Why use mixed methods in early language learning research?

27 July 2017

This month we published Early Language Learning edited by Janet Enever and Eva Lindgren, the first book in our new series, Early Language Learning in School Contexts. In this post the editors discuss the use of mixed methods in their research.

Understanding how young children learn additional languages in classroom environments is complex. Children learn how to speak, interact, read and write with help from teachers, peers and parents. The surrounding world, as well as themselves, influences their motivation to learn, their self-concept and their attitudes, all of which are important for their learning of an additional language. This wide range of factors with the potential to impact on children’s learning presents serious challenges to traditional research methods. For example, can a qualitative study of say, the oral language production of four children in a few lessons provide us with any clarity as to how young children in general learn additional languages at school? Similarly, can a quantitative study of the oral language production of a whole cohort of children learning an additional language at school provide us with a nuanced understanding of how development for each individual child occurs? Both set-ups could include a variety of factors, in depth analyses in the qualitative approach and advanced statistical methodologies in the quantitative approach, but regardless of which approach is taken, it seems likely that neither will provide very satisfactory answers. For these reasons and many more, we have become interested in adopting a mixed methods approach to our research, with the idea that it might provide a more comprehensive view of how language learning unfolds in classroom environments.

As a theoretical frame, mixed methods research (MMR) is regarded as relatively new, although there is evidence of research approaches that have adopted some form of ‘mixing’ for centuries (Maxwell, 2016). Given current developments in the field, it is unsurprising that views differ on exactly how MMR might be conceptualised. However, recent understandings seem to be moving towards the idea that it can be understood as bringing together all dimensions ‘as an over-arching concept (…) at the philosophical, methodological, and methods levels’ (Fetters & Molina-Azorin, 2017, p.293). Arguing for a framework of integration, they propose an ‘MMR integration trilogy’ outlining the possible dimensions that may be integrated, including: the philosophical, theoretical and researcher positioning; the rationale, aims, data collection and analysis dimension; the approaches to interpretation, dissemination and research integrity. Their suggestion is that if researchers are attentive to all dimensions then ‘more advanced and sophisticated mixed methods studies’ will result (p.303).

As researchers interested in working with MMR we recognise that we are a long way from addressing such a strongly integrated approach at the outset of framing our research plans. Indeed, it may well be that a more fluid approach which allows for the emergence of some form of mixing during the research process may allow for greater creativity in some instances. The variety of research studies contained in our edited volume Early Language Learning reflect a good proportion of the approaches to MMR currently in use in the field of early language learning. As such, we hope they set the bar for future exploration of this research paradigm that may help to clarify whether a more strongly integrated approach to this field of research can contribute to an enhanced quality of research.

References

Fetters, M.D. & Molina-Azorin, J.F. (2017). The Mixed Methods Research Integration Trilogy and Its Dimensions. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 11(3) 291–307.

Maxwell, J.A. (2016) Expanding the History and Range of Mixed Methods Research. Journal of Mixed Methods Research 10(1), 12–27.

For more information about this book, please see out website. The editors have also produced a video in which they introduce their book, which can be watched here. If you found this interesting, you might also like Learning Foreign Languages in Primary School edited by María del Pilar García Mayo.


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.


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