When Second Language Competence is Not Enough: The Case of Minority Languages

This month we published Immersion Education by Pádraig Ó Duibhir, which examines the success of young immersion learners of Irish in becoming competent speakers of the minority language. In this post the author explains why further efforts need to be made to promote the wider use of Irish outside Irish-medium education.

We devote a great deal of time and effort in second language teaching to ensure that learners reach the highest level of competence possible in the second language. Sometimes, however, competence is not enough, as in the case of Irish, a minority language in contact with English – one of the world’s major languages.

I have spent most of my career either teaching or researching Irish-medium education. In general, students who graduate from Irish-medium schools have developed excellent oral communication skills in Irish despite some grammatical inaccuracies. One might expect these young adults to contribute to the wider use of Irish in society. Unfortunately, this is not always the case despite government policy in this area. While some do use more Irish than their counterparts who went to English-medium schools, the level of use is disappointing.

As a parent who raised three children, now in their late 20s, through the medium of Irish, I can attest to the lack of opportunities to use the language outside the home and school contexts. None of my adult children work in a job that brings them into contact with Irish and apart from their communication with me, they have very few opportunities to speak Irish. When the children were younger, they attended Irish-medium schools. When their friends from school visited our house, however, I was always struck by the fact that their conversation was in English. If I engaged them in conversation they would happily speak Irish to me but return to conversing in English once I had left. Speaking Irish to me appeared to be normal, perhaps because they saw me as an authority figure or knew that Irish was the language of our home. But speaking Irish among themselves outside of school was not normal.

So much of the Irish government’s efforts to promote the wider use of Irish are invested in the education system. We know from experience, however, that transferring minority language learning from school to society is extremely difficult. How then might we create safe spaces where it is normal to speak Irish? Could we build Irish-speaking networks around Irish-medium schools? What can we learn from other minority language contexts? The advent of pop-up Gaeltachtaí or Irish-speaking social events is a very positive development. How might we capitalise on and expand this concept where participants have a clear desire to speak Irish? In the absence of greater opportunities and a desire to speak Irish, competence alone is not enough.

For more information about this book please see our website

Minority Populations in Canadian Second Language Education

Earlier this year we published Minority Populations in Canadian Second Language Education edited by Katy Arnett and Callie Mady. Here, Katy tells us a bit more about the field of Canadian Second Language Education.

For many decades within the field of second language education, Canada has been known for the development and growth of its French immersion program. The model has been positively replicated in many corners of the globe and thus led to very esteemed views of the country’s language education initiatives.

Minority Populations in Canadian Second Language EducationYet, French immersion is not the only dimension of second language education in the country. There are other programs for French study (Intensive French and Core French), programs for immigrants who want to remain connected to their heritage languages and perhaps pass them on to their children, and programs seeking to revive Aboriginal languages. The changing faces of the Canadian immigrant population have led to considerations of English and French as “Additional,” rather than second languages. Changing views about who can and should study language has shifted the population of learners in traditional French Second Language classrooms. Thus, this volume seeks to bring to light some of these lesser-known facets of Canadian second language education, which may end up challenging Canada’s positive global reputation in the field.

Within this volume four groups are considered: Allophone students in Anglophone regions of the country studying French as an additional language, students with disabilities who are in French immersion programs, newcomers to and residents of Canada who are seeking to maintain ties to their heritage languages and cultures, and Aboriginal communities hoping to revive the languages and language traditions that were suppressed (often violently) by the Canadian government. The collective work of the authors—who range from doctoral candidates to esteemed scholars in the field—shows that Canada remains a vibrant locale for questioning and promoting language education, even if not all of the stories celebrate successes.

To find out more about this book please see our website.

Bilingual Immersion Education Network

Conference in Wandsworth where BIEN was launched in March 2012

We were interested to discover the recently founded Bilingual Immersion Education Network (BIEN) and got in touch with its organiser Gabriela Meier to tell us a bit about what the network aims to achieve. 

BIEN was set up as part of a research project (funded by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation) at Wix Primary School which runs an English-French stream.

Bilingual immersion education means teaching some subjects in one language (e.g. in English) and other subjects in another language (e.g. in French) in a state or private school at primary and/or secondary level. Teaching school subjects through two languages can be a very successful method to teach language and content. There are different types of bilingual immersion education. These are described on the BIEN website.

BIEN has the following aims:

BIEN joins people: It connects teachers, parents and policy makers, who are interested in bilingual immersion education in the UK.

BIEN informs: It is the first port of call for any questions regarding bilingual immersion education in the UK. It offers information, resources, FAQs, discussions, research findings, etc.

BIEN charts the trend: There is an increasing number of interesting bilingual immersion education projects around the country and BIEN keeps a directory of such programmes. If you know of a bilingual immersion programme, please let us know.

The website is publicly available, but some information is reserved for members. Additionally, through membership numbers we can assess the level of interest in this educational model around the country. So if you are interested, please join the network and keep up to date with developments. Go to www.bien.org.uk, click on the network tab and register. You will have to enter a registration code, which is: 2lingual.

Comments from BIEN members:

timely and needed” (researcher)

I feel I’m part of a movement now” (teacher)

For further information please go to the BIEN website www.bien.org.uk or contact Dr Gabriela Meier, Lecturer of Language Education, University of Exeter (g.s.meier@exeter.ac.uk).