- Phonological Working Memory and Second Language Acquisition: A Developmental Study of Francophone Children Learning English in Quebec
This monograph presents a classroom-based study of the role of phonological memory in lexical and grammatical development in child second-language (L2) acquisition. The first three chapters provide an overview of information-processing models of language learning including the nature of phonological memory, and the ability to store sound sequences in working memory necessary for long-term learning. French reviews a number of studies that found that, in first-language acquisition, children with better phonological memory are more efficient learners. Whereas previous research that demonstrates this continued relationship in L2 learning is based on case or experimental studies, the author seeks to determine whether, in the classroom, there is also a correlation between phonological working memory and L2 skill development over time.
The following three chapters present the study and data analysis. Fifty-four grade six francophone children who were enrolled in two preexisting intensive English immersion classes participated. In such classes, students receive twenty-five hours of weekly instruction over a five-month period equivalent to three years of the normal curriculum. Four abilities were measured: (1) phonological memory via English and Arabic nonce-word repetition tasks, (2) English grammatical competence based on standardized proficiency and cloze (sentence completion;multiple-choice selection) tests, (3) receptive (English-French) and productive (French-English) vocabulary knowledge through word-translation tasks, and (4) nonverbal intelligence (pattern completion task). The tests were administered at the beginning of the study (Time 1), then five months later (Time 2), with the exception of the standardized proficiency test and (4), given at Time 1 only.
On the basis of standardized tests, the learners were divided into low- and high-proficiency groups. The composite data allow French to make two major conclusions, once nonverbal intelligence is factored out of the correlations. First, phonological memory strongly predicts L2 English ability [End Page 412] with both vocabulary and general grammatical learning at both Times 1 and 2. This causal relationship is particularly true for lexical acquisition and stronger for the low-proficiency group. Second, for these latter learners alone, phonological memory predicts absolute increases in L2 English vocabulary over the five months. Once the correlation with vocabulary acquisition is factored out, there is no correlation with general grammatical learning.
In the concluding chapter, the author highlights the study's contributions to our understanding of the role of phonological memory in (child) L2 acquisition. In contrast to some previous work that has argued for a decline in phonological memory as a predictor of vocabulary acquisition by the age of five, French's data show this correlation as late as twelve years of age. Moreover, as had been previously demonstrated, the asymmetry between the predictive power of phonological memory for low- and higher-proficiency learners reveals that, as familiarity with the L2 and vocabulary size increases, learners come to rely less on working phonological memory and more on long-term representations and semantic knowledge for lexical acquisition. Once these major contributions are reviewed, future research directions are discussed, including the interest of testing the effect of first- and second-language phonological similarity on the types of correlations observed. After discussing a few relatively minor limitations related to the statistical analysis, French concludes with a brief proposal of the implications of his study for pedagogical design. Here, he highlights and briefly sketches the types of exercises that might stretch phonological memory and awareness.
This book provides a very useful and well-written introduction to the role of memory in second-language acquisition along with new data from a well-designed and well-analyzed study. If there is one criticism to be made, it is that the book, in form and content, appears to be the author's unexpanded doctoral thesis. Given the length (a main body of 139 pages) and cost of the volume, elaboration of several areas seems merited. These could include a more general overview of the role of memory in...