Opinion: Heritage languages ​​do not threaten the acquisition of French

The rush of the new language law for newcomers to learn French in six months is not only unrealistic, but unnecessarily clumsy.


In effect, Bill 96 gives newcomers just six months to learn French. After that time, in most cases it is the only language in which they can receive government services. The provision appears to be based, at least in part, on the assumption that forcing immigrants to give up their mother tongues (and the use of English) will help them learn French more quickly.

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Such an assumption flies in the face of more than 40 years of scientific research that challenges many common views about second language learning by people who do not speak the majority language at home. In my more than 50 years of studying second language learning and teaching in Quebec, I have come to the conclusion that most “common sense” ideas about second language learning and bilingualism are really crap.

The rush of the new language law for newcomers to learn French in six months is not only unrealistic, but unnecessarily clumsy. In economically advanced countries around the world, the children of first-generation immigrants acquire native-like proficiency in the host language during their lifetime while maintaining proficiency in the heritage language. By the third generation, most descendants of immigrants have lost proficiency in their mother tongue and are monolingual in the host language. There is no reason to think that these facts would be any different in Quebec, where the vast majority of children of newcomers attend French-language schools.

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A widespread myth about language acquisition is that learning a second language is a “zero-sum game”, that the acquisition of a heritage language interferes with the acquisition of the host language. The assumption here is that children of immigrants need as much time to learn the host language as native speakers of that language. However, McGill’s research indicates that this is not necessarily true. Many children acquire proficiency in two languages ​​on a par with monolinguals despite less exposure to each language. This may be explained by research findings that a strong foundation in children’s heritage language facilitates the development of second language proficiency that is in the range that is typical for monolingual speakers of that language. This is called “interlingual facilitation”.

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Children who are schooled in a second language (French in the case of Quebec) acquire literacy and other academic language skills more easily if they have already acquired early literacy skills and the ability to use language to think in the native language at home . Newcomer parents who have not yet acquired proficiency in the host language can impart these kinds of language skills by using their native language. Newcomer parents who think they can give their children a head start for schooling by using the host language at home, even though they are not fluent in that language themselves, cannot encourage the development of these critical language skills. The myth about the advantages of early use of the host language in the home has been disproved by research.

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There are also important psychosocial reasons to promote the maintenance of heritage languages ​​in newly arrived families. Teenage children of newly arrived parents who maintain the use of the family’s inherited language have a higher sense of well-being, better interpersonal skills and self-control, and fewer problem behaviors. These findings make a lot of sense: parents can better socialize their children and instill a greater sense of well-being if they use a language they are fluent in.

Taken together, the research indicates that politicians, educators, and parents alike need not fear heritage languages. On the contrary, supporting the development of heritage languages ​​in the children of newcomers is probably a more effective way to ensure competence in the host language. At the same time, the development of the inherited languages ​​of newcomers is more likely to ensure the healthy integration of newcomers into Quebec society because it involves the addition of a new language without sacrificing an important linguistic and family resource.

Fred Genesee is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at McGill University.

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