of cognitive flexibility. It is that very flexibility which means that once you know a foreign language, acquiring another usually becomes easier and this is why it is not at all uncommon to meet people who speak several languages fluently. Bialystok explains that once your brain has accommodated the cognitive load needed to process a whole new set of vocabulary, sentence structures, grammar rules etc, it can accommodate a lot more information. In other words, experience has the power to modify cognitive and brain systems, otherwise known as experience-related neuroplasticity. This could explain why for example I am able to read and understand some very simple Italian texts, including Italian grammatical structures, without having ever learnt Italian. My exposure to French, English and Spanish makes it possible for my brain to process a new language, by drawing upon my existing knowledge. These cognitive advantages, as described by Treffers-Dalleris, surely mean that the acquisition of yet another language by an EAL pupil should be a lot easier than for their monolinguistic peers.

We are told that “using language engages most of the brain, including frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes, as well as some posterior regions (Friederici, 2011)”. This extensive involvement of the brain is currently being looked at PhD student Michal Korenar, under the supervision of Treffers-Daller at the University of Reading. Korenar, who has a PhD in Neuroscience, is passionate about the study and identification of cognitive processes and constraints underlying and shaping the way we use languages. He is currently using behavioural and neuroimaging data (fMRI) to investigate the very claims discussed earlier that creative thinking is enhanced in individuals who speak more than one language. It will be interesting to find out whether his findings correlate previous evidence for structural brain changes associated with learning a foreign language, as observed by Li, Legault, and Litcofsky (2014), who found reliable differences in brain structure for both grey matter density and white matter integrity following even brief periods of second-language learning.

As a Languages teacher, I was very much expecting my own EAL students to perform a lot better in the study of foreign languages than their monolingual peers, based on my personal experiences as well as the studies examined above. However, interestingly, for most of my students, it was not the case. One must of course remember that EAL students all have very different profiles in terms of the languages they speak at home and to which extent they speak those languages. Besides, it is also very possible that, as they grow older, their knowledge and understanding of their own mother tongue will become sharper and allow for comparisons and analyses between languages at a later stage in their studies that might not have been possible in their early years, and which might not be easily replicated by monolinguistic students of the same age.

What seems clear to me, however, is that schools should embrace EAL students’ linguistic capital a lot more, for the benefit of all. Considering the number of languages spoken at any given school, teachers should be constantly encouraging their EAL students to build bridges between languages. If we want our children to “deepen their understanding of the world” (DfE curriculum requirement), then harnessing the skills of those able to navigate different languages and cultures already, is crucial. As Canadian psycholinguist Frank Smith once said, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”

There is a considerable body of research evidence showing that bilinguals or multilinguals outperform monolinguals in tasks that require high levels of cognitive control

Pr. Jeanine Treffers-Dalleris

Soizic-Arzhele Peyrusse is the Marketing and Operations Director at Lionheart.
She is also a qualified secondary school teacher of French and Spanish, and obtained her PGCE with Distinction.

Please contact us if you would like more information on the authors referenced in this article, or wish to discuss any aspect of this article with its author.