In a community where the minority language is French, many activities are conducted mostly in English, the dominant language. For example, television, tablets, social media, reading, recess and extracurricular activities. Furthermore, we are seeing more and more English dominant (ED) children enroll in French-language schools. These children are learning French (the minority language) in a French-language school all the while living in an English community. On the flip side, the French dominant (FD) children are also learning French in a minority context but they are increasingly exposed to English through their French second language (L2) learning peers. This significantly decreases their opportunities to hear and to use French and makes it more difficult for them to acquire and maintain the minority language.
Usually, a typically developing francophone child who starts school will use his or her previous knowledge to expand his or her vocabulary in the language of instruction. However, a typically developing Anglophone child will have little to no prior knowledge available to help broaden his or her vocabulary in the language of instruction (French). Learning new words can be done in two ways. It can be done explicitly, where the child understands the word with an explanation using familiar terms, for example “This is a buff. It is a type of clothing that we can wear in the winter to keep our neck warm.”. The child might use some of the familiar words such as clothing, winter and keep our neck warm to help him or her understand the meaning of the new word buff. It can also be done implicitly, where the child discovers the meaning of the new word from the familiar terms that surround it. For example, “The cold wind didn’t prevent her from playing outside because she was wearing her warm buff”. In this example, the child must use the words and context of the sentence to deduct the meaning of the new word. A child who doesn’t have a lot of vocabulary knowledge will find it difficult to use the latter method to learn new words. Therefore, for the most part, English-speaking children who attend a French-language school will need to learn new words explicitly!
We wanted to know if children living in linguistic minority communities were sufficiently exposed to the French language in order to acquire the French vocabulary. We compared the vocabulary test scores of 25 French dominant children and 35 English dominant children aged 5 to 6 to those of the monolingual norms. The results showed that when ED children were assessed in their dominant language (English), their performance was similar to the English monolingual norms on receptive and expressive vocabulary tests. When FD children were assessed in their dominant language (French), they were unable to achieve the monolingual standard on receptive and expressive vocabulary tests. The results also showed that in all cases, the children performed better in their dominant language than in their L2, which is to be expected. However, it seems that when the dominant language of the child is a minority language, the acquisition of vocabulary becomes more difficult in this language because of the minority linguistic context. This can be explained by several factors, but the one that stands out the most is language exposure.
We also looked at the languages used at home for each of the children in our study; one francophone parent and one anglophone parent, two francophone parents, two anglophone parents, etc. What emerged was that regardless of the languages spoken by the parents, French dominant children were always less successful on the French vocabulary test than their francophone monolingual peers. All children were less successful in their L2, but these results were even more pronounced among learners of French as an L2. This can be explained by the fact that not all English speakers speak French, but all (or almost all) French speakers speak English. In fact, in another study conducted on Franco-Ontarian participants, the performance of French dominant participants on tests assessing the language proficiency of five-to six-year-olds was weak compared to their Quebec peers. The performance of monolingual Franco-Ontarian and FD children seems to be strongly affected by the linguistic context in Ontario. Is there no hope for the promotion of French language in a linguistic minority context?
The questions that remain after this study are: "With more years of schooling in French, does the vocabulary of bilingual FD children resemble that of monolinguals’? Will the vocabulary gap between the ED and FD children diminish?" and "How many years of exposure and instruction in French are needed to ensure that ED children acquire a vocabulary comparable to that of Francophone or FD children residing in the same region?"
Gervais & Mayer-Crittenden, 2018
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