Confession: when I was a kid in rural Nova Scotia, I wasn’t a fan of learning French. In fact, I hated it and dropped French class as soon as I had completed the minimum requirements. I have come to regret this choice, and I don’t fully understand why I made it, though likely there were several factors: more interested in other things, didn’t see the real-life use for it, discouraged at the daunting task of learning a whole new language. To be fair to my adolescent-self, it was unfortunate that my schools didn’t have immersion programs, and learning French was relegated to short sessions, several times per week, of learning (and re-learning) the basics, that is, conjugating verbs (je suis, tu es, il est, elle est), learning categories of nouns (ananas, pamplemousse), and scream-singing C’est l’halloween every October. I recall my teachers as competent and kind, though I’m sure they were frustrated with the likes of me. The task they were up against was enormous: convincing a bunch of anglophone kids in Nova Scotia that learning French was both worthwhile and possible, under the circumstances. Although some of my peers did seem to learn to a respectable level, by the time I finished high school, I would not have been able to hold the most basic of conversations in French.
Then a few years later, I found myself in a situation. As an unemployed 22-year-old with a music degree, I made the totally impulsive decision to move from the east coast to Montreal, speaking no French. It was a decision motivated (as are many rash decisions of people that age, I suspect) by love. I called my parents from a payphone at the airport in Montreal to let them know I moved. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, it turns out. It was hard to get a job. The relationship fell apart after a month. The person I was subletting a room from needed her place back. It’s all a bit of a blur, but one thing I do remember is that at that point I first decided it was high time I learned some French. It felt impossible. I didn’t know where to go for help, I wasn’t committed to the self-study workbooks I bought, and, likely the biggest barrier, I was very reluctant to actually speak at first. As in, how do I even make these sounds come out of my mouth? There are so many vowels, and half of them sound the same to me, and if I make a mistake people will think I’m an idiot. Also, why is the grammar so complicated? Unfortunately, this kind of anxiety seems to plague many people learning a second language. For quite a while, my progress was extremely slow.
Then a bit later, I was very fortunate to get a summer job in Quebec City, where I was the only anglophone around, at least for the first summer. In the early weeks, I did a lot of smiling, nodding, and pointing. The job more or less involved playing music and following the crowd, so actually it was an ideal job for someone learning a second language. It’s corny, but I’ll say it anyway: music is a universal language and so I was able to do the job even if my French was terrible at first. Then, gradually over that first summer, I shocked myself by actually starting to speak French. At first, very rehearsed phrases (asking for eggs at the cafeteria), and then holding very basic social conversations (What are your plans for the weekend?), and then eventually, often over a drink or three, full-blown conversations about a wider variety of topics. Of course, I continued (and continue today, though to a much lesser extent) to make errors typical of anglophones speaking French. These include vocabulary errors (a librarie is a place where you buy books, not borrow them; actuellement means currently, not actually, and hence actualités refers to current events), phonology errors (accidentally pronouncing Avez-vous vu Marie ? with the same vowel sound in vous and vu), syntax errors (saying je te manque instead of the proper tu me manques to mean “I miss you”, which is still very hard for me to wrap my head around), orthography errors (remembering to include the plural marker on adjectives like in les chiens bruns sales), not to mention social gaffes that arise from using less appropriate words or phrases (you shouldn’t say pis or genre or faque too much; also, there are some expressions you just don’t use in certain company, like sacrer son camp). Eventually, I just got used to the fact that I was going to make errors, lots of them, of every sort just described. I realized that no one was there pointing and laughing at me; on the contrary, some people seemed to find errors endearing, as they sometimes nicely pointed out whatever it was I should have said. At that point, it was much, much easier to make progress and actually start using French in daily life, and I was extremely fortunate to have this job for three summers in a row. It was such a gift.
At the time that I got serious about learning French, I didn’t know anything about bi- or multilingualism, and was just starting to learn about language development in general. Without really knowing it, I was experiencing crosslinguistic influence, as I was starting to consciously and unconsciously observe the similarities and differences between French and English. It seems kind of obvious when you think about it, but second-language learning does not take place in a vacuum, and a second-language learner is not starting totally from scratch. Rather, as we learn, we are constantly transferring linguistic knowledge, observing and comparing what we know about our different languages, to help understand more about how the new language works. Of course, the extent of the opportunity for transfer depends on how closely related the languages are; there are fewer possibilities for transfer between English and Japanese than between English and French, simply because English and Japanese don’t have that much in common.
When we observe similarities between languages and apply them to help us speak or understand a language, this can be referred to as positive transfer. An obvious example of positive transfer is learning new words via cognates, or words that sound similar, are spelled similarly, and carry similar meaning, due their common linguistic heritage: orange/orange, measure/mesure, acceleration/accélération. In the case of cognates, we don’t need to learn a whole new string of sounds to represent a concept; we can make the link to an existing word in our vocabulary. Of course, we need to observe where this does and doesn’t apply. For example, some words—sometimes called faux amis (“fake friends”)—share common sounds and spellings but don’t carry the same meaning, as in English lecture vs French lecture (meaning a reading), and English journey vs French journée (meaning day or daytime). If you were to say Il est parti en journée à travers le Canada to talk about someone’s trip, this would be an example of negative transfer, an incorrect attempt to transfer the English word journey into French. Ideally, some nice person would help us realize that this is an example of a faux ami, and then we would be able to mentally sort it as such.
I love to hear children, who are still very much in the process of building vocabulary even in their first language, apply cognates and the occasional faux ami. My 9-year-old son, a proficient English-speaker who attends school in French, used the word trajectory for the first time in his life, as he excitedly told me about his class’s bike race at the park, a clear positive transfer of the word trajectoire that he had heard his gym teacher use earlier that day. And then, in nearly the same breath, still in English, he talked about someone who had to borrow a bike because they didn’t have their proper bike, which is a negative transfer of faux amis proper/propre; propre vélo means one’s own bike, not the appropriate bike. We had a quick chat about how these words sound like they could mean the same thing, but actually they don’t. In English: prim and proper; put your clothes away properly. In French, if the bike is yours, it’s ton propre vélo; also, confusingly, un vélo propre means a clean bike (the meaning depends on whether propre precedes or follows the noun; we don’t really have this in English!).
So is there a way to make use of our observations of crosslinguistic influence? Can we turn our observations into useful practices that help students develop their languages? As Ballinger and colleagues point out, our perception of transferability supports our actual application of transfer. That is, when we are consciously aware of the similarities and differences between the languages, we are more likely to apply them appropriately in our second language. The implication here is that it is sensible to explicitly guide students to make these crosslinguistic comparisons. For example, in a French Immersion setting where most children speak English, we may devote instructional time to studying common French-English cognates and faux amis, ideally using banks of words that are relevant to current themes of study. Deliberately teaching students to use the resources of all of their languages, including explicit discussion of crosslinguistic transfer, is known as crosslinguistic pedagogy.
Moving beyond vocabulary, languages may also have common or differing syntactic structures. For example, phrases in English and French typically adhere to the same word order for simple phrases: subject-verb-object. She is eating an apple. Elle mange une pomme. However, things soon get more complicated. Consider indirect object pronouns: She gives him an apple or She gives an apple to him. These are both fine in English. In French, a word-by-word translation of the first wouldn’t work at all (Elle donne lui une pomme is incorrect) and the second one works only when the proper noun (not a pronoun) is used (Elle donne une pomme à Paul but usually not Elle donne une pomme à lui, unless you are clarifying who exactly the apple was given to). Mindbogglingly to many anglophones, when the indirect object is a pronoun, it is moved right after the subject: Elle lui donne une pomme. I swear, this took me ages to acquire. By comparing how this all works in French versus in English (“She him gives an apple??”), by helping learners wrap their heads around this syntactic difference, we are appealing to crosslinguistic pedagogy, and improving the chances of mastering the syntax of the second language.
Fortunately for students learning to read and write in French and English, many letter-sound correspondences are the same. For the ones that differ, we may want to find a way to explicitly make the comparisons: SH in English sheep is just like the CH in French chien; English CH in cheese and English J in jump don’t exist in French; French J in jupe does exist in English, but it doesn’t get its own letter (think of measure and mirage). And the vowels are a whole other story. French has considerably more vowels than English, and thus the contrasts between them are more subtle. I used to have a heck of a time pronouncing the U in French, as in tu, Luc, and fumée. My anglophone mouth really wanted to say too, Looc, and foomée (or even foomay). What finally helped me get it was my phonetics class, and learning about all of the vowel sounds in different languages. Want to pronounce French U? Say “eee” and round your lips, et voilà! Then, my problem for a while was that my mouth would accidentally throw the French U sound where it didn’t belong, so that pouce became puce, though I eventually got that sorted out, thank goodness. Making the distinction between vowels in French was hard, not only because my mouth didn’t know how to make those sounds, but because my ears didn’t quite get it either. To further illustrate, I was flabbergasted when someone first pointed out to me that aimé and aimait end with two different vowel sounds. We need to learn to accurately perceive the sounds, not just effortfully produce them, categorizing them according to the phonology—the whole system of sounds—of the language. I don’t advocate for teaching children all of the details about phonetics and phonology, but I do think that ideally teachers should have a deep understanding of these, because good crosslinguistic pedagogy here includes pointing out that French and English have some very different vowel sounds. Some sounds simply don’t exist in the other language, but we can find ways to compare and contrast the tricky ones based on their phonetic features, using tricks like the French U trick, to figure out how to master them.
Let’s turn now to more complex words. In a 2013 study, Lyster and colleagues looked at what happened when pairs of partner teachers taught their grade two students in bilingual programs, using the same stories in English and French, focusing on derivational morphology in both languages, that is, affixes that change the meaning or part of speech of the base word, as in the cognates historic/historique and courageous/courageux. Students who participated in this crosslinguistic instruction outperformed students who received regular classroom instruction, in their understanding and use of these affixes, particularly in French. Further, some teachers in the study reported that their students loved participating in the crosslinguistic activities, and really enjoyed finding “a little word inside a big word” in both languages. Pretty great stuff for grade two!
So far, we have talked mostly about how our knowledge about a first language can influence a second language, but actually, linguistic transfer is a two-way street. Once a second-language learner has gained a little proficiency, there is also the potential for the second language to support the first language. For example, my son casually using the word trajectory as if it were in the day-to-day vocabulary of every 9-year-old anglophone kid. But my favourite application of transfer from French second language to English first language is using French pronunciation to improve spelling in English. Multisyllabic words in English can be a real challenge to spell, because of syllable reduction, where some syllables in longer words are weakened, so that the vowel is sort of neutral sound, called a schwa in phonetics. It can be very confusing, because the weak syllable schwa sound can be spelled with any vowel letter: Santa, celebrate, animal, collision, support, analysis. This is why many kids have a really hard time spelling words with the schwa sound; anglophone kids might spell animal as ANUML, ANEMUL, ANAMEL, or dozens of other possibilities. But what if we cue a bilingual child to think about how this word would be pronounced in French? Because French does not have syllable reduction (at least not to the same extent), the vowel sounds are much clearer and easier to assign letters: A-NI-MAL. Even a beginner French student can be coached to do this for some words. Crosslinguistic bilingual spelling superpower!
Isn’t this all a little confusing?
There is a myth that in order to optimally teach a second language, we should do our best to limit the use of the first language, and simply immerse learners in the second language, giving them as much rich exposure to the second language as possible. Although it makes sense to establish some rules or guidelines to ensure that students get enough exposure to the second language, we should rethink completely eliminating the first language in the school setting, because doing so would effectively prevent engaging in the crosslinguistic strategies just described. Unfortunately, one barrier to implementation of crosslinguistic pedagogy is that there aren’t piles of instructional materials adapted for this purpose, and so planning and preparation time is required. In fact, teachers from the 2013 Lyster et al. study all remarked on the benefits of the time dedicated to collaborative planning that was available to them throughout the study.
Another common concern about bilingual settings or instruction in a second language is that it all may be a little too complicated for students with difficulties, who need extra support in language and literacy development. However, we now know that children with a variety of developmental disorders—developmental language disorder, autism, Down syndrome—can learn a second language without jeopardizing their success in their first language (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, 2021). Students with disabilities will require support at school, no matter the setting; it is more a matter of ensuring that supports are in place, including for second language learning. This issue was recently the subject of a position statement by Speech-Language and Audiology Canada (SAC-OAC), which advocates for the provision of adequate supports, including access to speech-language pathology and other educational support services in all school settings.
So, that’s my little story of bilingualism, along with my take on crosslinguistic pedagogy. Of course, there are people all over the world with their own stories of second language learning, just like there are billions of people for whom learning two or more languages does not necessarily feel like something special to write a blog about, simply a part of their existence since birth. In fact, multilingualism around the word is more the norm than the exception. But for this late-blooming Francophile, I’ll continue to marvel at the abilities of multilinguals, to make connections, draw parallels and subtle distinctions across languages, and to think of ways we can incorporate crosslinguistic pedagogy into supporting young learners.
With thanks to Caroline Erdos, who has been a mentor in this area, and with a shout-out to any FSL teacher-colleagues who accept to collaborate with an anglophone SLP with a history of hating French class.
Ballinger, S., Lau, S., & Quevillon Lacasse, C. (2020). Cross-Linguistic Pedagogy: Harnessing Transfer in the Classroom. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 76, 265-277. https://doi.org/10.3138/cmlr-76.4.001-en
Genesee, F., & Lindholm-Leary, K. (2021). The suitability of dual language education for diverse students: An overview of research in Canada and the United States. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, 9(2), 164-192. https://doi.org/10.1075/jicb.21001.gen
Kay-Raining Bird, E., Genesee, F., & Verhoeven, L. (2016). Bilingualism in children with developmental disorders: A narrative review. Journal of Communication Disorders, 63(5), 1-14. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcomdis.2016.07.003
Lyster, R., Quiroga, J., & Ballinger, S. (2013). The effects of biliteracy instruction on morphological awareness. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, 1(2), 169–197. https://doi.org/10.1075/jicb.1.2.02lys
Speech-Language & Audiology Canada (2021). SAC Position Statement on learning an additional language in the context of language disorder.