Academic success: should we believe in the gift for foreign languages?


Among the received ideas about languages, which some researchers like the Linguists Atterrees try to deconstruct by recalling that French is doing very well , we regularly find the idea that the French are bad at foreign languages. The counterpart of this received idea – partially supported by strong blows from international studies (PISA for example) whose relative value is regularly called into question for the mastery of languages ​​– is that there would be individuals (even nations) benefiting a gift in foreign languages ​​(and others not).

However, if some seem to take advantage of this gift, originally almost biblical , what is it really? Why is the ideology of the gift of foreign languages ​​more harmful than beneficial when it comes to thinking about the role of school?

The gift of tongues or the myth of invisible effort

Reflecting on language learning through the prism of the ideology of the gift amounts to asking the question of “talent” and therefore of the effort perceived as necessary to achieve one’s objectives.

Studying talent, or the ability to “speak” a foreign language well, means inspecting the multiple causes (family, social, school, etc.) of inequalities in success or individual ability, according to sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger . Akira Mizubayashi, a Japanese writer, is one of the best-known examples of people having a command of French without any trace of the Japanese language, even though he never heard this foreign language spoken until adulthood.

Is it possible to generalize this type of profile rooted in unique backgrounds and contexts? Certainly not. It is not because an individual has succeeded in learning 70,030 decimals of the number π that one could imagine that all children can do the same or quite simply that everyone should succeed. Thus, for Gérard Mauger, the symbolic violence of this “ideology of the gift” must be fought to maintain the belief that everyone can succeed; while accepting at the same time that not all learners will have the same needs, the same learning paths, nor the same objectives.

The ideology of the gift seems to have similar fuzzy characteristics with what is called instinct, as Jérémie Naudé, researcher at the CNRS in neurobiology , points out on his Twitter account, specifying in particular that “invoking instinct masks the how complex behaviors develop in a given ecological context”. We could easily apply this statement to what we would call a “gift” – the construction of a skill depends on very many factors.

Believe in your potential to better progress

During the 1970s and 1980s, rather than considering the “gift of languages”, researchers attempted to define the traits of the “good learner” . This research led to the identification of different “strategies” which would be as many markers of success (skills, motivation, personality, etc.). That said, this paradigm quickly showed its limits since it quickly turns into a value judgment of the learner’s skills (who would have good or bad strategies) and leads to a pedagogical dead end.

Rather than focusing on a state, attention can be focused on the investment which would no longer be considered as an absolute learning value but as the ability of an individual to invest in a device to target their own objectives according to the efforts that he is able to provide at a given moment, individually or in collaboration.

This is shown, in particular, by the work on evaluation in the context of the theory of dynamic systems by a Dutch team led by Marjolijn Verspoor . This paradigm reveals that language development is by nature fluctuating and that any language learning path includes temporary regressions, necessary for the progression of skills. Students may present with more unstable vocabulary at a given time, but this may actually correspond to a period when they are concentrating on new, complex grammatical structures, for example.

Moreover, studies on mental states and the learning of foreign languages ​​are particularly enlightening in this area. Albalawi & Al-Hoorie point out that there is a strong link between motivation to learn and internal factors such as mindset . There would be at least 2 types of state of mind:

  • a fixed state of mind , involving a tendency to think that any failure threatens confidence and self-esteem and therefore motivation;
  • and a growth mindset , relating to taking advantage of any failure as an opportunity to learn about yourself and gain skills.

The strength of the ideal self in foreign languages ​​(the way I imagine myself at the end of my learning) plays an important role. However, these theories confirm that we are not born with a particular state of mind but that it develops over time according to the experience we live. By the way they view the learning process, the school and the teachers have a major role to play in helping students to build a more developmental mindset. And this will further promote linguistic security in foreign languages.

Languages ​​at school and beyond

To show how much social heritage counts in academic success, Bourdieu had already shown that it is not the initial state or the final goal that must be taken into account, but each person’s capacity for transformation. Investment and success are therefore measured by the average slope of appreciable progression at the end of a scheme.

However, if we recognize that there is no gift for foreign languages, it is the socio-cultural – and therefore linguistic – capital of the pupils which largely contributes to language skills. Also the articulation of opportunities between formal and informal learning that takes place in the private sphere participates in the skills valued in the evaluation of languages ​​(family that positively cultivates plurilingualism and its multicultural heritage, trips abroad, opportunities for immersion, cartoons in their original version, etc.).

Moreover, certain skills relating to written language (literacy) as well as skills relating to oral ones (oratie) are socially marked in school assessment.

To allow the mastery of fundamental knowledge, equality, diversity, and the well-being of students , the school and its actors will be all the more relevant if they offer favorable conditions for the success of each. However, to succeed, it is essential that individuals believe in themselves, in their free will and in the ability of the institution to help them develop the gift of success (and not the gift of languages) according to each person’s ideal self.

Author Bio: Gregory Miras is a University Professor in Language Didactics at the University of Lorraine