Language Learning and Teaching in a Multilingual World
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Language Learning and Teaching in a Multilingual World

Marie-Françoise Narcy-Combes, Jean-Paul Narcy-Combes, Julie McAllister, Malory Leclère, Grégory Miras

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eBook - ePub

Language Learning and Teaching in a Multilingual World

Marie-Françoise Narcy-Combes, Jean-Paul Narcy-Combes, Julie McAllister, Malory Leclère, Grégory Miras

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About This Book

The majority of people around the world live in multilingual societies, and so it follows that plurilingualism should be considered normal. This book proposes a flexible and adaptive framework for designing and implementing language learning environments and tasks, which will be useful for practitioners working in classrooms where many languages are already spoken. The authors begin by presenting a state-of-the-art review of current research on language learning, language teaching and multilingual language acquisition. This is followed by a qualitative review of 37 multilingual research projects, which are treated as case studies to inform the practical guidance that constitutes the remainder of the book. The information and practical framework contained within this book will be of interest to researchers, teachers and teacher educators.

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Part 1
Reference Theories: Interrelationships and Complementarities
In this part, we examine the theories underpinning our understandings of language and plurilingualism, which serve as the theoretical framework for Parts 2 and 3. We consider the multifaceted processes of the multilingual’s language development and their interrelationships drawing on a number of disciplines including neurophysiology, cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics and second language acquisition. The roles of ICT and context are also discussed.
1 Neurophysiology, Cognition and Language
Turning to neurophysiology first is consistent with our position to refer to theories about living and learning that have neurophysiological validity (see Churchland, 2002).
Neurophysiology and Cognition
Cognition can be defined as the whole range of mental activities and processes related to producing knowledge and to the functions that implement them. The objective of cognitive neurosciences is to understand how and for what purpose the different regions of the brain interact (Lachaux, 2015). However, cognitive processes in the brain cannot be observed directly through neuroimaging, but rather are inferred and reconstructed. Only behaviours and productions can be directly observed. There are thousands of research studies but no unified theory (Démonet et al., 2005), and experimental conditions may bias the results. Since Damasio’s (1994) work, researchers have questioned the location of cerebral functions (Démonet et al., 2005; Duffau, 2016; Nielsen et al., 2013, among others). It now seems very unlikely that the newborn child’s brain is completely organised in specialised modules. Parts of the brain become more and more specialised as it is exposed and responds to the environment. In adulthood and throughout life, the external and internal connections of a synaptic network constantly evolve according to the stimuli. They reinforce or inhibit the efficacy of certain brain areas depending on what is experienced (Finn et al., 2015). The conception of the brain in which the activity of the areas corresponds to specific functions has evolved towards a more connectionist model. In this model, functions are not localised in a restricted part of the brain, but involve neural networks that are distributed throughout or in parts of the brain (Marendaz, 2015). Thus, it is not the brain areas that matter, but the deeper networks that are distributed throughout the brain and operate in parallel, evolving constantly in a complex and dynamic game of reconfigurations.
As a consequence, an adult brain appears highly structured and functionally specialised (Kail, 2012). However, even when there is injury to the brain, plasticity enables it to compensate for the loss and other parts of the brain take over.
While the human brain adapts to its environment, its structure and function are self-determined according to genetic and epigenetic constraints (Rancillac, 2014). Individual brain anatomical differences are very important (Duffau, 2016), even regarding language (Kail, 2012). Thus, the lateralisation of connections in the brain is an individual rather than a universal phenomenon (Levy, 1969).
The data collected do not fully validate the fact that some people have a hemispheric preference even though it appears that there are specialisations. Lateralisation may increase slightly as people get older (Démonet et al., 2005), though without significant differences between people and genres (Nielsen et al., 2013). The role of the right hemisphere tends to be predominant at the beginning. The left then takes over. However, the right hemisphere plays a predominant role in remediation (Démonet et al., 2005). Interactivity has become an increasingly predominant concept (Anderson, 2014).
Rancillac (2014) links language to other cognitive abilities such as perception or working memory, which means that it is difficult to separate language skills from other cognitive abilities (Kail, 2012). This confirms the fact that language/discourse and knowledge/content cannot be dissociated (Narcy-Combes, 2005), and we will soon see that society/culture cannot be dissociated from the previous elements as well.
For LeDoux (2003), what is innate simply means that the connections are in place from birth, and Dehaene (2007) reminds us that the fetus can perceive the sounds of languages spoken in its environment which may influence the organisation of the brain. Research on language acquisition needs to take into account both internal individual parameters and exposure to the environment.
Language, Cognition and Knowledge
Discourse, similar to cognition, is part of human social practices and can only be understood through action (Maingueneau, 2009: 44). If we consider speaking as an action, then the result of speaking should present the same features as the result of any action, i.e. be contextually, socioculturally, historically and personally marked. This will be dealt with in more detail in Chapter 2. The mutual connection between language and cognition has been put forward by Lupyan (2012), among others. He argues that language, and more specifically linguistic labels, rapidly modulate putatively non-verbal processes. Gentner et al. (2013) examined spatial cognition in deaf children with minimal exposure to formal language and showed that spatial language is critical for the development of seemingly non-linguistic spatial skills.
Language and Modularity
Randall (2007) points out that an initial research question was to investigate whether knowledge of language was treated in a specific module of the brain and if language production was the result of the addition of several parallel monolingual competences when the speaker is plurilingual. The current dominant assumption is that forms of modules develop, especially for lexicon, grammar or phonology. However, the innate, preprogrammed character of these modules is not validated, so the lateralisation of language in the left hemisphere (Broca area) is neither innate nor irrevocable (Kail, 2016). It naturally occurs during development. Therefore, the network of language areas has encapsulation, automation, functional specialisation and rapid acquisition properties, which make it work in a way that may look similar to modularity according to Fodor’s (1986) definition, but is in fact far more complex, to a point that is too abstract for the purpose of this book.
The Age Factor
Chomsky’s and Fodor’s modular position justified the construct of a critical period after which acquiring another language would not be easy. This construct has been questioned. As Singleton (2005) pointed out, there is no sufficiently precise evidence of the limitative effects of this so-called critical period. However, according to Narcy-Combes et al. (2008), there is evidence of some kind of phonological process of high efficiency and preferential treatment in initial language(s), which some call a phonological ‘sieve’ (Troubetzkoy, 1939). According to Miras (2014), it is a phonological phenomenon, not a phonetic one, refuting the fact that there would be ‘deafness’ to sounds of additional languages (ALs). The brain no longer preferentially processes sound data that are irrelevant to the language(s) it is accustomed to hear, and this as early as when the child is 2 years old (De Boysson-Bardies, 2005). At about 6–7 years old and beyond, what some researchers call filters, nativisation (Andersen, 1983) or assimilation (Piaget, 1970) is due to the fact that individuals process data according to internalised personal processes. The effects can be felt syntactically first and that can be quickly settled. Articulation difficulties linked to automatisation are significant but can be compensated for. The development of logical operations leading to adult cognitive functioning may become a hindrance to ‘natural’ learning. Then, between 9–10 and 13–14 years old, nativisation occurs in any field of knowledge, though change is still possible through regular training and more and more analytical learning (Gaonac’h, 2006). Gradually, the abilities associated with cognitive development open new ways of learning. The coexistence of multiple languages may complicate things, but it also maintains brain plasticity.
Ellis (2008) and Gaonac’h (2006) argue that learning an initial language and learning an AL are two different things even at a very early age without any really daunting obstacle. The initial language determines the working memory processes (Cutler, 2000), which vary according to the languages. Studies on age effects have often focused on contexts involving immigrants massively exposed to the target language, which is obviously very different from the school context (Kail, 2015). They show that the earlier the child becomes bilingual, the narrower the zone in the brain devoted to language becomes. This zone will be used later to learn ALs (Kail, 2015). When data measure the effect of learning conditions on outcomes, the benefit of early learning disappears (Gaonac’h, 2006). Adults are sometimes more effective, even for pronunciation, given equal exposure and practice time and considering these variables are the most relevant. Furthermore, adults tend to start faster while children, when allowed plenty of time to learn, then catch up with them.
There are sensitive thresholds:
• early language acquisition and adult learning are initially different in nature as the neuronal substrates vary and evolve differently over time;
• teaching language the ‘natural’ way cannot be done at primary school level as the learners are already too old for it and caretakers not so available;
• how and how long individuals are exposed to the AL are more important than how old they are;
• language classes in monolingual schools do not offer the best conditions for efficient early language learning in terms of exposure.
In a ‘natural’ environment, adults and young learners will develop different second language (L2) learning strategies and modes that depend on their age on arrival in a resettlement country. ‘Natural’ learning will work until the age of 7. Beyond that age, learners will benefit from institutional support. Only adults develop strategies that are specific to the AL learning situation.
Musical Development and Language Development
Listening to a new AL is often intuitively supposed to be facilitated by musical education. Music education does, indeed, contribute to aural memory development, and thus to the capacity of identifying and reproducing new sounds mainly at a phonetic level but also at some phonological level. Bolduc et al. (2014) have shown that a better sense of rhythm leads to better segmentation of the sound chain. A musical programme for ...

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