New conference to build bridges between academia and the public

People often think young children learn a second language much easier than older children or adults but much of the research into second language learning doesn’t necessarily support this idea in a school setting.

Popular wisdom holds that, in contrast to adults, immigrant children in a host society learn a second language quickly and effortlessly. However, new research demonstrates that English language learners take years to approach monolingual language abilities and with varying outcomes.

Dr. Fangfang Li, a University of Lethbridge psychology professor with expertise in linguistics, together with her colleagues, Drs. Robbin Gibb, Claudia Gonzalez, Inge Genee and Noëlla Piquette, want to ensure the public has access to correct information about child language learning because language is central to children’s daily functioning.

Many students in today’s classrooms need to learn English as a second language or are in second language immersion programs and their success depends on their ability to learn the second language. Research in child language acquisition is a multi-disciplinary affair that draws on evidence from linguistics, psychology, neuroscience and education.

“Partly because of this inherent intricacy, the area of child language acquisition is frequently filled with myths and misconceptions,” says Li. “Further confusion is generated by commercial advertisements or popular videos prevalent in mass media.”

Li wants to build bridges between the various academic disciplines involved in child language acquisition research and the public through a conference that will be the first of its kind in Alberta. She has succeeded in obtaining a Connection Grant of more than $28,000 through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to make the conference a reality.

“We aim to orient research towards community needs, update the public with current research findings and address common misconceptions in the community,” she says. “These conversations are also timely in light of the booming demand of second language education for children who are immigrants, refugees, indigenous, and second language immersion or bilingual program students.”

Li says the first annual Alberta Conference on Child Language Acquisition Research, taking place from Nov. 24 to 26 at the U of L, will offer keynote addresses, workshops, a poster session and roundtable talks. The conference is designed to enhance the existing research network in Alberta in the area of child language acquisition and to foster further research exchanges and collaboration on a national and international level. The conference will appeal to parents, teachers, policy makers, academic experts and community members. The conference is also expected to become an annual event alternating between the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary and the U of L.

“Our long-term goal is to retain the two-way communication channel between academia and the community to help ensure decisions and policies are based on the best scientific evidence available,” says Li.