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Is there a deficit framing of late-timed bilingualism in published research? An empirical look
International Symposium on Bilingualism (2017)
  • Lourdes Ortega, Georgetown University
  • Casey Keck, Boise State University
Researchers have denounced the problem of constructing adult bilingualism which starts later in life as falling short of the monolingual norm of some native speaker ideal,
because it inevitably frames bilinguals as deficient (e.g., Canagarajah, 2004; Cook & Li
Wei, 2016; Firth & Wagner, 1997; May, 2014; Ortega, 2014; Phillipson, 1988; Rampton,
1990; Seidlhofer, 2001). These criticisms, however, have been rarely explored
empirically. Drawing on corpus-based critical discourse methodologies (e.g., Baker & Levon, 2015; Mautner, 2016), we turned the empirical lens onto the claim. We first compiled a 9-million-word corpus, comprised of 1,279 articles published in 11 major refereed journals. We then undertook a bottom-up search of the query term “learners” and identified consistent collocates, taking into account frequency, mutual information scores, and distribution across texts. Finally, we used concordance line analysis to uncover recurring metaphors used to describe the language performance, proficiency, and ultimate attainment of adult bilinguals. Ample support was found for the claim that late-starting bilinguals are frequently characterized in research publications as deficient language users. For example, negative verbs (“cannot,” “lack”) and adjectives (“difficult,” “problematic”) were frequently used to characterize adult language performances, whereas positive descriptors (“creative,” “novel”) were rarely used. Seventy-four percent of the 4,236 concordance lines analyzed contributed to a deficit-framing of learners.  Of these, 45% characterized learners as passive beneficiaries of external forces (e.g., effective instruction).  Sixteen percent characterized learner success as partial or possible only under carefully controlled circumstances.  Twelve percent of concordance lines focused on learner difficulty or lack of ability.  In contrast, only 5% of concordance lines characterized learners as active, effective agents in their own learning. We discuss the consequences of a deficit framing of late-starting bilinguals and their nonnativeness and point at the possibility of alternative discourses, including the metaphor of the “new speaker.”
Publication Date
June, 2017
University of Limerick, Ireland
Citation Information
Lourdes Ortega and Casey Keck. "Is there a deficit framing of late-timed bilingualism in published research? An empirical look" International Symposium on Bilingualism (2017)
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