Little girl is doing her homework for elementary school.
Little girl is doing her homework for elementary school.
Image credit: Shutterstock

Professor Victoria Murphy

I’m a strong advocate for teaching children second languages at the earliest possible ages, but we have to be careful how we implement it. In England, unfortunately, there tends to be very limited amounts of time devoted to foreign language instruction in schools. If you only spend 45 minutes a week on foreign language learning, then your outcomes are going to be limited as well. I think in many ways, if we improved foreign language learning for children in England, we would reap the benefits.

What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a a few different projects, one of which is a collaboration across 3 divisions: it’s led by Kate Nation from Experimental Psychology, there’s me from the Department of Education and Stephen Pulman from Computational Linguistics. We’re working with Oxford University Press’s (OUP) Children's Corpus: a bank of word usages in texts by children and for children (including, for example, children’s submissions to the BBC2 writing competition ‘500 words’).  The Corpus is used by OUP for their dictionaries, but Kate and I were interested in the Corpus as a tool to support our research into how children learn to read. We’re using the Corpus, in combination with empirical studies, to investigate when and how often children encounter words and in what types of contexts to help us understand better how the experiences children have with words drive their literacy development.

Another project I’m leading at the moment is on assessment of English language fluency in English as an Additional Language (EAL) pupils in Year 6 and Year 7.  EAL children have a home language that is not English, and sometimes children with EAL face challenges with certain aspects of English language and literacy.  Our project is aimed at working with teachers to help develop a theoretically and empirically based assessment tool to help them more precisely identify areas that might be in need of further support in their pupils.  This project is part of the Oxford Education Deanery – a partnership between our department (Education) and schools in and around Oxford, to collaborate with, and support the work of, teachers.

What does the Department of Education do, and how is it different from the Department of Psychology?
Those of us working in Applied Linguistics in the Department of Education are mostly researching the cognitive and social variables that affect the development of (and ultimate attainment in) a second language.  There are three main contexts in which we are investigating these issues.  One is the English as an Additional Language (EAL) context – particularly young children with EAL who have a home language that is not English, but who are being educated through the medium of English.  We are also carrying out research on English Medium of Instruction – which is where English is used to teach academic subjects in contexts (ie countries) where the majority of the population does not have English as the home language, and where English is typically not the dominant language of the society.  Finally, we also investigate these issues in the context of Modern Foreign Language (MFL) learning in schools, both primary and secondary).

What are the broader benefits of bilingualism to a child?
There are many. The bulk of the work that I do is on EAL (English as an Additional Language) children.

Children who are EAL tend to be (not always, but usually) ethnic minority children. So that means they have a connection with another culture and language. Becoming linguistically proficient with the language associated with that culture gives them a stronger connection to their heritage. For some children it might mean something as practical and direct as being able to talk to their grandparents.   So being bilingual can have real familial and community-based advantages. 

There are, of course, economic benefits – bilingualism is the norm internationally and, depending upon what kind of employment one is looking for, being bilingual is often seen as an advantage.

There are also educational advantages: children who are bilingual tend to have cognitive benefits from bilingualism such as metalinguistic awareness, which is a very strong predictor of reading and writing ability. And of course literacy forms a strong foundation from which other learning proceeds. It’s very important to have good literacy skills, no matter what you do. Bilinguals have some advantages in that respect as well.  A number of researchers around the world are also investigating the cognitive benefits of being bilingual.  For example, research by Ellen Bialystok and colleagues at York University, Toronto, showed that being an active bilingual can stave off dementia by a few years.

In an ideal world, what would you change on a policy level to improve language learning or uptake in schools?
In England, historically, foreign language instruction was taught to primary school children, but it was removed from the primary curriculum in the late 70s as a consequence of some research that argued that younger children were not efficient language learners; their rate of growth was slower in learning a foreign language than in secondary school learners. There is some evidence behind this; however, there are many beneficial reasons to include foreign language learning instruction in the primary curriculum. Above all, it provides a really solid basis on which the learning proceeds at the secondary level, allowing foreign language learning to really take off in the secondary level when students are more cognitively mature.

Another important issue is the relationship between learning a foreign language in primary school and other linguistic and literary skills. We have a recently published study that shows that children who are taught a second language in school do better on some aspects of first language literacy tasks relative to children who are not. If we lower the age at which children learn a foreign language, it’s very likely that they haven't yet learnt fully how to read and write in their native language. So introducing a foreign language then will likely influence your native language understanding and development. What we’ve shown, empirically, is that it does and that it’s a positive influence.

I’m a strong advocate for teaching children second languages at the earliest possible ages, but we have to be careful how we implement it. In England, unfortunately, there tends to be very limited amounts of time devoted to foreign language instruction in schools. If you only spend 45 minutes a week on foreign language learning, then your outcomes are going to be limited as well. I think in many ways, if we improved foreign language learning for children in England, we would reap the benefits.

How did you come to be so interested in linguistics?
I grew up in Ottawa, Canada, which is a bilingual city (Canada being one of the few countries in the world that is officially bilingual). I had the opportunity to participate in a French immersion programme when I was quite young, which meant most of my day was conducted in French – even though I was in an English school and lived in an English neighbourhood. I really enjoyed it, so even from an early age I was always interested in languages. When I went to choose a programme for my undergraduate degree, I chose linguistics. I very much enjoyed that, but I found that linguistics was more about the ‘what’: What is language? What are theories of language? Obviously that’s fundamental, but I found that I was more interested in the ‘how’ questions: how children and indeed adults learn languages, and, because of my own personal experiences, how children learn multiple languages (and particularly these days I think that’s important, because more people are bilingual than monolingual), so I then moved into Psychology. I did Educational Psychology as a master's degree, and then did my PhD at McGill in education, but – again – I had a psychologist and a linguist on my PhD committee so my research has always spanned across these 3 areas: education, linguistics and psychology.

What would you like to consider the ultimate legacy of your research to be?
It’s a very tricky question. I’ll tell you a story about Noam Chomsky and how he answered a similar question at a seminar he gave at McGill once when I was there doing my PhD. The question put to him was: ‘In 10 years' time, where would you like your research to be?’ His answer: ‘In 10 years' time I would like all of my theories to have been disproved.’ We were all shocked at this answer but he went on to explain that if all his theories had been disproved, it would mean that the field of linguistics had really progressed.  To categorically know that a theory is false requires a  particular knowledge and understanding.  Therefore, to disprove Chomsky’s theories means to have really learned more about linguistic theory than we currently know. Now, I’m not saying that I’d like all of my research to be nullified but I think that’s a really interesting way of thinking about it: it would be nice to think that the work that we’re doing now serves as an important foundation for the work to come, both by ourselves and colleagues and future students.

The other ‘legacy’ might be in relation to the educational contexts of my work. I was in Vietnam in July and I gave a lecture to English language teachers. Afterwards, I received a lot of really lovely emails from some of the delegates who attended this conference. One delegate told me that I’d talked about things in my lecture that she had never thought about before and that she felt were really important. She said that because of my lecture she now was going to incorporate these things into her teaching. Who knows whether that’s true or not and who knows whether her teaching will change or improve, but it would be really nice to think that the work that I’m doing would be beneficial both to the researchers to follow me, but also to teachers.

What’s your favourite part of your job?
I really enjoy the work with my students. I run one of the master's programmes here in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition and supervise research dissertations. I have 7 DPhil students at the moment. I really enjoy my work with students. We're very fortunate that we’re able to recruit very strong students from all over the world. And I find students (for the most part) really inspiring - I’ve learnt a lot from them. It’s really fun to be able to talk about what you love to people who are also interested in it and want to learn about it; it’s very rewarding.

I wouldn’t say I had a favourite though. I enjoy the teaching, I really enjoy my research – that’s why I went into academia. I enjoy working with schools – I tend to visit schools somewhat regularly. I travel a fair bit and meet teachers and researchers around the world, which I also really enjoy.

So, I’m afraid, I can’t really say that there’s one favourite aspect – I feel quite fortunate that I have a great job.