That’s Heretical Talk!
As a speaker of English, French, Danish and German (and who reads Swedish, Norwegian, Spanish and Italian), Virginia Scott might be forgiven for thinking it’s easy to become multilingual. On the contrary: she is dedicated to increasing awareness of how people can learn other languages.
Scott, professor of French and academic director of the new Center for Second Language Studies, delves into the processes involved in learning a second language.
Her research has led her to believe that a learner’s first language may play a significant role in learning a second language. That’s “a bit of a heretical take,” Scott says. Current teaching practice holds that exclusive use of the second language in the classroom is the only way to learn—although any teacher will tell you this approach is difficult in reality. Scott acknowledges that input and interaction in the new language are essential—but she thinks using one’s native language to analyze and understand grammar structures may lead to greater proficiency.
In Scott’s research, students received language problems and were asked to talk aloud in their first language about how they were solving them. Others were asked to do the same, but limited to using their second languages. Scott found that the students required to use the second language had more difficulty solving the problems.
Scott theorized that it is possible to capitalize on what people know and do with their native languages. “Language is a way of interpreting the world,” she says. Her study of dynamic systems theory led her to explore the ways languages interact in the mind of one speaker-hearer. In her book, Double Talk: Deconstructing Monolingualism in Classroom Second Language Learning, she describes how this research compels rethinking current approaches to teaching and learning second languages.