12 MARCH 2015

Fred Genesee

Fred Genesee is Professor Emeritus in the Psychology Department at McGill University, Montreal. He has conducted extensive research on alternative forms of bilingual and immersion education for language minority and language majority students. His current research interests include language acquisition in pre-school bilingual children, internationally adopted children, second language reading acquisition, and the language and academic development of students at-risk in bilingual programs.

Could you tell us a little about your background?

I have a PhD in psychology from McGill University in Montreal, with a focus on second language learning and bilingualism. I have carried out extensive evaluation research on bilingual forms of education for both majority language and minority language students in North America (primarily) and I have served as an educational consultant in bilingual/multilinguals schools around the world. My early interest in bilingualism in school-age learners led me to do research on preschool-age children who grow up bilingually and on children who acquire a second language very early in life. All of this research activity has been motivated by an interest in understanding children’s capacity for learning additional languages and the conditions under which this can happen most successfully. Because some of my early evaluation research on bilingual education took place in the local school district in which I lived – Montreal, I developed an interest in the educational aspects of teaching and learning second/third languages. I realized that I like to act as a broker between the scientific community and the community of professional and lay people who support bilingualism.

Why did you become interested in education research?

Growing up in a country that is bilingual, I could see the real advantages of being bilingual. At the same time, I was struck by people’s fears of raising or educating children bilingually. I was concerned that parents, educators, and policy-makers were making inappropriate decisions about second language teaching and learning in school because their fears were stronger than their knowledge of what science had to say. In general, people underestimated children’s ability to acquire bilingual competence. As a result, much of my research at the university was motivated to challenge these fears and concerns in order to determine scientifically if they were valid or not. I felt that decisions about how to educate children bilingually should be based on scientific evidence and not fears and assumptions and so I became actively involved in disseminating the results of my own research and other's to parents, educators and policy-makers so that they could make well-formed decisions. 

What do you find most interesting about working on international projects?

Working internationally – in schools outside my home country, with programme administrators and policy-makers who manage bilingual schools, or with colleagues in other countries on books such as this one is stimulating because it forces me to challenge what I think and what I believe is effective educational policy and practice. Every bilingual school and programme I have worked in is different in some ways, while sharing some characteristics. The more I work in international contexts, the broader my understanding of bilingual education, the more fascinated I am by this form of education, and the more confident I am that what I say to educators and policy-makers may be useful.

What tips would you give to educators and policy makers involved in bilingual education programmes?

Do not be afraid of bilingualism and of bilingual forms of education.

Do not underestimate young students’ ability to learn additional languages and succeed academically. Virtually all children can attain high levels of functional proficiency in a second language without suffering setbacks in their native language or academic achievement if they participate in well-designed, scientifically-supported programs.

Teachers are the single most important asset in programs that aim to promote bilingualism – give them the time to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to do a good job. Too many programs neglect professional development and, as a result, individual teachers are challenged to come up with the best way to teach in bilingual programs. We know a lot about effective bilingual pedagogy, but we need to take the time to share this with teachers and give them the time and opportunity to become proficient in teaching bilingually in effective ways.

What prompted your collaboration with Peeter Mehisto?

We have worked for quite a long time on bilingual programs in different settings, such as Estonia, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam. I find my collaboration with Peeter exciting because it pushed me in new directions. Most of my scientific and professional work in bilingualism and bilingual education has focused on the ability of young pre-school children and school-age children to acquire more than one language. I have also been interested in second language or CLIL pedagogy and programme design. Peeter’s focus is unique and very important because he focuses on building bilingual programs in the broadest sense possible. He examines a host of issues that are critical for the creation of successful programmes but are usually ignored or neglected – issues like: how people’s decisions about programmes are shaped by their attitudes and beliefs or by legislative and other political and social forces, the importance of stakeholders outside the school itself, the long term consequences of policies and decisions, and so on. This perspective is giving me a new lens through which to see and understand bilingual education.

Why is this book important?

For the reasons I have mentioned above – it sensitizes stakeholders concerned with bilingual education in their community with the larger forces that shape the success of their efforts; it sensitizes them to the critical importance of creating mechanisms that will take advantage or counteract forces for and against bilingual education; and it alerts them the long-term dynamic nature of the efforts they need to take to ensure the success of their programme.

Bilingual Education Systems is edited and co-authored by Peeter Mehisto and Fred Genesee and also contains chapters by: Diane J. Tedick, Hugo Baetens Beardsmore, Jamie Leite, Raquel Cook, Yolanda Ruiz de Zarobe, Gwyn Lewis, Rick de Graaff, Onno van Wilgenburg, Fatima Badry, Antoinette Camilleri Grima, Anne-Marie de Mejía, Kathleen Heugh and Ministery Officials, Parents and Head Teachers.

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