Languages in Contact: An Ethnographic Study of Interaction in an Immersion School
Language is closely related to identity of the speakers and the community. Language contact and bilingualism are, thus, very interesting topics in sociolinguistics. In this blog post, I will summarise and briefly discuss the paper Languages in Contact: An Ethnographic Study of Interaction in an Immersion School by Ailie Cleghorn from McGill University and Fred Genesee from University of Hawaii at Manoa. The full paper is officially available here. Ask your school or college library to get you its access.
The main reason for discussing this case study on Languages in Contact is that it presents a real world scenario/experiment which will help you understand the dynamics of two Languages in Contact in a much better way. You can also read in detail how language and identity are woven together, by looking on this post on Language and Identity.
Summary of Languages in Contact
The article reports findings of a one-year long study involving ethnographic data-gathering procedures with a symbolic interactionist perspective done on Anglophone (English speaking) and Francophone (French speaking) teachers and staff of an early French immersion program in a bilingual school in Montreal. Evidently, the Languages in Contact here are English and French.
The study was done with the purpose to get a better understanding of the efficacy and outcomes of bilingual education programs. This is important particularly when it comes to meeting their foundational social objectives. This is placed in contrast with other bilingual education studies that restrict their focus on linguistic or academic achievements of the learners. You may want to also read about all the factors affecting second language learning.
In the findings of the study, the interaction between the staff speaking the two Languages in Contact, English and French, is mentioned to be rather conflictual and predictably aligned with the broader underlying tension between the two social groups. And this raises questions on the effectiveness of such bilingual programs in meeting their ultimate social goals of reducing tension and maximizing positive interaction between the two socially conflicting groups.
Also, as reported, in order to align best with their academic duties, the teachers and staff adopted strategies that safeguard surface harmony, such as minimum contact and informal interaction, thereby preventing any awkward cultural confrontation, and predominant use of English, diminishing the impact of reflection of identity, in cross-group communication.
The dominance of English is obvious. This is because not only a majority of the academic teaching in both regular and immersion curricula is in English, but also the English staff tacitly displays negative attitude towards the inclusion of the immersion program and early French language teaching. The harmony of the two Languages in Contact in the school environment is thereby questioned. The study also reports the special role and additional duties of the school principal in gaining loyalty of both the groups and in controlling staff tension.
Comments on Languages in Contact
The study on Languages in Contact began with an assumption that the sociocultural context of a highly controlled, restricted school environment can faithfully represent the social processes and characteristics that reflect and govern dynamic interactions in the fabrics of a bilingual society at large. In my view, this may or may not be entirely correct.
Besides this, reporting findings from just one immersion school is not enough to arrive at a definitive conclusion. Perhaps, the data gathering from a non-immersion school would have acted as a control in the experiment, and from another immersion school with a different language pair would have reinforced the results.
Next, the study began with a strong expectation bias of finding conflictual interaction between the individuals English and French-speaking cultures of the Quebec. This reduces credibility of the ethnographer in impartially observing any instances of positive interaction patterns. And, in fact, there are no personal friendships and positive contact scenarios reported at all between any individual of either group to any other individual of the supposedly conflicting group. The chances of zero noise in any experiment, social or scientific, in my opinion is rather unlikely.
Lastly, the presence of an outsider or a non-participant observer intruding the classrooms and staff rooms, constantly investigating interaction patterns, could possibly give a different, possibly milder, version of the actual group interaction status.
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