predicting minority children's bilingual proficiency: child, family, and institutional factors

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  • Language Learning 41:2, June 1991, pp. 205-233

    Predicting Minority C hi1 dre ns Bilingual Proficiency:

    Child, Family, and Institutional Factors*

    Ludo T. Verhoeven Ti1 b u rg University

    The purpose of the present study was to identify factors that predict the first- and second-language proficiency of ethnic minority children at the age of 6 years. A sample of 72 six-year-old Turkish children, living in The Netherlands since their infant years, was identified prior to their entrance into the first grade of primary school. Predictor measures originatingfiom the child, his or her family, and the institu- tional care the child had gone through were collected, along with direct and indirect first- and second-language profi- ciency measures. The results ofthe study make clear that two dimensions underlie the childrens proficiency in either lan- guage: communicative skills versus cognitivdacademic skills. Measures of the cultural orientation ofthe children and their parents turned out to be related to all of the proficiency levels under consideration. The extent of caretaker interaction in the first language was also positively related to the childrens bilingual proficiency level. Moreover, there was evidence for the notion of interdependency in bilingual development in that cognitive/academic abilities in the second language could be predicted from similar abilities in the first language.

    *Requests for reprints may be sent to the author at Linguistics Department, Tilburg University, Post Office Box 90153,5000 LE Tilburg, Holland.


  • 206 Language Learning Vol. 41, No. 2

    The purpose of this study was to determine which factors predict bilingual proficiency in ethnic minority children by the time they begin formal instruction at school. Research on predictors of the early language proficiency of minority children has tended to focus upon three different domains: (a) the child, (b) the family, and (c) the institutional care.


    With respect to child characteristics, several studies fo- cused upon the child's cultural orientation. In general terms, cultural orientation can be defined as the attitudes minority children have developed toward their native language and culture and their attitude toward the majority language and culture. These attitudes determine the degree of identification with the two cultures (see Lambert, 1978).

    The prediction of first-language maintenance from learner characteristics in young children has not been studied exten- sively. Research into the role of child characteristics on the process of bilingual development has focused mainly upon the prediction of success in second-language learning. Wong Fillmore (1976, 1979) presented evidence that some sort of integrative motivation influences the language development in minority children. She found that children displaying a great desire to belong to and identify with peers who speak the target language made the best progress in second-language learning. On the other hand, Genesee and Hamayan (19801, in a study of 6-year-old Anglophone Canadian children learning French, found no correlation between attitudinal variables and L2 proficiency. However, because in Canada both English and French are highly valued, the children did not express strong positive or negative feelings toward L2 speakers.

    Another possibly relevant child characteristic is cognitive capacity. It can be assumed that in acquiring language profi- ciency one brings to bear a number of highly transferable skills that underlie many other intellectual abilities as well (see

  • Verhoeven 207

    Oller, 1980). However, Genesee and Hamayan (1980) found that the correlation between intelligence measures and L2 proficiency was relatively low in younger learners.


    Research on the relationship between family characteris- tics and minority childrens language proficiency has focused upon how and to what degree the family creates an effective in- home learning environment. A relevant characteristic in this respect is language exposure. Wells (1985) has clearly demon- strated that the rate of language development in children is associated with specific characteristics of adult speech. He found that the manner and extent to which adults adjust their speech to the immaturity of their conversational partners affects the ease with which children master the language system. In functional interactional terms he proposed four broad types of intention to be extremely relevant: (a) mainte- nance of intersubjectivity of attention, (b) expression of understandable propositions, (c) ensurance of successful com- munication, and (d) stimulation of further interactions.

    Fantini (1985) showed that various channels of language input in the home environment, such as communication be- tween and with family members and communication with people outside the family may influence minority childrens language development. According to Tosi (1979), lack of rein- forcement of accepted language norms and exclusion from exposure to the standard language can be responsible for weakening Ll development. With reference to minority language speaking immigrants, Tosi (1984) pointed out that in the case of first-generation children, L1 will often be in a favorable position. Its development may originally benefit from a rich infrastucture in the family, but later on, if not reinforced by conditions of full exposure, the mother tongue may develop only in restricted domains. Accordingly, the tendency to shift to the majority language may grow stronger.

  • 208 Language Lea m ing Vol. 41, No. 2

    Schumann (1978) pointed out that contact of family mem- bers with target-language speakers is crucial for L2 development. Vermeer (1985) and Verhoeven (1987) indeed found that the degree to which Dutch is used in the family is related to the L2 proficiency of minority children in Holland. According to Wong Fillmore (1985) the interaction with target-language-speaking peers is a strong determinant of childrens L2 development.

    Another relevant family characteristic is parental attitude toward L1 maintenance and L2 learning. Gardner (1968) has shown that parental attitudes have an effect on the attitudes and motivation of children. He found that Anglophone parents with positive attitudes toward French Canadian develop simi- lar attitudes in their children and have better success in L2 learning than do children of parents with unfavorable atti- tudes. Lalleman (1986) investigated the relationship between L2 proficiency in 6-year-old Turkish children in The Nether- lands and various attitudinal variables among their parents. She found significant correlations between childrens L2 pro- ficiency on the one hand, and the cultural attitudes of parents and the contact parents had with L2 speakers on the other.


    The language development of children in modern indus- trialized societies increasingly occurs within an institutional context. Day care and kindergarten play an important role in childrens early language learning. Institutional care presents minority children with a set of new interpersonal relationships. The interaction with peers who speak L1 or L2 as a native language will enhance their language development. Wong Fillmore (1982) found that in classrooms displaying an open organization the presence of target-language-speaking peers supports minority childrens L2 development. Institutional contexts also give minority children the opportunity to use language in a meaningful way and to receive feedback from professional caretakers. In many studies it was found that the

  • Verhoeven 209

    quality of interaction patterns is extremely relevant for minor- ity childrens progress in second-language development (see McLaughlin, 1985, pp. 145-163). Moreover, the extensive set of studies conducted in the Canadian context demonstrated that children participating in bilingual programs learn to express a healthy self-identity and appreciation for their own linguistic and cultural membership (cf. Harley & Lapkin, 1984; Cummins & Swain, 1986).

    With respect to the institutional care of minority children there is considerable discussion on the effectiveness of monolin- gual and bilingual programs. Evaluation reports showed that in many instances an exclusive use of the majority language in education brought about an enormous drop in academic achievement of minority children (Cummins, 1979; Tosi, 1984). However, the discussion was complicated by extremely contra- dictory results in different educational programs dealing with second-language instruction: immersion versus submersion programs. Immersion programs have the following character- istics: the children usually belong to the prestigious and dominant group; their home language is respected; all other childrenin the classroom are from the same language background; their parents are supportive of the program; teachers have high expectations for childrens achievement, and the mother tongue is brought in as a second medium of instruction during the course of the program. Submersion programs, on the other hand, are usually set up for children speaking a low-status language, and follow a monolingual sink or swim method without much support from the teacher or the parents. In immersion programs the home-school switch seemed to have no detrimental effects, whereas in submersion programs such a switch proved to lead to poor academic achievement and an inadequate command ofboth L1 and L2. According to Skutnabb- Kangas (1984) this paradox can be explained as follows. In immersion programs the mother tongue of children, having a high prestige, is not threatened, so the acquisition of a second language can occur with no loss of L1. However, in submersion


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