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Competence, attitudes, and education: a study of heritage French in the UK

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posted on 2023-08-30, 20:21 authored by Katherine Lightfoot
This mixed-methods study examines the competence, attitudes, and education of heritage French speakers in the UK. In apparent contrast to much previous research that supports the notion of incomplete acquisition of heritage languages, the quantitative phase of the study finds no significant difference between the passive competence of gender agreement and the subjunctive between heritage speakers as a group and a bilingual control group. However, place of birth and years in the UK and heritage language country are found to be significant predictors of acceptability ratings. This suggests that immersive input is a significant aspect of the heritage speaker experience and must be more carefully controlled for in heritage language research. The qualitative phase of the study is informed by interview data from heritage speakers, their parents, and their teachers (n = 30). Along with questions about family language policy, and what it means to be a native speaker, heritage speakers and their parents also reflected on their (or their child’s) bilingual upbringing, and perceived challenges in using and maintaining the heritage language. Thematic analysis of interview data reveals that the heritage language is an integral part of heritage speakers’ identities, but their usage and proficiency do not always correspond to parental expectations. This thesis therefore advocates for a flexible approach to bilingualism that allows children the opportunity to negotiate their bilingual identities. This thesis also considers the experience of heritage speakers in UK mainstream schools. In addition to interview data, the study draws on survey data from 166 French teachers who have taught heritage speakers in their L2 class. Thematic analysis suggests that schools take varied approaches to meeting heritage speakers’ needs in the classroom, and that heritage speakers’ insights into the language and culture can be enriching for teachers and L2 learners. However, the asymmetry of heritage speakers’ oral and written language skills is a challenge for teachers, and they can struggle to keep heritage speakers engaged in mainstream lessons. These findings have important pedagogical implications since they suggest that heritage speakers are a valuable resource in the classroom, but that teachers do not always feel equipped to meet their different needs, suggesting that enhanced teacher training relating to bilingualism is required.



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