Understanding language and learning
Understanding language and learning

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Understanding language and learning

7 Learning through language in bilingual education

In the video with Scarlett, you considered how learners learn through language. In the case of Scarlett, the language through which she learnt was her first language. The language which is first acquired by children is referred to as ‘L1’ by linguists, and any subsequent languages learned are referred to as ‘L2’, ‘L3’, etc. One context in which learning through language becomes more marked than in Scarlett’s L1 context is in bilingual or multilingual education.

Bilingual or multilingual education takes place when there is more than one language involved in an educational setting. There are many different models of bilingual education and as many reasons for their existence. Various multilingual education models have evolved in order to suit the learning needs and demands of societies. For example, in many postcolonial contexts, learners from a young age are taught all subjects of the curriculum (Maths, Science, History, etc.) through an ex-colonial language, e.g. English in Ghana or French in Senegal. In some very linguistically diverse contexts, such as Nigeria where there are 527 officially recognised languages and Ghana where there are 79, English also functions as a lingua franca enabling communication between speakers who have a variety of L1s. Parents often endorse English-medium education as it is seen as bringing opportunities for social mobility. Those who have researched bilingual education and English as a medium of instruction, however, have highlighted the many negative consequences of learning through English. Usually, the advice given by researchers is to ensure that literacy is developed through the L1 and that English is introduced once a solid foundation for literacy in the L1 has been attained.

Activity 2

Timing: Allow 10 minutes

In order to understand the relationship between language, literacy and learning, take a moment to think about the advice given by researchers of bilingual education. Why do you think it is important for a child to develop their literacy in the first language before being taught through a second language?

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You will recall from the video with Scarlett that she was taught things about language and the world in general through linguistic interaction with her father. When Scarlett starts school she will begin to learn more systematically how sounds correspond to letters; she will begin to develop literacy in her L1. The advice given by those who have researched bilingual education to develop literacy in one’s L1 first assumes that it is easier to transition into literacy, i.e. develop competence in reading and writing, if a learner is already familiar with the sounds to which the letters can correspond: for instance, that the phoneme ‘k’ can correspond to the letters ‘c’ as in ‘curtain’, ‘k’ as in ‘kilo’ and ‘q’ as in ‘queen’. Once this code has been ‘cracked’ for one language, it is easier to apply those principles of matching to another language.


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