Dr. Fred Genesee, Second-Language Acquisition Expert Discusses Bilingualism

Esther Larrocco, Center for Bilingual/Multicultural Studies and Professional
Studies in Education, talks with Dr. Fred Genessee, Director of Division
of Education, U.C. Davis

How children learn language and the effectiveness of total immersion language programs were just two of the topics touched on by Dr. Fred Genesee, Director of the Division of Education, U.C., Davis, and internationally recognized researcher in the areas of second language acquisition, immersion/two-way immersion programs, and bilingualism. Genessee visited Chico State on November 13 to address both student teachers in the Professional Education Program and other students and faculty interested in language acquisition and bilingualism.

Genessee, who is Canadian, has done extensive research on the total immersion project begun in Montreal in 1965. The Montreal project was a result of a grassroots initiative by English-speaking parents. French is the official language in Quebec and English is the second language. Until the immersion program was developed, English-speaking students would take twelve years of French and graduate from high school not being able to speak French or use it in their careers. Parents wanted their children to be fluent so that they could function with more ease and success in Quebec's French environment.

So, starting with what was known about language acquisition, which is that children learn language without formal instruction and with apparent ease, a program was designed to mirror the conditions of a natural learning environment. Children are immersed in French in their kindergarten, first and second grades, receiving instruction only in French from a native speaker. In kindergarten, students are allowed to use English with each other and the teacher. Toward the middle or end of that first year, they are allowed to use only French. The teacher establishes that the norm is to speak in French. Since these are children new to school, they don't know that the is not the way it is done everywhere, and begin using French. Through the second grade, they receive all of their instruction in French. Beginning in the third grade, English classes are introduced, and then classes in English are added each year. Students continue, however, to speak French in at least half of their academic work.

The program is one of the most researched language acquisition programs in history. Given the importance of the issue of bilingual education and language acquisition in California, educators are eager to look at the program for guidance. Genessee cautioned listeners, however, in making too many assumptions about the applicability of findings from the Canadian immersion program to California's situation.

The students in Montreal are primarily from middle class families growing up in a bilingual culture. Although French is the dominant language in Quebec, English is the second language and is valued, supported, and used by almost everyone to some degree. The goal of the culture is to be bilingual.

Genessee said that, if bilingualism is the goal, the evidence from the Montreal program is that students are better off the more they get of both languages, both in being able to perform academically and to speak fluently. "It makes sense, that if you are good at certain kinds of skills, you are likely to be good at related skills," said Genessee. This is contrary to looking at language capacity as being fixed—that you need to "leave room" for the new language.

Genessee also touched on such topics as the "teacher register" (the unique way teachers use language in the classroom that does not reflect normal, everyday speech); the ability of French as a second language students to write in French as compared to native speakers; the premise that students will learn the language they need to function academically; and the effect of the immersion program on the surrounding culture.

Perhaps the most useful information that Genessee offered to educators, in general, is that that children learn a language when there is "meaningful and on-going use of language about something important."


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