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

Consciousness and Second Language Learning

Consciousness and Second Language Learning by John Truscott is the latest book in our Second Language Acquisition series. In this post, John explains how he became interested in the subject and how the book came together.

Consciousness and Second Language LearningThe book is, first of all, an expression of what has always been my number one intellectual interest: trying to understand the human mind. I’ve spent a few decades now wandering through the fields of psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, linguistics, and second language acquisition, always returning to that main interest. Almost 15 years ago, this interest found a home when Mike Sharwood Smith and I began our MOGUL project. The focus of the project is on establishing a framework within which second language learning can be understood and explored. But given the relations between this area and various other fields, constructing a framework of this sort necessarily means going far beyond second language learning itself. The project becomes, in effect, an effort to understand the mind.

One important strength of the MOGUL framework is its parsimonious account of consciousness, which straightforwardly incorporates the major themes of cognitive and neural theories and explains central features of consciousness in perhaps the simplest way imaginable. These characteristics give it great potential value for the study of second language learning. My goal in the book, a narrowing of the general goal of understanding the human mind, was to present the account of consciousness and explore this potential value.

In the first chapter I describe two views of consciousness and human nature, criticizing both. The first sees us as conscious creatures, downplaying or dismissing unconscious knowledge and processes, while the other sees an unconscious self as more important and perhaps more real than the conscious self that we know. The second view has sometimes enjoyed a faddish sort of popularity, but the first is much closer to common thinking. Even those who maintain an intellectual belief in View 2, I suggest, have great trouble actually following through with the idea. The tendency to equate “me” with what I consciously experience can be overwhelming.

This tendency shows in beliefs about second language teaching and learning. Research cannot begin to justify or explain the widespread faith shown by teachers, learners, and academics in the importance of explicit (conscious) learning. What might explain it, without justifying it, is the underlying assumption about human nature: that conscious knowledge and conscious processes represent our essence. This assumption is, depending on the exact form it takes, either confused or simply false. Conscious processes are important in many ways, and I’ve tried to elucidate some of them. But it is a mistake to assume that what we consciously know and do has more than a very indirect relation to second language learning.

Thus, in writing the book I was interested in (a) deepening our understanding of the mind and specifically of how consciousness fits into it, (b) exploring the implications for second language learning, and (c) challenging assumptions that implicitly dominate this area. I hope the book will at least inspire a recognition that more serious consideration of these topics is needed.

For more information about the book please see our website or contact the author: John Truscott, Center for Teacher Education, National Tsing Hua University (Taiwan) truscott@mx.nthu.edu.tw.