Today, in Sweden a large proportion of school pupils have a foreign background and switch between their home language and Swedish on a daily basis. However, bilingualism in itself does not bring any advantages when it comes to learning a foreign language. A new thesis in German from the University of Gothenburg shows that bilingual upper secondary school pupils perform somewhat below average in language tests, compared with those who only speak one language.
Research into how bilingual pupils learn foreign languages at school is not unequivocal. Many results show that bilingual pupils have advantages, but this applies primarily in countries where the pupils being studied speak two national languages, such as in Spain (Spanish and Catalan/Basque).
The author of the thesis, Johanna Klawitter Beusch, has monitored and tested a group of pupils from foreign backgrounds who learnt German as a beginner's language at three different upper secondary schools in Gothenburg over a period of one year. A group of pupils from a Swedish background completed the same tests, and acted as a control group. In order to provide an accurate picture of the pupils from foreign backgrounds, Johanna investigated as many background factors as possible.
"It turned out that the pupils from foreign backgrounds often achieved poorer grades in English and Swedish, and had studied fewer foreign languages at school. Their parents also had a somewhat lower level of education, but these pupils generally took a more positive approach towards foreign languages, and towards German in particular. They were also more motivated."
All the background factors studied showed a significant correlation with the test results achieved in both the study groups. The strongest correlation was noted between foreign language proficiency (i.e. the number of foreign languages that the pupils studied at school and their grades in these subjects) and the test results.
When only average results were compared, the pupils who only spoke one language performed somewhat better than the bilingual pupils. However, when taking the abovementioned background factors into account, these differences were evened out and the bilingual pupils even achieved slightly better results.
"My study shows the complexity of language learning. I have tried to keep a number of background factors constant in order to ascertain whether bilingualism in itself brings any advantages when learning a foreign language, and have found very little to suggest that this might be the case. One possible explanation could be an insufficient degree of bilingualism among the pupils being studied."
According to relatively unequivocal research findings, the cognitive advantages do not become apparent until the bilingual pupil has a high and age-adjusted level of proficiency in both his or her languages. According to Johanna, this shows how important native-language teaching is for first and second generation immigrants, as well as the importance of good Swedish language proficiency.
Some of the groups of pupils were also asked to explain how they dealt with completing the tasks in the word comprehension and reading comprehension tests. The aim here was to get a better insight into whether bilingual individuals use different strategies when confronted with linguistic problems.
"Both the monolingual and bilingual pupil groups used similar problem-solving strategies," says Johanna. "However, the bilingual pupils were more inclined to explain how they arrived at a particular solution, and also thought that their solution was the correct solution. But problem-solving strategies that stood out in this way as being more conscious and explicit didn't lead to better results, which could suggest that this type of propensity for verbalisation is culturally conditioned."
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