The Different Impacts of Formal Versus Informal Acquisition of Another Language on Metalinguistic Awareness

Rene Trombley, Department of Psychology, Mount Royal University


Bilingual populations have demonstrated enhanced executive functioning skills compared to monolinguals (eg. Barbu et al., 2019; Barac & Bialystok, 2012). A sub component of executive functioning, metalinguistic awareness, does not show the same consistent bilingual advantage (Reder et al., 2013; Bialystok, 2001). Most of the studies that we have examined do not consider how language acquisition or learning approaches could be impacting abilities in that language. We believe that the mixed findings are due to different approaches to language acquisition resulting in a differential effect on metalinguistic awareness and the different sub components of metalinguistic awareness (morphologic, syntactic, and phonologic).

In the current study, we addressed this inconsistency by considering if a formal or informal approach to language learning played a role in the bilinguals’ metalinguistic awareness and if different types of metalinguistic abilities were affected differently. A total of 304 participants, between the ages of 17-43, completed the study online, with 136 monolinguals, 105 formal bilinguals, and 63 informal bilinguals. Participants completed a language survey, followed by seven tasks measuring morphologic, syntactic, and phonological awareness. Scores from these tasks were compared between our three groups using multiple Krukal-Wallis tests. Overall, assessing all components of metalinguistic awareness, there were mean rank differences between the groups, H(2)= 6.96, p= .031, n2H = .016. Specifically the monolingual group performed marginally better than both the formal (p=.026) and informal (p=.032) bilingual group using a bonferroni-adjusted alpha level of p=.017 for all pairwise comparisons. This was particularly apparent on the word order syntactic task, in which monolinguals performed better than the formal bilinguals, p= .005. Bilinguals who acquired a second language informally, performed similarly to the monolinguals, suggesting that the active use of a language in an informal setting provides better syntactic awareness. Therefore, although there may be no bilingual advantage in metalinguistic awareness in young adulthood, it does not provide a deficit, specifically for informal learners.

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