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Educational language presents a challenge for multilingual students

Linguistic features that are typical of academic and school-related language use are used more systematically by students in higher school years.

Educational language can present a challenge for multilingual students, depending on when they first encountered the language of education. Promoting factors can include having a well developed mother tongue, which is why it is important for mother tongue teaching to be supported by the school. This is shown by a new thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Ulrika Magnusson has investigated the use of grammatical metaphors among monolingual and multilingual upper secondary school students’ texts in national tests in Swedish, and in the same students’ texts in year 9.

Grammatical metaphor is deemed to be characteristic of texts such as scientific and specialised texts. A grammatical metaphor can be a nominalisation – an event that is expressed as a noun instead of a verb. With nominalisation, “The head teacher rewarded me” (verb) instead becomes “The head teacher gave me a reward” (noun). Adjectivisation is another example of grammatical metaphor. The event is then expressed using an adjective (“I saw a moving car”) instead of a verb (“I saw the car moving”).

Magnusson’s study showed that upper secondary school students used considerably more grammatical metaphors than they had when they were in year nine, but also that the use of grammatical metaphor is more characteristic of texts receiving high grades.

“This suggests that the use of grammatical metaphors is encouraged in school writing,” she says.

Different multilingual groups of students also used grammatical metaphors in different ways. Students who started to speak Swedish early (before the age of four) and those who started to speak Swedish late (after the age of seven) used grammatical metaphors to almost the same extent as monolingual Swedish students. However, an intermediate group of multilingual students who started to speak Swedish between the ages of four and seven used significantly fewer grammatical metaphors.

“I was able to see that those students who started to speak Swedish between the ages of four and seven used grammatical metaphors to a lesser degree. This may be because those students who started to speak Swedish at a young age encountered the language early on, and those who started to speak Swedish later on had developed their first language so much that they were able to benefit from it. It could be that the intermediate group has neither of these advantages.”

Magnusson has also investigated deviations from standard Swedish in the students’ texts. These deviations followed a different pattern in relation to the student’s age when starting to speak Swedish, compared with their use of grammatical metaphors.

“Here, monolingual Swedish students showed the fewest deviations, while the multilingual students showed more deviations the older they were when they started to speak Swedish.”

The differences between grammatical metaphors and deviations from standard Swedish in relation to the age of onset use may be due to the fact that they represent different types of competences in second-language development. The deviations from standard Swedish are thought to be related to common language ability, which benefits from encountering the second language early on. Grammatical metaphors may instead represent a linguistic ability that is associated with literacy, and that is developed in both the first language and the second language.

“Students who have Swedish as their second language can benefit from their reading and writing skills in their first language when reading and writing in Swedish. It is therefore important that the school supports mother tongue teaching alongside teaching in Swedish.”

The thesis has been successfully defended.

For more information, please contact: Ulrika Magnusson,

Helena Aaberg | idw
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