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Final Report Summary - ELSIC (A cross-context study of early language skills of immigrant children in Canada and the Netherlands)

This project investigated the language development of immigrant children in two contexts, Canada (CAN) and the Netherlands (NLD). The aim was to study when immigrant children reach their acquisition milestones in the majority language (English in CAN, Dutch in NLD), and to examine factors that influence immigrant children’s development in the majority language. Children’s language abilities are an important predictor for academic success. Knowing which factors thave an impact on immigrant children’s majority language development can further our understanding of why immigrant children in the two contexts (CAN, NLD) differ in their academic achievements. Better understanding of the language development of immigrant children is also important for improving the diagnosis of immigrant children whose expression in the majority language raises concerns.

The results of this project are summarized in Table 1. The four main studies include two longitudinal studies, one NLD and one CAN, where the language development of immigrant children was followed over time and the impact of both factors internal and external to the children were investigated (1, 3a). All other studies are cross-sectional studies with larger numbers of participants (2, 3b, 3c, 4). Two of these studies feature new statistical procedures to explore patterns in the data and investigate the simultaneous impact of multiple factors on children’s language skills (2, 3c). Two other studies include comparisons based on input corpora and comparisons across input corpora, which is important for investigating the influence of properties of the target language (3b, 3c). Three studies include also immigrant children with a language impairment, both in CAN and NLD (3b, 3c, 4). One of these studies looked at sources of individual differences in both immigrant children with and without language impairment, which provided a unique window into the deficit that underlies language impairments (3c). Articles based on studies 1, 2, 3a, and 3b are published or currently in press in international high quality journals; articles based on studies 3c and 4 are currently under review (see Dissemination measures).

The expected final results and their potential impact and use
Bilingual immigrant children who were raised predominantly in the minority language (= homelanguage) experience delays in their acquisition of majority language grammar at the onset of their school carrier (1). Immigrant children catch up with their monolingual peers after less than two years of substantial exposure to the majority language (3a). If the minority language resembles the majority language catching up goes more rapidly than if the minority language is clearly different (2, 3a). The grammar development of immigrant children is driven by vocabulary growth, cognitive maturity and exposure to the majority language (2, 3a, 3b). Frequent, salient properties of the majority language are mastered earlier than less frequent and less salient properties (2, 3a, 3b). Verb inflection is promising as a clinical marker of language impairment in bilingual immigrant populations (3c, 4). Finally, starting a bit later with learning the majority language can be beneficial for immigrant children’s development in this language, in particular for immigrant children diagnosed with a language impairment (3c). The results are important for understanding why certain immigrant children are more successful at learning grammatical properties of the majority language than other children, for knowing what to expect regarding the developmental timeline of immigrant children with a typical language development, and for detecting immigrant children who have an atypical development and who will benefit from special education or treatment. The results, therefore, may have an impact on (pre)school programmes that support immigrant children’s development in the majority language. The results can also be used to improve the diagnosis of immigrant children with a language impairment and determine which children need special education. The results of this project are furthermore of theoretical significance since evidence has been found for the hypothesis that grammar is learned in an associative, domain-general manner (3a, 3b) and for the idea that language impairments are caused by processing limitations (3b, 3c). New and powerful statistical methods were used to evaluate the simultaneous effect of multiple factors (2, 3a, 3b, 3c) and it is expected that this innovative approach will inspire future research in the field of language acquisition. Beneficiaries include, apart from academics, speech language therapists, Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators, teachers, head teachers, public sector bodies, and policy makers involved in education and the needs of immigrant/ethnic minorities.

A large vocabulary, sufficient exposure to the majority language, starting majority language exposure after age 3.5 and similarities between the minority and majority languages predict immigrant children’s success at learning the majority language grammar. To identify bilingual immigrant children with a language impairment, accuracy at using verb inflection is important. Factors identified in the two contexts are largely the same, which may suggest that differences in school success of immigrant children in Canada and the Netherlands have to do with different educational systems and with background variables that have relatively little impact on children’s language development in the majority language.

Socio-economic impact
This research can have important implications for the educational and health services in the Netherlands and Canada. Improved diagnostics for bilingual immigrant children can save resources and improve support of immigrant minority children, raising quality of life, and their chances of achieving their potential.

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