English and Spanish Language Use by Three Fifth Graders in a Full Immersion Classroom

The ACIE Newsletter, June 2000, Vol. 3, No. 3

By Maggie A. Broner, PH.D., St. Olaf college, Northfield, Minnesota



Many researchers agree that one of the most successful programs for teaching second languages in the public schools in both Canada and the United States has been language immersion. Although research has focused on many issues throughout the years, a recurrent issue, which has been acknowledged but only cursorily studied, is the observation made by researchers and teachers alike that, as children in immersion schools become older, they do not use the second language exclusively (Tarone and Swain 1995, 166). Based on previous research, Tarone and Swain concluded that the second language is used when the children are talking about academic topics, while the first language is used in social interactions.

There may be many reasons for the differential language use in the classroom, such as increased exposure to the first language that older children are receiving from different interlocutors, an increase in English at the curricular level, the influence of English from the majority culture outside school, the types of tasks children carry out in class, or the fact that older elementary children are entering the pre-adolescent years and may have specific interactional needs that may not be fulfilled by use of the second language. In order to shed further light onto the role that first and second languages play in immersion classrooms, this study followed the lives of three fifth graders in a full Spanish immersion classroom throughout one academic year (1994-95) as they went about their daily activities inside the classroom.

Using a case study approach, this study explored (1) the effect of the interlocutor in student-teacher and student-student interactions in L1 (first language) and L2 (second language) use; (2) the differential use of Spanish and English while children carried out academic tasks in the classroom and whether there is a measurable relationship between the type of task and language choice; (3) whether L2 was used in the production of vernacular words and phrases; (4) whether L2 was used to reflect and talk about the language itself (metalinguistic awareness); and (5) whether L2 was used when children referred to the "pre-teen" culture outside of the classroom.


This study was carried out in a K-5 school located in a northern suburb of a large Mid-western city in the United States. Participation is voluntary for residents in the district. Children come from home backgrounds that represent a wide array of socioeconomic levels. The vast majority of the children attending this school come from monolingual English-speaking families, and the school is located in an area that is not near a Spanish speaking community so the children who attend this school generally do not have opportunities to speak Spanish outside the school.

All curricular instruction, including reading and language arts, is in Spanish in kinder-garten and first grade. English is introduced for the first time in second grade when English language arts are taught for a half hour a day. The amount of time devoted to English reading and language arts increases gradually. Fifth grade is the end of elementary education at this immersion site.

Teachers are bilingual, either native speakers of Spanish or English. The same teachers teach both the Spanish and the English curricula from second grade onwards. Three fifth graders were selected for this study, Leonard, Marvin, and Caroline (names have been changed to protect their identities). They were ten years old at the beginning of the school year. The three children came from households in which English was the native language and did not have Spanish-speaking ancestry. They had siblings who either had attended or were attending the school at the time of the study. The children were planning to attend the middle school Spanish maintenance program after they graduated from this school. They were respectful of the teacher and classroom rules. Socially, these children were not best friends with each other although they worked well together.

Data collection procedures

Data were collected throughout one academic year (September 1994 to June 1995) through a variety of techniques: (a) direct observations, (b) extensive field notes taken in and outside of the classroom, (c) informal interviews with the children and the teacher, and (d) recorded data. (The selected children wore lapel micro-phones connected to a wireless transmitter device during each of the thirteen taping sessions. Each taped session varied from 20 to 90 minutes and covered an array of activities.) Once data were gathered and transcribed, quantitative and qualitative analyses were performed.


The data revealed that children in this fifth grade classroom do speak the L2 with the teacher and when speaking with other children in both academic and non-academic contexts. Specifically, the study found that the type of interlocutor had a measurable (statistically significant) impact on the L2 (Spanish) use of the three children. These three children always used Spanish when speaking to the teacher, but when the interlocutor was another peer, other variables [such as being "on/off" task, the content of the activity, and other social relationships] came into play. An interesting finding was that individual interlocutors had particular effects on L1 and L2 use; i.e., Marvin's presence significantly promoted more L2 use in this classroom even though socially he was not the most popular child in the class. Marvin had been selected as a participant because his linguistic behavior seemed to be different from that of the rest of the children in the class. He was the only child who consistently spoke in the L2 even when he was outside the classroom. His behavior did not fit preliminary observations of the other children in fifth grade who tended to use both languages in the classroom and English outside the classroom, such as during recess. Hence, when we take into account Marvin's individual characteristics, we can appreciate the importance of capturing the different effects that individual children may have on L2 use in the classroom. These results would have been lost if I had looked only at group data.

Type of task was also found to have a measurable effect (statistically significant) on first and second language use. Content areas such as creative writing and reading promoted more L2 use in the classroom, whereas math, social studies, science, and arts and crafts did not (more L1 was used). These results suggest that when the goal of the task included focusing on the L2 (e.g. creative writing) children used the L2 to a greater extent regardless of the presence of other factors. Further analysis of those language-related tasks showed that children were doing more than just being "on task" and/or focusing on the L2. They were co-constructing (Vygotsky 1978) dialogue in the L2, helping each other increase their use of the L2, and they talked about and reached conclusions about linguistic problems in the L2 (Swain and Lapkin 1998, 332). In these activities children used more L2 than in any other content area. Often, teachers are unaware of the language output produced in peer group work because they are not directly involved in eliciting its production.

The use of vernacular words (e.g. "cool") accounted for only 10 percent of the English data, and there were no references to pre-adolescent themes in Spanish (e.g. boyfriends/girlfriends). Finally, the study found that despite individual differences, the same set of factors -- who the interlocutor is, what content area is being studied, and whether children are working on or off task -- accounted for the L2 and L1 use of the three children. Peeking into the lives of Leonard, Caroline, and Marvin by gathering "naturally occurring" data allowed me to tap into interactions that are often missed by teachers and researchers alike. I was able to describe what children do with the L1 and the L2 given some of the conditions that are set for them by the program, the teachers, the researchers, the classroom tasks, and the social relationships that are present in each interaction.


The findings from this study led to the following conclusions:

(1) Despite other reports in the literature, this study found that these three immersion fifth graders use the L2 more than the L1 in their classroom. They do speak the L2 both with the teacher and other children. Interlocu-tor alone predicted language use when it was the teacher, but other variables also came into play when the interlocutor was another peer.

(2) Language choice for these three children is a function of interlocutor, content area, and being on/off task.

(3) Type of task has a measurable effect on first and second language use, providing evi-dence that when the goal of the task includes focusing on the L2, as well as the content, children use the L2 to a greater extent.

(4) These children use the L2 to talk about and reflect on their use of the language. This result is important given the fact that, developmentally, children at this age show an increase in their metalinguistic ability. Hence, these children's cognitive maturation is revealed both in the L1 and the L2.

(5) Despite individual differences, the same set of factors account for the L2 and L1 use of all three children. This suggests their membership in a single speech community. Therefore, we can speculate that language use for other children in the class will be a function of these same variables. Nevertheless, because this was a case study, more data are needed that look at the behavior of more than just three children to validate this claim.

Implications for teaching and future research

From the results reported here, I would propose that teachers include many opportunities for group creative writing activities throughout the curriculum to increase students' L2 use in the classroom. It would be interesting to examine the use of creative writing activities using non-language related content such as math and science to determine if the L2 increase is due to the type of activity (focus on language) or the content alone.

Another issue is the role of individual differences in the make-up of group work. Given the results about the effect of different interlocutors on L2 use, teachers should take this variable into account. Interlocutors will affect other children's L2 output, and pairing different kinds of interlocutors may help increase the overall L2 output in these classes. If teachers have individual information on each child's language use, they may be able to elicit more overall L2 in their classrooms.

Selected Bibliography

Blanco-Iglesias, S; J. Broner and E. Tarone. (1995). Observations of language use in Spanish immersion classroom interactions. In L. Eubank, L. Selinker and M. Sharwood-Smith (eds.) The current state of Interlanguage: Studies in honor of William Rutherford (pp. 241-258). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Broner, J. (1991). Report on observations on the use of Spanish at an immersion school. Unpublished manuscript. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Broner, M. (2000). Impact of interlocutor and task on first and second language use in a Spanish immersion program. Ph.D. dissertation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Chan, E. (1996). The contexts of code wwitching in French immersion classrooms. Master's thesis. Kingston, Ont.: QueenÕs University.

Cohen, A. (1994). The language used to perform cognitive operations during full-immersion math tasks. Language Testing, 11, (2), 171-195.

Cohen, A. D. and S. M. Lebach. (1974). A language experiment in California: Student, teacher, parent, and community reactions after 3 years. Working Papers in Teaching English as a Second Language, 8, 33-46.

Parker J. E., S. M. Heitzman, A. M. Fjerstad, L. M. Babbs, and A. D. Cohen. (1994). Exploring the role of foreign language in immersion education. In Eckman, F. R. et al (eds.) Second Language Acquisition Theory and Pedagogy. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Swain, M. (1995). The Output Hypothesis: Just speaking and writing aren't enough. Canadian Modern Language Review, Golden Anniversary Issue, 50, (1), 158-164.

Swain, M. and S. Lapkin. (1998). Interaction and second language learning: Two adolescent French immersion students working together. Modern Language Journal, 82, (3), 320-337.

Tarone, E. and M. Swain. (1995). A sociolinguistic perspective on second-language use in immersion classrooms. Modern Language Journal, 79, (2), 166-178.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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