Advancing the Research Agenda on Child Foreign Language Learning

6 June 2017

This month we’re publishing Learning Foreign Languages in Primary School edited by María del Pilar García Mayo. In this post the editor explains what inspired her to put the book together and what she hopes readers will gain from it.

Back in October 2014, and together with the members of a Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness-funded research project of which I was the principal investigator, we organized the First International Conference on Child Foreign Language Acquisition at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). Surveying the field, it was obvious that most of what was known about the second language acquisition process came from research on adult and adolescent learners, or on younger learners but in immersion and second language contexts, that is, rich input contexts in which the learners are exposed to relevant stimuli outside the classroom. However, little was known about school-based programs in foreign language (FL) settings and much less about FL programs at the primary school level.

This was somewhat surprising as the number of FL programs for children mainly with English as a FL is on the increase worldwide. More studies on the topic were needed in order for stakeholders to make decisions on pedagogical measures based on research evidence. Sometimes research findings from language acquisition in immersion settings have been extrapolated to FL settings where conditions regarding number of pupils per classroom, exposure to appropriate input and curriculum time available are clearly not the same. FL contexts opportunities for exposure to the target language are often restricted to the classroom and because of this learners are almost completely reliant on their teachers. Besides, these different aged learners vary in terms of linguistic, cognitive and social development and, therefore, the process of adult and child second language acquisition is quite distinct.

After the conference, I decided to contact some of the participants and put together the proposal for what is now the volume Learning Foreign Languages in Primary School. Its main goal is to advance the research agenda on child FL learning. The twelve chapters that comprise the volume contain data gathered from primary school children (ages 6-12) while performing different tasks, answering questionnaires or providing feedback on diagnostic tests. The first languages of the children are Chinese, English, Hungarian, Persian and Spanish; and, except for data reported in one the chapters where the children were exposed to Esperanto, French, German and Italian, the second language learned as a FL was always English, thus representing the world-wide tendency referred to above. The volume offers contributions on what children are capable of doing and provides a wealth of data for researchers and educators. Besides, enhancing pedagogy through research is one of its key outcomes and the various chapters provide valuable insights about methods and teaching practices for young FL learners.

I hope Learning Foreign Languages in Primary School shows the reader that young FL learners are not passive recipients in their language learning process and that their insights are crucial for forthcoming research on the topic.

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning by Simone E. Pfenninger and David Singleton, which was published in April 2017, as well as Early Language Learning edited by Janet Enever and Eva Lindgren, due for publication in July 2017.

Language and China’s Rise: The Confucius Institute Project

16 May 2017

This month we published Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning by Jeffrey Gil. In this post the author reveals the inspiration behind the book and discusses China’s controversial Confucius Institute project.

I first became interested in China’s promotion of Chinese language learning when I was a PhD student in the early 2000s. While writing a thesis chapter about the use and status of the Chinese language in the world, I came across a news report describing plans to open a Chinese language and culture centre, called the Confucius Institute, in Kenya. It struck me as a sign that language was an important part of China’s rise, and as a topic worth exploring in more detail in the future. This book is the eventual result.

Confucius Institutes are established through partnerships between China’s Office of Chinese Language Council International (known as Hanban), a Chinese university and a foreign university. Their main function is teaching Chinese language and culture. Confucius Classrooms operate along similar lines in primary and secondary schools. Associated with these are the posting of volunteer and state-sponsored Chinese language teachers overseas, and the international Chinese Bridge Chinese language competitions. I refer to these collectively as the Confucius Institute project. This is part of China’s use of soft power, or attraction, to accomplish its goals in world politics. Language learning is an important aspect of this because there is already widespread interest in learning Chinese, and China views the Chinese language as a vehicle for conveying knowledge and understanding of China, including its culture, history and politics.

The Confucius Institute in Kenya which sparked my interest was one of the earliest; the first was opened in Seoul, South Korea, in November 2004. Since then, the scope and scale of the Confucius Institute project has expanded considerably. It has also garnered much attention from the public, the media, academics and governments, and created quite some controversy in the process. It seemed to me an appropriate time for a work which would map and evaluate the Confucius Institute project from a global perspective. In particular, I wanted to explore the dimensions of the Confucius Institute project across the globe; the impact of the Confucius Institute project at the political and societal levels; and the ways the Confucius Institute project could be modified in the future.

In this book I describe the geographical coverage, volume of activities and pace of development of the Confucius Institute project. I also analyse its influence on the policies and actions of foreign governments, on Chinese language teaching and learning, and on attitudes towards China. My conclusions may be surprising: outside the domain of Chinese language teaching and learning where its impact has been mainly positive, the Confucius Institute project has had little impact on improving China’s standing in world politics. On this basis I make several suggestions regarding what China, schools and universities, governments and researchers can do to improve the outcomes of the Confucius Institute project.

I’m sure this book won’t be the last word on the Confucius Institute project, but I hope I’ve succeeded in highlighting how language is intertwined with China’s rise.

Jeffrey Gil, Flinders University

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy Studies in Second Language Acquisition of Chinese edited by ZhaoHong Han.

The Multilingual Nature of Higher Education

21 March 2017

This month we published Academic Biliteracies edited by David M. Palfreyman and Christa van der Walt. In this post, David and Christa discuss their experience of coediting the book. 

Christa: There were some initial signs that this book was not meant to be. Firstly, David’s e-mails to me disappeared in cyberspace and it was only when Nancy Hornberger contacted me to enquire very diplomatically whether I had received the e-mails, that we found out his institutional e-mails were not delivered, for some unfathomable reason. Secondly, this was an under-researched topic and we were not sure that we would get any contributions; and thirdly, both of us dealt with serious interruptions of a personal and professional nature. And yet, here we are, three years later, with chapters that showcase the multilingual nature of higher education in all its complexity.

Our first (academic) challenge was to agree on what we understand ‘literacy’ to mean, so that we can evaluate contributions on ‘biliteracy’. Going through our Skype notes, I’m struck by the terminology issues in every conversation. Is there a difference between ‘translanguaging’ and ‘translingual’; between ‘multiliteracies’ and ‘multilingual literacies’? Is ‘translanguaging’ the overarching concept in which ‘biliteracy’ needs to find its place, or should they be seen as separate phenomena in multilingual contexts? We still do not have a definite answer; or maybe it is better to say that we have many answers!

David: Yes, the email bug almost put a subtle end to the project before it started, and I’m very glad that Nancy intervened! I was keen to work with Christa on this book because her previous publications had focused on multilingual higher education in a way that I hadn’t come across before: questioning assumptions about English as the medium of instruction in so many universities worldwide.

Christa: We both wanted a variety of chapters from all corners of the world, but of course we had to be selective within the scope of one book.  We aimed to cover both majority and minority languages in contexts where language is a medium for developing knowledge rather than necessarily a focus of the course; in the end, the chapters highlight the use at university of literacy in Afrikaans, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, isiXhosa and other African languages, Korean, Maori, Polish, Spanish and Welsh.

David: Some of the contributors had already published in the area of biliteracy; some had been working with biliterate students and issues of biliteracy in university courses for some years, but came to engage with the issues in new ways through their involvement in the book. As the book developed, we encouraged contributors to read and comment on each other’s chapters, which brought some mutual adjustments and helped bring out common themes. All of us became aware of new perspectives to understand the experience of students and scholars, and fresh options for working with and for biliteracy. Guillaume Gentil, whose previous work provided inspiration for the book, kindly sprang into action once the rest of the book was complete, contributing a concluding chapter which draws themes together and points out some ways forward for research in academic biliteracies.

I’m grateful to Zayed University (UAE) for their support in travelling to Australia, Jordan and the UK in the course of preparing the book. Among many learning experiences along the way, I remember especially meeting up by coincidence with Christa at the AILA Congress in Brisbane – it was good to have a face to face meeting near the beginning as most of our later work together was by email or Skype. Another unforgettable and educative experience was taking part in a research conference at Cardiff University where most communication was in Welsh or Basque: having to rely on simultaneous interpreters and finding my usual language of academic/social communication suddenly minoritized, I suddenly found myself a ‘lurker’ in academic discussions!

Christa: For me, as a lecturer who code switches and uses two languages when teaching at Stellenbosch University, the active development of biliteracy in academic contexts is an important acknowledgement of the multilingual nature of twenty-first century higher education. Many students arrive at higher education institutions with a fully developed academic language that is not English and it would be a waste to ignore the enormous potential of that resource when making meaning of academic material.

We’ll look forward to hearing from readers of the book about how the issues relate to their own experiences as learners or teachers.


David M. Palfreyman:

Christa van der Walt:


For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Multilingual Higher Education, which Christa published with us previously.


New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language Learning

16 October 2015

This month we published New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language Learning edited by Liming Yu and Terence Odlin. Here, Terence tells us a bit more about language transfer and the issues examined by the book.

New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language LearningLanguage transfer research looks at the influence of one language upon another. When learners try to acquire a new language, the knowledge they already have (as in the knowledge of their native language) can influence what they produce or understand inside or outside the classroom. Consequently, experienced language teachers often seek to understand better how transfer works and what they may do to deal with the reality of such influence.

Our volume brings together several innovative studies that shed light on transfer or, as it is also known, cross-linguistic influence. The studies brought together in the book consider such influence in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation as well as topics such as comprehension and social setting in relation to transfer.

Researchers as well as teachers will find a wealth of new insights on several topics including ones that have long been discussed. For example, the introductory chapter shows that the term transfer itself has had a long history in linguistics and was not introduced, as some conventional wisdom would have it, in the 1950s. The same chapter also provides new insights about the issue of predictions of transfer, offering a more optimistic outlook on the issue than is often found in other discussions.

The volume also presents several detailed analyses of transfer involving language contact in China, with most of these studies focusing on the influence of Mandarin on the acquisition of English. However, there is also one study involving the converse type of influence, that is, of L1 English on L2 Chinese. ESL or EFL teachers who are curious about, for example, the prepositional choices made by Chinese students will find an empirical analysis of particular cases, while another chapter investigates why ill-formed sentences such as “The Eiffel Tower sees easily from this window often seem acceptable to Chinese students.

Along with the empirical studies are ones looking at the broader picture, as in Chapter 2 by Scott Jarvis, which reviews (among other topics) some pioneering work using methods such as eye-tracking technology that suggest new insights about cross-linguistic influence. Considering the broader picture from a different perspective, Chapter 12 by Chuming Wang emphasizes the importance of the contexts in which learning occurs. The diverse perspectives of the volume are considered globally in the final chapter (by Terence Odlin), which discusses questions such as whether some linguistic-processing is language-specific. Although it may seem self-evident that people inevitably “think” in English, in Chinese, in Arabic, or in some other language, the notion of language-specific cognitive processes has proven controversial. What is clear, however, is that language transfer has a special relevance to the controversy and the new volume offers much to show that relevance.

Terence Odlin, Ohio State University

If you would like any further information about this book please see our website or contact Terence at the address above.

Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language

2 October 2015

Guanglun Michael Mu’s book Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language is out this month and it examines the issues faced by Chinese Australian heritage language learners. In this post Michael introduces the key themes of his book.

Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language“I am Australian but I look Chinese. I look Chinese but I can’t speak Chinese.” This is the predicament of my Chinese Australian friend, and probably that of many other Chinese Australians, Chinese Americans, Chinese Canadians, or overseas Chinese in general. Such a predicament also epitomises the tensions around race, culture, and language in the diasporic context. In response to this predicament, I wrote the book Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language: An Australian Perspective.

The book grapples with the complex entanglement of identity construction, language choice, cultural heritage, and social orders. Specifically, the book investigates how Chinese Australians negotiate their Chineseness and capitalise on resources through learning Chinese as a heritage language in Australia and beyond. Though the book is concerned with Chinese Australians, knowledge built and lessons learned can provide insight into other multicultural settings where people of Chinese descent are becoming increasingly prominent in representing the cultural and linguistic diversity of the society, and more recently, in contributing to the economic dynamics of the society. In addition, the focus on the potholes and distractions as well as the benefits and gains of heritage language learning is not restricted to Chinese diaspora, but relevant to ethnic minority individuals and communities elsewhere.

The book wades into the sociological problem of how durable and transposable dispositions of Chineseness unconsciously generates practices of Chinese heritage language learning, that is, how previous state, cultural history, and ancestral root are inscribed in the body and mind, largely taken for granted at present, and potentially projected into the future. However, the book does not align with the deterministic view because it also takes close account of how Chinese heritage language learning constantly shapes and reshapes Chineseness. The book further deviates itself from the thesis of determinism by examining how Chinese Australians strategically count on material and symbolic resources with the expectation of reproducing these resources in their identical or expanded forms.

The book stresses that the embodiment of Chineseness, the capture of resources, and the learning of Chinese heritage language are intertwined and mutually constitutive elements, while the lack of any element may impede the growth of the other two. Moreover, the book is emphatic about the fact that Chineseness, resources, and heritage language do not act and interact in a vacuum. Instead, they respond to each other in diverse social spaces. Power relations and social structures within domestic milieu, school settings, work places, community domains, and larger cultural and geographic zones all come to inform the embodiment of Chineseness, the investment of resources, and the learning of Chinese heritage language.

I hope that the book is of interest to a wide readership. I invite overseas Chinese, postgraduate research students, teachers of Chinese as a foreign/second/additional language, scholars of Chinese cultural studies, sociologists of education and language, as well as heritage language researchers to read this volume and provide constructive comments to this work. By publication of this book, I would like to encourage colleagues in the field to push the limits and break the boundaries, and to rethink unity of diversities and togetherness of differences.

For more information about this book please see our website.

Online Study of Bilingualism

13 March 2012

Multilingual Matters author Dr. Sue Dicker, professor of English at Hostos Community College, City University of New York, is the author of Languages in America: A Pluralist View. A well-respected book, Languages in America is a commonly-used textbook in many college education courses.

Sue Dicker

Dr. Dicker is presently engaged in an online study of bilingualism in New York City. Her goal is to record the experiences of bilingual English-Spanish and English-Chinese speakers using their native or heritage languages in the public sphere. In addition to being comfortably bilingual in English-Spanish or English-Chinese, subjects must be at least nineteen years old and live in New York City. The survey consists of short-answer questions that take roughly ten minutes to answer and open-ended questions that participants may answer in as much detail as they wish or not at all.

If you are eligible for the survey please click here to participate in the study. Please feel free to forward the link to others who might find it interesting.

If you would like further information on this study, Dr. Dicker may be reached at

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