Younger is not always better when it comes to learning a second language


Image 20170224 32726 1xtuop0
Learning a language in a classroom is best for early teenagers.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Warren Midgley, University of Southern Queensland

It’s often thought that it is better to start learning a second language at a young age. But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary significantly, depending on how the language is being learned. The Conversation

The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.

Before they can add two small numbers or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners.

Why younger may not always be better

Two theories from the 1960s continue to have a significant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.

The theory of “universal grammar” proposes that children are born with an instinctive knowledge of the language rules common to all humans. Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective.

The other theory, known as the “critical period hypothesis”, posits that at around the age of puberty most of us lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but nevertheless they continue to be influential.

Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better.

In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.

Language immersion environment best for young children

Living, learning and playing in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible.

Learning in classroom best for early teens

Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.

To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that do not usually develop until early adolescence.

For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the number of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.

Self-guided learning best for adults

There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own. They may buy a study book, sign up for an online course, purchase an app or join face-to-face or virtual conversation classes.

To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners.

How we can apply this to education

What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear.

If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better. If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood.

However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood.

Warren Midgley, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why it’s hard for adults to learn a second language


image-20160804-473-32tg9n.jpg

Brianna Yamasaki, University of Washington

As a young adult in college, I decided to learn Japanese. My father’s family is from Japan, and I wanted to travel there someday.

However, many of my classmates and I found it difficult to learn a language in adulthood. We struggled to connect new sounds and a dramatically different writing system to the familiar objects around us.

It wasn’t so for everyone. There were some students in our class who were able to acquire the new language much more easily than others.

So, what makes some individuals “good language learners?” And do such individuals have a “second language aptitude?”

What we know about second language aptitude

Past research on second language aptitude has focused on how people perceive sounds in a particular language and on more general cognitive processes such as memory and learning abilities. Most of this work has used paper-and-pencil and computerized tests to determine language-learning abilities and predict future learning.

Researchers have also studied brain activity as a way of measuring linguistic and cognitive abilities. However, much less is known about how brain activity predicts second language learning.

Is there a way to predict the aptitude of second language learning?

How does brain activity change while learning languages?
Brain image via www.shutterstock.com

In a recently published study, Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and I explored how brain activity recorded at rest – while a person is relaxed with their eyes closed – could predict the rate at which a second language is learned among adults who spoke only one language.

Studying the resting brain

Resting brain activity is thought to reflect the organization of the brain and it has been linked to intelligence, or the general ability used to reason and problem-solve.

We measured brain activity obtained from a “resting state” to predict individual differences in the ability to learn a second language in adulthood.

To do that, we recorded five minutes of eyes-closed resting-state electroencephalography, a method that detects electrical activity in the brain, in young adults. We also collected two hours of paper-and-pencil and computerized tasks.

We then had 19 participants complete eight weeks of French language training using a computer program. This software was developed by the U.S. armed forces with the goal of getting military personnel functionally proficient in a language as quickly as possible.

The software combined reading, listening and speaking practice with game-like virtual reality scenarios. Participants moved through the content in levels organized around different goals, such as being able to communicate with a virtual cab driver by finding out if the driver was available, telling the driver where their bags were and thanking the driver.

Here’s a video demonstration:

Nineteen adult participants (18-31 years of age) completed two 30-minute training sessions per week for a total of 16 sessions. After each training session, we recorded the level that each participant had reached. At the end of the experiment, we used that level information to calculate each individual’s learning rate across the eight-week training.

As expected, there was large variability in the learning rate, with the best learner moving through the program more than twice as quickly as the slowest learner. Our goal was to figure out which (if any) of the measures recorded initially predicted those differences.

A new brain measure for language aptitude

When we correlated our measures with learning rate, we found that patterns of brain activity that have been linked to linguistic processes predicted how easily people could learn a second language.

Patterns of activity over the right side of the brain predicted upwards of 60 percent of the differences in second language learning across individuals. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that the right half of the brain is more frequently used with a second language.

Our results suggest that the majority of the language learning differences between participants could be explained by the way their brain was organized before they even started learning.

Implications for learning a new language

Does this mean that if you, like me, don’t have a “quick second language learning” brain you should forget about learning a second language?

Not quite.

Language learning can depend on many factors.
Child image via www.shutterstock.com

First, it is important to remember that 40 percent of the difference in language learning rate still remains unexplained. Some of this is certainly related to factors like attention and motivation, which are known to be reliable predictors of learning in general, and of second language learning in particular.

Second, we know that people can change their resting-state brain activity. So training may help to shape the brain into a state in which it is more ready to learn. This could be an exciting future research direction.

Second language learning in adulthood is difficult, but the benefits are large for those who, like myself, are motivated by the desire to communicate with others who do not speak their native tongue.

The Conversation

Brianna Yamasaki, Ph.D. Student, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Oxford dictionary’s new words are a testament to the fluid beauty of English


Annabelle Lukin

The Oxford English Dictionary – the “OED” to its friends – has announced a 2016 update, consisting of over 1,000 new words and word meanings, along with the revision or expansion of over 2,000 entries.

The revisions are not just new words or phrases, like “glamping”, “air-punching”, “sweary” and “budgie smugglers”. The OED has also revised its entry of “bittem”, an obsolete word over 1000 years old, meaning “the keel or lower part of a ship’s hull”.

Australia’s most famous wearer of budgie smugglers.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Where did the new words come from? Some are borrowed from other languages, such as “narcocorrido” (a Spanish word for a traditional Mexican ballad recounting the exploits of drug traffickers), “potjie” (from Afrikaans, a three-legged cast iron cooking pot for use over a fire), and “shishito” (from Japanese, a particular kind of chilli used in Asian cooking).

Some additions are deeply revealing of our modern preoccupations – such as the terms “assisted death” and “assisted dying”. This category also includes the word “agender” (without gender), born of a communal reaction to our deeply binary thinking around gender. The OED dates its use first to the year 2000.

The OED has also added new “initialisms”. To its existing list, which included IMF (International Monetary Fund) and IDB (illicit diamond buyer), it has added ICYMI (in case you missed it), IRL (in real life), IDK (I don’t know), and FFS (look that one up if you don’t know it already!)

Many of the new entries are made by combining words. Some of these fit the definition of “compound words”, that is, words formed by joining two together, such as “air-punching”, “bare-knuckle”, “self-identity” and “straight-acting”. Others are just two words put side-by-side, such as “power couple”, “hockey mum”, “test drive” and “star sign”.

The term ‘power couple’ has been blessed by the OED.
Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Clearly some of these terms – “budgie smugglers” for instance – have been around for some time. The OED dates this term to 1998. The source is The Games, the Australian mockumentary television series about the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

But to make it into a TV program like this, the term must have already been an established expression in the Australian lexicon. The only corpus of English comparing usage across various countries, the GlowBe corpus, shows how deeply Australian the term “budgie smugglers” is.

Frequency of expression ‘budgie smugglers’ in the Global Web-Based English Corpus (GlowBe).

The expression “battle of the sexes”, meanwhile, has only just made it into the dictionary. The OED first attests its use right back to 1723.

Then there are the new forms from old stock. For instance, to the verb “exploit,” the OED is adding an adjective (“exploitational”), an adverb (“exploitatively”), and a noun to denote someone who is exploiting someone or something (“exploiter”).

To the verb “to swear” the OED now includes “sweary”, both as noun (a swear word can be called “a sweary”) and adjective (meaning something or someone characterized by a lot of swearing).

Why the wait?

So how do words get into the dictionary? “Lexicographers” – the folk who make dictionaries – add words only when there is evidence of usage over some period of time, and across various contexts of usage. The process for Oxford dictionaries is explained here.

A dictionary can never hold every word of a language. The only estimate I know suggests that well over half the words of English are not recorded by dictionaries. Since this research is based on the Google Books corpus, the data is only from published books in university libraries. We can safely say this figure is very conservative.

Somewhere around 400 million people speak English as a native language. But linguist David Crystal estimates three times as many speak English as an additional language. Thanks to colonization, English is the primary language for countries as diverse as Barbados, Singapore, and Belize.

This latest OED update includes the publication of written and spoken pronunciations for additional English varieties, including those versions spoken in Australia, Canada, the Carribean, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, the Phillipines, Scotland, Singapore, Malaysia and South Africia. While some of these varieties already had coverage, their presentation has been expanded.

In praise of Singlish

The addition of Hong Kong and Singapore English are entirely new. Speakers of Singapore English, (or “Singlish”) – I count myself as a reasonable speaker of this dialect – will be delighted to see the inclusion of words such as “ang moh” (a light-skinned person of Western origin), “Chinese helicopter” (a derogatory term for a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and whose knowledge of English is limited), “killer litter” (objects thrown or falling from high-rise buildings, endangering the people below) and “shiok” (an expression of admiration).

If you think English belongs to Anglos, then you can start by banishing the word “yum cha” from your vocabulary. For a good laugh at Australian English, and the Indian variety, try this series “How to speak Australians”, from the “Dehli Institute of Linguistics”.

By adding the “World Englishes” to the entries on British and American English, the OED has opened a pandora’s box. For instance, read the OED’s explanation for choosing “White South African English” as the model to represent their entries on South African English.

Changes to the OED remind us that a language is not a fixed entity. Not only is English constantly changing, but its boundaries are fluid.

Languages are open and dynamic: open to other dialects and their many and varied users. Therein lies both the power and beauty of language.

The Conversation

Annabelle Lukin, Associate professor

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How language drives students’ transition from rural to urban areas


image-20160317-30237-1put0zy

Thelma Kathleen Buchholz Mort, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

Molofo and Bulewani are training as teachers at a university in one of South Africa’s largest cities, Cape Town. Both young men come from rural backgrounds and English is not their first language. Their experiences of moving from a rural area to a city, and of becoming English speakers, offer a fascinating insight into how language development and social transition are intertwined.

There are about 25,720 state schools in South Africa, and 11,252 are designated as rural. These rural schools tend to be poorly resourced – some don’t have proper furniture, let alone enough teachers or textbooks. Most pupils are taught in their mother tongues, not English, and even if they do learn in English they have little chance to practice speaking it at home or outside school. Pupils from schools in such areas tend not to perform as well in their final exams as their urban counterparts.

It was language that set Bulewani and Molofo apart from their classmates. I interviewed them, along with two other teaching students, as part of a research project presented at the 2015 South African Education Research Association Conference. An article based on this research has been submitted to the SA Journal of Education and is under review. The research findings echo results from elsewhere in the world: participants reported that “leaving behind” their home languages and their physical homes produced a sense of both loss and gain.

Social distance

It is important that this research used rural areas as a context. Such areas tend to be linguistically, educationally and economically isolated from the rest of a country. The students’ experiences are about more than just geographic distance between their rural homes and the city where they study – they’re about social distance, too.

US educationalist John H Schumann talks about this idea of social distance in his research, explaining it as the distance between two language groups in second-language acquisition. Social closeness involves being embedded in a culture. The more culturally comfortable one is, the less the social distance and the easier it is to learn the relevant new language.

Lives in transition

Molofo and Bulewani come from areas where they weren’t surrounded by English speakers. In some rural schools, even the teachers are not particularly proficient in English. Pupils are meant to be taught according to a policy of additive bilingualism – they learn in their mother tongues until Grade 4, and then switch to English as the language of teaching and learning.

This seldom happens, and neither Molofo nor Bulewani learned English this way. They had good English teachers who forced them to speak the language, and both found that they loved it. By the end of their school careers, the young men spoke English well enough to pass it and qualify for university entrance. They also spoke it well enough and had performed well enough at school to earn bursaries. Without this financial support, they would not have been able to take up their university places.

There were two transitory moments at play for Molofo and Bulewani. One involved a physical movement from a rural to an urban area. The other was a transition from functioning in their home or mother tongue to primarily speaking English. Both transitions were facilitated by their acceptance to university. The move came at a cost, though. One of the questions posed in the research was whether students felt that their culture had changed or was under threat because they had learned English. Both said they were losing tradition – but that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Molofo comes from the Eastern Cape province and grew up in an area governed by a chief. Such areas operate under traditional law. Constitutional democracy, with its notions of guaranteed rights, is remote. He had discovered a greater sense of equality and justice since moving to the city, explaining:

I am not that much interested in a traditional way because there is a lot that I discover that is not fair. Some of the things are not happening in the way they are supposed to. It depends maybe on who you are.

Loss

Bulewani celebrated the fact that he felt more in charge of his own destiny since his “transitions”. But he also experienced profound loss. His family – who are also from the Eastern Cape – lived off the land, and he missed this way of life. He remarked, for instance, that while at home he could go and pick something from the fields, whereas in the city he had to go out and spend money to buy food.

Mostly, though, his feelings of loss revolved around language:

I am losing a lot of words. I miss a lot of words … I am becoming more educated, but I am losing a lot of things in my culture. I am learning a lot of things from Western culture. Talking English. But I am losing a lot of things. I am losing some Xhosa language and traditions.

New voices

Universities need to start collecting more background information about their students to help them settle into this new environment and achieve their goals. For instance, institutions don’t know how many students are from rural areas and might be grappling with the sorts of changes Molofo and Bulewani articulated.

These young men’s voices open an important window on South Africa’s fast-changing society. They are at the forefront of this change, which is both positive and has obvious gains; but is also bittersweet and accompanied by a sense of loss.

The Conversation

Thelma Kathleen Buchholz Mort, PhD student with the Centre for International Teacher Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How teachers can help migrant learners feel more included


image-20160325-17857-1rrvikb.jpg

Helen Hanna, Leeds Trinity University

Children are often at the forefront of working out what it means to be a new arrival in a different country. They feel the anxiety that comes with being the new girl or boy at school. They’re in an environment that emphasises “integration” – learning new rules, making new friends, possibly learning a new language and grappling with a new testing regime.

Amid all of these changes, teachers may not realise how important it is simply for children to feel included. Even making their home countries a feature of lessons in, for example, geography can help children feel more at ease. It is a valuable opportunity for them to contribute. If their identities are ignored these children may feel detached from school. This sense of detachment has been shown to negatively affect learning. It may also have more serious consequences for a child’s sense of belonging and, ultimately, well-being.

Research I am currently doing in South Africa and England – countries with long histories of migration – looks at the inclusion of migrant learners in primary schools through their own lens, quite literally. The children take photographs in school as a way of explaining and engaging with their environment as a place of inclusion and exclusion.

Children as migrants

South Africa’s 2011 census showed that almost 2.2 million people living there were born elsewhere. Some are economic migrants, seeking work. Others are refugees or asylum seekers. There is also a large population of undocumented migrants. Most come from other African countries.

It’s not known exactly how many migrant children attend South African schools. New arrivals – especially refugees – may lack the formal documentation required for school registration. Added to this challenge is the reality of xenophobic attacks against new immigrants.

On paper, at least, children enjoy good protection. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires all signatories – South Africa and the UK included – to adhere to a long list of rights. These include the right to free primary education, non-discrimination and to be consulted on anything that affects them.

But my previous research in conflict-affected societies revealed that children and adolescents, particularly those from marginalised groups, struggle with freedom of speech in school. They also don’t often feel represented in the curriculum.

A new, visual voice

My new, ongoing research explored inclusion in primary schools from the point of view of recent migrant children. The learner-researchers, who are nine or ten years old, worked in small groups, each child using a digital camera. We worked with The Arrival, a wordless picturebook that has recently started to be used in this sort of research. It helped the children think about what it’s like to arrive in a new country and stimulated memories of their own experiences.

Then we walked together around school photographing signs, classrooms, playgrounds and people – anything that the children thought was important to know about their school. Finally, we talked about the photos and came up with some advice for teachers and other learners about how to help new arrivals feel included.

Three ways to include migrant learners

So how can we include migrant learners in school? Here are three tips based on a combination of what the learners in the two countries shared while taking part in the photographic project.

First, ask them. Children struggle with the idea that they are free to make suggestions to adults. I found that when we tried to come up with a list of advice for teachers, it turned into a list of rules for the learner to keep. It emerged that some things teachers did to be helpful, like getting the learner to introduce themselves on the first day, were the opposite of what the children wanted – to be welcomed quietly while sitting with a classmate.

Part of the process of doing research that involves children as participants includes building their capacity so that they can see themselves as individuals who have something important to say. Simply explaining that “We, as adults, know some things about school, but you also know many things that I don’t know because you go to this school” can empower them.

Second, be creative. Use picturebooks, photography, music and dance. These methods can engage new arrivals in a way that doesn’t demand great proficiency or confidence in using the school’s language. Of course the school day is very demanding for both learners and educators, but finding time to do something outside of the normal routine may pay great dividends in learners’ confidence and well-being.

Third, make sure that their identities are discussed and valued in the curriculum, and reflected in their school’s ethos. We must allow them to “find themselves in the story” of what they are learning in school. This will ensure their confidence in who they are, and is particularly important for marginalised groups. The very fact that these learners were chosen to take part in this project seemed to make them feel privileged and valued.

Children’s voices matter

The late statesman Nelson Mandela is quoted as declaring that:

Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future.

Migrant children are a part of this great treasure. They must be included – and this will happen best when their own voices and stories are heard.

Author’s note: most of the children’s photographs featured their own faces, and so cannot be republished here. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Centre for International Teacher Education at the CPUT, where I have been working as a visiting researcher.

The Conversation

Helen Hanna, Lecturer in Education Studies and Visiting Researcher at Centre for International Teacher Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Leeds Trinity University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

English: the Empire is dead. Long live the Empire


image-20160314-11277-5w6agk

Salikoko S. Mufwene, University of Chicago

English was born in the 7th century in England – a small island nation a quarter of the size of France. Since the 17th century, it has become the mother tongue of all locally-born Brits, Americans and Canadians (except for Native Americans on reservations), most Australian and New Zealanders, and several Caribbeans, in the form of English creoles. It has also become the official language of numerous countries of the British Commonwealth: in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

English remains the dominant working language of the United Nations, although Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish are also used as official languages of the organisation. It has become the dominant working language of the European Union too.

English has become the dominant working language of the European Union

The rise of English is unparalleled in world history – dwarfing even the impressive territorial and demographic expansion of Latin, the administrative language of the Western Roman Empire, of the Catholic Church, and of the European scholarly elite for centuries.

The companion of empire

The worldwide spread of English began with the lucrative colonial ventures of that small island. As an imperial language, English has done better than, for instance, Spanish and Russian.

Spanish spread from Castile to the rest of Spain and then to most of Latin America from the 15th century. However, its spread to the rest of the world was curtailed when it lost Morocco and The Philippines as major exploitation colonies. Russian’s importance as a lingua franca of the former Soviet Union has also decreased since the collapse of this communist bloc.

England’s biggest linguistic victory, however, has been over France – its biggest rival in the colonial venture since the 18th century. This nation, which has celebrated the superiority of its culture and language, must surely envy the success of English.

France started losing the maritime provinces of Canada and some of its Caribbean island colonies to England in the 18th century. In 1803, the emerging United States bought a massive chunk of the New France Colony from Napoleon Bonaparte in the Louisiana Purchase.

The acquisition of this vast territory by the United States – from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, from the Gulf of Mexico to the southern border of Quebec, and beyond, cleared the way for the spread of English from the east to the west coast. The growth of American and Canadian populations since then has resulted in a significant increase in the number of mother-tongue English speakers.

The process continues to date as a consequence of mass migration. The current influx of Hispanics to the US is a transition comparable to the immigration of continental Europeans to North America since the 19th century. With their children acquiring English with native competence, the adult Hispanic immigrants are likely to take their heritage languages and their nonnative accents with them to their graves, as did adult continental European immigrants before them.

English in trade, science and scholarship

Now, in the postcolonial era, English has been expanding largely because of the emergence of the US and the British Commonwealth as the dominant players in world trade. In this game, it is the buyer’s language, not the seller’s, that comes out on top – especially when the buyer is truly king.

The economic and military power of the US and its role in saving Europe from two world wars have promoted English to the status of the foremost diplomatic language, thus demoting French. Its leadership, along with the United Kingdom’s, in science and technology has also made English the dominant world lingua franca of scholarship. Even the French and the Germans, economically powerful and influential as they are in science and technology, have had to bow to English. More and more of their scholars publish in English.

To be sure, there are languages such as Hindi and Mandarin, and in fact even Spanish, which have more mother-tongue speakers than English. But from the point of view of what language one needs to be competitive in the scholarly and business world today, English dominates.

In fact, the rise of China as a leading world economic power is helping the spread of English more than it does Mandarin. There are hundreds of millions of speakers of Cantonese, Haka, Hokkien, and other Sinitic languages who learn Mandarin (otherwise known as Putonghua) as the common, official language of China. By my calculations, these Mandarin learners are outnumbered by the multitude of Chinese and other peoples learning English.

A world of many, unequal Englishes

Since the 1950s, even more countries have adopted English as their international language of trade and scholarship. The Indian-born linguist Braj Kachru at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign refers to them as the “Expanding Circle”.

This is in opposition to the “Inner Circle” and the “Outer Circle”. The Inner Circle includes all countries where English is the mother tongue of the majority population. By contrast, the “Outer Circle” consists of Britain’s former colonies, in which English is an official language but is not spoken as a mother tongue by the overwhelming majority of its users.

Although Kachru’s typology has its limitations, it captures some of the power dynamics in world English: native speakers from the Inner Circle claim more authority on English than speakers in the Outer and Expanding circles. They dictate the norms in publishing and international broadcast. They are also less subject to stigmatisation for their grammatical and spoken peculiarities.

The Conversation

Salikoko S. Mufwene, The Frank J. McLoraine Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and the College, University of Chicago

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why teachers in France should stop giving pupils outdated English names


image-20160302-25866-ve4fu1.jpg

Dominique Macaire, Université de Lorraine

It’s back to school for children in France after the half-term winter holidays, which means a return to a particular teaching tradition: giving English names to students who are learning the language for the first time.

This English name is intended to give students a second identity, providing them with both motivation and a place within a specific cultural universe. In a sense, it’s bit like moving Big Ben into a French classroom.

So the children are given names such as Jane, Alison and Betty, or Andrew, George and Peter. Depending on the school, students may or may not get to choose. Some prefer to use their French names in class, with varying responses from teachers. Some teachers accept the student’s decision, others impose the use of the new name. English names can be kept across several years of study and even different schools, or change from year to year.

What’s in a name?

But at a young age, when children’s identity is still under construction, is it really possible to adopt a new name from an unfamiliar culture? In French kindergartens, for example, children’s first names are written by the peg on which their coats hang. They learn to recognise and write out the name, and associate it with their photo – and themselves.

Caroline Blumberg/EPA

So how should schools manage students who take on a second, scholarly identity? What do such teaching practices tell us about the understanding of the English-speaking world by teachers and students? And do the names given really represent the reality of the culture they are trying to understand?

To answer these questions, I did an informal survey of several language books aimed at seven to nine-year-old pupils, with a focus on English. With the exception of one, all books offered typically “English” names, with none of any other origin, even in the most recent editions.

But England – the reference for publishers of language books for first-year students – is a multicultural nation. There is a large migrant and international populations in Britain, from communities of all cultural backgrounds, including France.

So in such lists, where are the names of Indian or Arabic origin? In Britain, Jack and Harry were the most common boys’ names for a long time, but depending on how you count, the most popular name is now either Muhammed or Oliver, which is of French origin.

Identity politics

As a consequence, French methods of teaching English to children can obscure the genuine cultural diversity of the United Kingdom and so only offer a partial picture of its culture. This is how stereotypes are born.

Through this reduced list of English names, teachers in France are instilling in children an erroneous vision of the United Kingdom from the very beginning. This is a misrepresentation of UK society (or of America or any other English-speaking country).

One of the consequences of shaping students’ choices in this way is to imply that some identities are correct, and others less so. It also influences the value students attach to their own identity. Presumably this practice is well-intentioned, but it’s essentially didactic to the detriment of reality.

Frozen in time

Most often, pupils use their English names in language classes to introduce themselves, according to PrimLangues, a French website providing support to teachers of modern languages. But introducing yourself as “Jane” when your name is actually Aisha or Neweda is anything but easy.

Sometimes, particular names are used to help learn the different sounds of English, as proposed by this list from the Academie Nancy-Metz. This makes sense – English is well known for being difficult to pronounce for many French speakers.

But this list is also only made up of old-fashioned “English” names, such as Laura, Mark, Peter or Samantha. We see neither Indian nor Arabic first names, only a caricature of the English-speaking world. The multicultural reality of the culture being studied is thus neglected.

With all good intentions, these methods of teaching English in France promote a false image of a culture that has been frozen in time. It’s worth thinking twice before giving English names to French students.

The Conversation

Dominique Macaire, Professeure des universités à l’école supérieure du professorat et de l’éducation, Université de Lorraine

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.