How do young (multilingual) learners deal with unknown vocabulary in the EFL classroom?

“… and then my thoughts were like: Ah, it has to be something like dentist [Zahnarzt] because in Italian it is dentista and it came to me a little bit from Italian.”*

A German-Italian primary school student comes across the word dentist in English class. Not having previously learned the word, they deduce the meaning by drawing on their knowledge of Italian – dentist/dentista are, after all, very similar. Learners of foreign languages constantly encounter words that they do not know, whether in the classroom or in real-life situations. Do multilingual learners have a better chance of deciphering unknown vocabulary because they possess a broader language repertoire?

This is what I investigate in the context of English as a foreign language (EFL) classes in German primary schools. 35 4th graders were asked to infer the meanings of words and then to explain how they arrived at those meanings. Of the participants, 22 were monolingual German speakers and 13 were multilingual, meaning that they speak a heritage language (such as Turkish or Arabic) in addition to German. The test words were manipulated to be structurally similar to the participants’ own languages, which ensures opportunities for the participants to make use of their whole linguistic repertoire.

The participants’ explanations were analysed for how they infer meanings. Interestingly, in only five cases did multilingual participants use their home language knowledge (such as dentista/dentist above). More so, both the multilingual and monolingual participants referred to German in their explanations:

Tim watches TV on the couch.
“Couch sounds the same in German.”

In cases where multilingual participants could have used their home languages but did not, they resorted to the sentence context or their knowledge of German. The participant in the following example speaks German and Turkish. Ambulance, the target word, is similar in English and Turkish (ambulans).

The ambulance takes Sam to the hospital.
“I know ambulance from toy cars … because sometimes they have ‘ambulance’ [Ambulanz] written on them and it is like an ambulance [Krankenwagen] and Sam is a name and we had hospital in English before.”

Children can thus successfully compensate for their vocabulary gaps in the EFL classroom by using a number of strategies. However, according to my study, multilingual children do not necessarily activate their home languages as a strategy, with German playing a more significant role.  Yet, this study was conducted within a school setting where German is dominant. In such contexts, children may not be aware of the potential of their home languages for learning. Against this background, a follow-up study will further investigate the strategies of multilingual primary school students.

*All quotes have been translated from German to English

Sarah Sturm

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