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Young children's agency in learning novel languages in multilingual environments
Mortini, Simone


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Keywords :
Multilingualism; child agency; language learning; early childhood
Abstract :
[en] The concept of child agency is highly discussed in the fields of humanities, sociology and education. Whereas children were previously conceptualised as incomplete adults or social becomings in the adult world, children’s agency has undergone a paradigm shift in recent decades. Pioneer early childhood scholars such as Prout and James (1990) and Corsaro (2005) have argued that children are reflexive, agentive and social beings, who construct and re-construct childhood and actively shape socialization processes. Similarly, scholars in the emerging field of preschool bilingual education have stressed children’s active role in language learning processes and in shaping language policies and practices through their own languaging and interactions (Bergroth & Palviainen, 2017; Boyd & Huss, 2017; Schwartz, 2018). These scholars define children’s bilingual agency as the ‘socioculturally mediated capacity to act, as it is reflected in the children’s communicative acts’ (Ahearn, 2001; Bergroth & Palviainen, 2017). From the same sociocultural perspective on learning, educationalist researchers show that preschool children’s agency is embedded in institutional and interactional orders (Huf 2013, Hilpöö et al., 2016). Young children can express a bilingual agency by linguistically supporting each other (Mourão, 2018); discussing and evaluating their own and others’ language practices (Almér, 2017); demonstrating a metalinguistic awareness (Schwartz, 2018); and even by modifying language policy-in-practice (Boyd & Huss, 2017). Moreover, studies suggest that opportunities to use languages flexibly in the classroom may give children some agency over their language use and facilitate their language learning (García & Kleifgen, 2018). Nevertheless, findings on young children’s translanguaging and agency are still scarce, particularly in multilingual contexts involving more than two languages (Kirsch, 2017; Schwartz, 2018). In light of these current trends and gaps in the fields of language learning and education, the present doctoral study gives insights into young children’s agency in learning novel languages in Luxembourg. In this trilingual country, a new law on multilingual education was passed in 2017. This transition from a monolingual to a multilingual language policy was motivated by recent results of national studies which showed that non-Luxembourgish children scored below average in primary school (MENJE, 2017). As the new multilingual language policy strives for social justice and equal opportunities, early childhood practitioners are now required to teach Luxembourgish to the children, familiarize them with French and value their home languages. This doctoral thesis is part of the research project MuLiPEC (Kirsch, 2016-2019) which provided seven practitioners in two formal and two non-formal early childhood education settings with an extensive professional training and individual coaching in multilingual pedagogies. Whereas the main research team examined the practitioners’ changing multilingual practices, knowledge and beliefs, I focused on the children in these settings. I investigated eight two- to four-year-old children’s languaging and agentive behaviour over the period of a year. The present paper focuses on four focal children in two formal education settings. In the précoce, a non-compulsory preschool year for three-year-olds, one Portuguese- and one Cape Verdean Creole-speaking girls learned Luxembourgish as a second language. In the compulsory preschool for children aged four to five, two Spanish-speaking boys had previously learned features of other languages (French, Mallorquí, English) and encountered Luxembourgish as a novel language. Following research questions are addressed: - In what ways and to what extent do the four children deploy their linguistic and non-linguistic repertoires in interaction with peers and teachers? - In what ways and to what extent do the children express a multilingual agency in language learning? - In what ways is the children’s multilingual agency socioculturally embedded? The findings should contribute to the understanding of children’s agency in learning novel languages in early childhood education settings implementing multilingual pedagogies. This longitudinal study drew on multidimensional qualitative methods, including observations, fieldnotes, videography, informal discussions and semi-structural interviews with the practitioners. I visited the two schools bi-weekly for three consecutive days during one academic year. The data presented in this paper stems from 34 days of observations during daily interactions and planned language learning activities; 277 video-recordings in lengths ranging from one to forty minutes; and eight semi-structured interviews. Adopting an emic perspective, the data were firstly examined with a thematic analysis following Braun and Clarke (2006). I coded the fieldnotes and the transcriptions of the video-recordings and classified these codes into different forms of languaging and interactions. As the study adopted a sociocultural perspective on language learning, selected interactions were additionally analysed line-by-line using a ‘sociocultural theory approach to conversation analysis’ inspired by Seedhouse (2005). The analysis proceeded inductively and deductively being influenced by the literature review. Consequently, I identified the children’s agentive behaviour during interactions with their peers and practitioners. The coding and classification were extensively discussed with Schwartz and Kirsch in the process of collaboratively writing an article on child agency. As a result, the emergent themes were called: active participation (e.g. engaging through translanguaging in the morning circle; creatively reproducing the adults’ communication strategies); and language management (e.g. taking a leading role in shaping activities in a specific language; refusing to speak a language). Finally, the observational data and interviews were triangulated (Flick, 2011). To assure accuracy and trustworthiness, the findings were discussed and compared in meetings with further international researchers in the fields of multilingualism and early childhood education. The research project complies with the ethics principles of the National Data Protection Regulatory Agency and the University of Luxembourg. Moreover, the study followed the recognised ethical principles of the British Educational Research Association. The participants gave their informed consent and their anonymity is strictly respected in presentations and publications. The data showed that the children were not passively socialised into the Luxembourgish language, but actively shaped this process by challenging norms through different types of agentive behaviour during interactions and activities (Schwartz 2018). Firstly, the children actively participated through non-verbal communication (e.g. pointing, doing actions); the use of other languages (e.g. home languages or languages picked up in a crèche); and the repetition of formulaic speech (e.g. Luxembourgish, French) after practitioners and peers. Moreover, they creatively reproduced (Corsaro, 2005) the practitioners’ language use (e.g. labelling and asking questions) during peer interactions. Furthermore, they all showed a pragmatic sensitivity (e.g. adapting their languaging to their interlocutors, asking for translations) and one child a cross-linguistic sensitivity (e.g. comparing words in different languages). Secondly, the children’s involvement went beyond active participation as they not only monitored their own language use (e.g. translanguaged to mediate meaning), but managed to shape the language use of their peers and practitioners. This agentive behaviour was characterised by engaging in peer teaching (e.g. giving corrective feedback); shaping and changing activities (e.g. transforming a monolingual activity into a multilingual one); refusing to speak a language (e.g. the home language in favour of the dominant language). By transforming or resisting language practices, the children made choices to act against expectations and norms (Fogle 2012). This finding presumes that these very young children were to some extent conscious about prevailing norms in the settings (Bergroth & Palviainen, 2017). Finally, the triangulation of the data showed that the children’s multilingual agency was shaped by the teachers’ own agency and language practices, which in turn were shaped by their conceptualisations of the children (e.g. competent versus incompetent), the official language policies (e.g. monolingual versus multilingual) and the professional development and coaching they were given by the research team (Kirsch & Aleksić, 2018). References: Ahearn, L. (2001). Language and agency, Annual Review of Anthropology, 30: 109-137. Almér, E. (2017). Children’s beliefs about bilingualism and language use as expressed in child-adult conversations, Multilingua, 36(4): 401-424. Bergroth, M., & Palviainen, Å. (2017). Bilingual children as policy agents: Language policy and education policy in minority language medium Early Childhood Education and Care, Multilingua, 36(4): 375-399. Boyd, S., & Huss, L. (2017). Young children as language policy-makers: studies of interaction in preschools in Finland and Sweden, Multilingua, 36(4), 359-373. Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology, Qualitative Research in psychology, 3(2): 77-101. Corsaro, W. (2005). Collective Action and Agency in Young Children’s Peer Cultures. In J. Qvortrup (ed.), Studies in Modern Childhood: Society, Agency, Culture (pp. 231-247). Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillen. Flick, U. (2011). Triangulation - Eine Einführung (3. aktualisierte Auflage). (Reihe Qualitative Sozialforschung). Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaft. Fogle, L. W. (2012). Second language socialization and learner agency: Talk in three adoptive families. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. García, O., & Kleifgen, J.A. (2018). Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Learners (Second edition). New York: Teachers College Press. Hilppö, J., Lipponen, L, Kumpulainen, K., and Rainio A. (2016). Children’s sense of agency in preschool: a sociocultural investigation, International Journal of Early Years Education, 25(2): 157-171. Huf, C. (2013). Children’s agency during transition to formal schooling, Ethnography and Education, 8(1): 61-76. Kirsch, C. (2017). Translanguaging practices during storytelling with the app iTEO in preschools, Translation and Translanguaging in Multilingual Contexts, 3(2): 145-166. Kirsch, C., & Aleksić, G. (2018). The Effect of Professional Development on Multilingual Education in Early Childhood in Luxembourg, Review of European Studies, 10(4): 148-163. Mourão, S. (2018). Play and Peer Interaction in a Low-Exposure Foreign Language Learning Programme. In M. Schwartz (ed.). Preschool Bilingual Education: Agency in Interactions between Children, Teachers, and Parents (pp. 313-342). Dordrecht: Springer. Prout, A., and James, A. (1990). A new paradigm for the sociology of childhood? Provenance, promise and problems. In A. James and A. Prout (eds.). Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. Contemporary Issues in Sociological Study of Childhood (pp. 7-34). London: Routledge Falmer. Schwartz, M. (2018). Preschool Bilingual Education: Agency in Interactions between Children, Teachers, and Parents. In: M. Schwartz (ed.), Preschool Bilingual Education: Agency in Interactions between Children, Teachers, and Parents (pp. 1-26). Dordrecht: Springer. Seedhouse, P. (2005). Conversation Analysis and language learning, Language Teaching 38(4):165-187.
Disciplines :
Education & instruction
Author, co-author :
Mortini, Simone ;  University of Luxembourg > Faculty of Language and Literature, Humanities, Arts and Education (FLSHASE) > Education, Culture, Cognition and Society (ECCS)
Language :
Title :
Young children's agency in learning novel languages in multilingual environments
Publication date :
05 September 2019
Event name :
ECER 2019: Education in an Era of Risk – the Role of Educational Research for the Future
Event organizer :
University of Hamburg
Event place :
Hamburg, Germany
Event date :
from 3-9-2019 to 6-9-2019
Audience :
Focus Area :
Educational Sciences
FnR Project :
FNR9989225 - Developing Multilingual Pedagogies In Early Childhood Education, 2015 (01/05/2016-30/04/2019) - Claudine Kirsch
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since 12 September 2019


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