The Acquisition of English as a Second Language by Young Tokelau Children Living in New Zealand
Young Tokelau children living in New Zealand are members of one of the smallest linguistic minorities in the country. Many speak the Tokelau language at home, and so their first sustained contact with the English language comes when they enter the school system at the age of five. The research reported in this study was designed to investigate two questions associated with the language education of these children during their first two years at school: (a) is it desirable to discourage continued use of the Tokelau language, and (b) how should the schools approach the task of teaching the children English? The English language skills, both formal and functional, of Tokelau children aged five and seven were investigated. Tests were constructed to assess control of English vocabulary and structure and ability to communicate in English with peers and with teachers. Two groups of native speakers of English, each the same age as the Tokelau groups, were also tested. The results indicate that the English language skills of the Tokelau children are not as well developed as those of native speakers of the same age, both when they enter school and after two years of consistent contact with English. The relevance of questions concerning their language education is thus established. Correlations between ratings of Tokelau language skills and scores obtained on the measures of English language skills indicate that, in general, the continued use of the Tokelau language has little effect on the acquisition of English as a second language. The data, however, suggests that there is some relation between the ability to speak Tokelau and both the acquisition of English vocabulary and the efficiency of communication between five year old inter-ethnic pairs in which Tokelauans are the speakers and native-speakers of English are the listeners. These results are considered within the framework of the diglossic relations that exist between English and Tokelau in New Zealand. A detailed examination of the scores obtained on the English language measures by both Tokelau speakers and native speakers of English indicates that the sequence and process of second language acquisition is substantially the same as that of first language acquisition. There is little evidence of transference by the Tokelau speakers from their knowledge of their native languages to the task of understanding English. This is seen as tentative support for the experiential approach currently followed in New Zealand infant rooms. There is however some indication that early help with English vocabulary may be useful. The significance of these results is considered in the light of information derived from three studies that were complementary to the main research. These studies covered such areas as the relation between home language use and the development of second language skills, factors contributing to communicative success, and the implications of the research for language testing. Some recommendations for the language education of young Tokelau children are offered.