Usborne, E., Peck, J., Smith, D.-L., & Taylor, D. M. (2012). Learning through an Aboriginal language: The impact on students’ English and Aboriginal language skills. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l’éducation, 34(4), 200–215.
In this post, I’m working with the general idea of the blog that learning an additional language (and hence, within a broad definition of bilingualism, moving towards bilingualism) is a positive experience. Note initially that there are some who might disagree with the idea that bilingualism as such is positive, and there are also fathomable instances in which learning an additional language might not be considered positive. That said, in working with the idea that learning additional languages is a positive occurrence, an immediately ensuing question is how those additional languages might best be learned.
Usborne, Peck, Smith and Taylor examined how Aboriginal languages in Canada can be learned most successfully by Aboriginal children and whether the learning of Aboriginal languages compromises the children’s knowledge of the mainstream language (i.e. English or French). This post therefore progresses from last month’s in which research was discussed which indicates that youth suicide rates drop in Canadian Aboriginal communities where Aboriginal language knowledge is prevalent. In addition to arguments based on the inherent detriment of language loss per se, there is thus ample, very pressing, reason for Canada to support the successful instruction of Aboriginal languages. However, as Usborne et al. discuss, challenging questions arise when the decision is made to include Aboriginal language instruction in Canadian school curriculum.
“During our own experiences living and working in Aboriginal communities, we have heard parents, community members, and educators debate the extent to which the Aboriginal language should be used in the classroom. Many Aboriginal families are committed to supporting attempts to have their children learn the heritage language, thereby promoting a strong Aboriginal identity. However, families are also committed to having their children master a mainstream language to allow their children to participate fully in modern, mainstream society. […] When there is a choice of enrolling one’s child in an immersion program in which children spend the majority of their school day learning in an Aboriginal language, parents often worry that their children’s abilities in the mainstream language will suffer.” (p. 203)
Accordingly, Usborne et al.’s research examines parents’ understandable concerns as to whether the mainstream language suffers when Aboriginal languages are acquired within an immersion context. Specifically, the researchers investigated the experiences of children (ranging in age from approximately four to seven) attending either 1. an Aboriginal language immersion programme or 2. an Aboriginal second language (L2) programme in a Mi’kmaq community in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The 84 children in the Mi’kmaq immersion programme were “taught each of their core subjects (i.e., Math, Language Arts, and Social Studies) in Mi’kmaq throughout the school year”; whilst in contrast, the 134 children in the L2 programme were “taught their core subjects in English and took Mi’kmaq as a second language for a minimum of an hour a day” (p. 205). Importantly, the children all had limited knowledge of Mi’kmaq before entering the school (and they all went to the same school), so the assumption was that whatever they had learned or not learned would be a function of the different curricula, rather than their previous knowledge. The researchers then rigourously tested the children’s knowledge of Mi’kmaq and English during the school’s spring break using a battery of age appropriate language proficiency tests.
Expectedly, Usborne et al.’s results indicated that children in the Mi’kmaq immersion programme learned significantly more Mi’kmaq than those in the Mi’kmaq as an L2 programme. Moreover, and this is perhaps more surprising, children in their first year of school in the immersion programme had significantly lower English scores compared to those in the L2 programme; by the second school year this difference was reduced, but immersion children still had significantly lower English scores than did children in the L2 programme. However, and here the results become encouraging, by the third school year, children in the immersion programme had caught up to the English scores of the children in the L2 programme. Usborne et al. summarise that “students in the Mi’kmaq immersion program are not only learning more Mi’kmaq than students in the Mi’kmaq as a second language program, but they are also performing just as well in English [by their 3rd school year]” (p. 209).
Therefore, in line with the call at the end of my previous post for the instruction of Aboriginal languages in Canada in order to counteract high youth suicide rates in Aboriginal communities, it seems that precisely Aboriginal language immersion programmes are a successful mechanism to encourage bilingualism in Canadian Aboriginal communities. Indeed, I suggest that it is exactly these incentives which should be duly financially and ideologically supported throughout Canada.
Esther de Leeuw