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Is early bilingual immersion a good thing?

It turns out that the best predictor of vocabulary acquisition is not IQ, but rather two other aspects of cognitive function. On the one hand, the ability to repeat words which don't exist in the language (nonwords) and auditory discrimination skills. On the other hand, selective attention skills and mental flexibility. “If all these elements are present, then the child is very likely to acquire the second language successfully," says Martine Poncelet. “Which doesn't necessarily mean that they will be a good student. Those are two different things. A student who does well in a second-language immersion program will also usually do well in non-immersion education. But a child with difficulties in school will inevitably do no better in immersion."

Anne-Catherine Nicolay's work was focused on French-English bilingualism in native French speakers. Now the ULg psychologists are trying to determine if the same predictors apply to other languages - Dutch, for example - given that English is a very particular language in terms of prosody.

A burning question remains: does immersion create additional difficulty for children with limited learning abilities? This is a common concern among parents, who believe that immersion is only for good students. At first, teachers also held this elitist view. But this is not the case, claims Martine Poncelet. According to the psychologist, the example of Léonie de Waha high school, which has students from a range of sociocultural backgrounds, shows that immersion does not have a negative impact on children with learning difficulties, and it does not make school more difficult for them.

She continues: “Furthermore, Canadian researchers such as Johanne Paradis from the University of Alberta have shown that in children with dysphasia, that is with a specific language acquisition impairment, bilingualism does not hinder learning either in their native language or the second language: their dysphasia was expressed in similar ways in both languages, and the same way it would have manifested in a monolingual context. This is also the case for children with dyslexia, as learning a second language early on does not in any way accentuate their dyslexia."

A momentary advantage?

The last aspect of the work conducted by Martine Poncelet's team relates to the possible cognitive advantage of bilingualism. The ULg psychologists wondered if the cognitive advantages uncovered by Ellen Bialystok in terms of the attentional and executive capacities of bilingual children (whatever their age) would also appear in children who learned a second language in an early second-language immersion context. As such, Anne-Catherine Nicolay and Martine Poncelet(5) became interested in children who had had 3 years of early English immersion education. These children didn't fully master the language yet, but they understood it.   In short, their level of vocabulary at the age of 9 corresponded to that of a 5 year-old native English speaker. 

These children were given different tasks to measure auditory selective attention, divided attention, and mental flexibility. As part of the selective attention task, the children listened to the sound of alternating deep and squeaky owl screeches. The children were told to press a reaction key as quickly as possible each time they heard an irregularity in the sequence. In the dual-task test, two situations were presented at the same time. As in the previous exercise, the children were asked to press a reaction button as quickly as possible when they heard an irregularity in the auditory sequence. But they were also asked to react whenever an owl appearing on their computer screen closed its eyes.

(5) Nicolay, A.-C., & Poncelet, M. (2013). Cognitive advantage in children enrolled in a second-language immersion elementary school program for 3 years. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16(3), 597-607. http://orbi.ulg.ac.be/handle/2268/153895

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