the relationship between bilingual proficiency and self-esteem

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    University of Windsor

    ABSTRACT. Proposing that bilingual proficiency should produce a more favorable attitude toward bilingualism and should enhance onei self-esteem, the authors compared 57 bilingual and 67 unilingual students from grades 9, IO, and 11, measuring their opinions about bilingualism and their self-esteem. The bilingual students are substantially more favorably disposed toward bi- lingualism than the unilingual students are. On the Janis-Field scale of self- esteem, the bilingual students show greater self-esteem than the unilingual students. The largest differences between the groups are on questions that measure self-confidence and social ease; differences are less pronounced on questions about self-worth and about shyness. We speculate that bilingual proficiency offers some psychological advantages to students who achieve it.

    In the hope of discovering some of the consequences of young peoples learning a second language, we studied the attitudes toward bilingualism and the self-esteem of some high school stu- dents who speak only English and of other students who speak both English and French fluently.

    The extensive research on second-language learning in Canada has focused on the characteristics of learners and of their environ- ment that enhance learning of a second language. This research shows that the student will learn more readily if he or she has an aptitude for learning languages (Carroll, 1974; Gardner & Lambert, 1959) and if he or she is strongly motivated to learn the second language (Gardner & Lambert, 1959, 1972). Researchers on second-language learning, in particular Gardner (1966), have distinguished two aspects of this motivation, the instrumental

    The authors wish to express our thanks to Mr. G. Bemire, principal of the school that provided the subjects for this study, and to Drs. Henry Minton, John La Gaipa, Marie- Therese Caron, and Jean-Pierre DeVillers at the University of Windsor, who gave helpful advice. Requests for reprints should be sent to Dr. Frank Auld, University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, Canada N9B 3P4.


  • 340 Jonathan W. Pesner and Frank Auld

    and the integrative. As Taylor, Meynard, and Rheault (1977) write, Instrumentally motivated persons learn a second language mainly for its practical value, such as to qualify for a better job; an integrative motivation relfects a personal interest in the people and their culture and involves learning a second language in order to learn more about the group, meet more and varied people and to be able to think and behave like members of the other group (p. 102).

    As to the learners environment, researchers have called atten- tion to social psychological processes such as the sensing of a threat to ethnic identity when one learns a second language (Tay- lor, Meynard, & Rheault, 1977), the lessening of identification with ones own group when one participates in a total-immersion program for learning the other groups language (Genesee, Tucker, & Lambert, 1978), and-for a French-speaking student who has little opportunity to practice English outside the classroom-the evoking of anxiety that one will not speak the second language correctly (Clement, 1977).

    The rich fund of knowledge about what makes for effective learning of a second language-a body of knowledge that has been well summarized by Gardner, Smythe, Clement, and Gliksman (1976) and by Gardner, Gliksman, and Smythe (1978)-is not, so far as we are aware, matched by knowledge of the effects on the learners personality of his or her learning a second language. In the present study we try to contribute to the knowledge of such effects.


    The subjects of our study live in the Windsor metropolitan area, which stretches across the northern part of Essex County in south- western Ontario. In this area, according to the 1971 census (Canada, 1976) slightly more than 10% of the people report French as their mother tongue and about 13% list French as their official language or as one of their official languages, which is to say that they can understand and speak French. The number of people who report French as the language most often spoken in the home is much smaller, coming to about 4%.

    In the millieu of Essex County, where French is the minority language, knowledge of English is necessary for employment and for most daily, public interactions. The students of this study who

  • chose to participate in the French-immersion program had, for the most part, little instruction in the French language before grade 9. In calling their program in grades 9, 10, and 11 a French- immersion program, we mean that all subjects are taught in French and that students are encouraged to use only French throughout the school day. Because these students intensive ex- posure to French came late, they would be described by the standards used by Genessee (1978) as participating in a lade French-imme~ion program. One might suppose, therefore, that their decision to participate in the program was an expression of preexisting attitudes toward bilingualism and of an already- developed identification with the French ethnic group (cf. Giles, Bourhis, & Taylor, 1977, p. 326).


    Whether because of selective factors or because of the impact of the program, we do expect the bilingual students to be more fa- vorable to bilingualism and to be aware that their knowledge of French is a practical advantage (the inst~mental o~entation). The students should be aware that some jobs in the Canadian federal government, and most jobs in Quebec, require fluency in French. If the program has an impact over and above the selection factor we will find that the differences between unilingual and bilingual students increase, the longer the students have been in the French-imme~ion program.

    What effects on the personality of a person already fluent in English should we expect from his or her becoming proficient in French? We would, of course expect that success in this task will increase the learners expectation of success in closely similar tasks-an empirical law that Frank (1935) and others established through their research on level of aspiration. If we accept the postulates that Coopersmith (1967) has set forth we would expect success in learning French also to have a broader result. Cooper- smith posits that self-esteem is dependent on ones ability to deal effectively with en~ronmental demands. According to Cooper- smith, when one achieves something that one believes to be valuable and worth aspiring to, ones self-esteem is enhanced.

    Because Canadians believe that learning a second language is valuable (cf., Canada, 1977), students who learn the second lan- guage are likely to consider themselves to be better educated, to

  • 342 Jonathan W. Pesner and Frank Auld

    think of themselves as more cultured, and to judge themselves to have a skill that will broaden their occupational choices and en- hance their professional development. We therefore expected that their achievement would enhance self-esteem, and we predicted that bilingual students would be found to have higher scores on a measure of self-esteem. We believed, too, that the difference in self-esteem between the bilingual and the unilingual groups would increase from year to year, as the bilingual students proficiency in French developed.

    Finally, we believe that a young person from a French back- ground, i.e., a person whose parents or grandparents spoke French and belonged to the French cultural group (as is true for at least 63% of the bilingual students in our sample), will develop greater self-esteem as he or she learns about the contributions that the French have made to the development of Canada and to literature, the arts, and science.

    For all of these reasons, we predicted that the bilingual students would score higher than unilingual students on a scale of self- esteem.



    Students from grades 9, 10, and 11 of a high school near Windsor supplied both a bilingual group of 28 boys and 29 girls and a unilingual group of 32 boys and 35 girls. For the bilingual group the principal selected from the French-immersion section of the school all students who had a functional command of both languages. We excluded two students who knew a third language, so that our focus would be on bilingualism rather than on multi- culturalism.

    Of the bilingual students 23% came from lower middle-class families and the rest from lower-class families, according to our index of social position, Hollingsheads Two-Factor Index (cf., Myers & Bean, 1968). (This index combines a rating of occupa- tional level-for which we used Blishens, 1958, rankings of occu- pational status in Canada-with a rating of educational attain- ment.) Of the unilingual students 9.5% were from the upper class, 9.5% from the upper-middle class, 33.3% from the lower-middle class, and the rest from lower class, according to the scores on the

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    Two-Factor Index. In the bilingual group 36 reported French and 21 reported English to be the language of the home. In the uni- lingual group only 1 student gave French as the language of the home, the rest reporting English as the language of the home.


    ~~te~ffl~. In order to test the hypothesis that the bionic stu- dents would be more favorable to bilin~alism, we used a ques- tionnaire soliciting opinions about bilingualism, about English- French relations in Canada, and about the young peoples beliefs concerning job opportunities in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada. We drew 11 of the 12 items in this questionnaire from a study done


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