Saturday, May 20, 2006

On the Language Debate

Language is another one of those issues that won’t go away. As someone with an advanced degree in Applied Linguistics, I am always angered by the sheer stupidity and ignorance displayed by policy makers in this area.

Like so many other issues, why do politicians think they are qualified to make any decisions at all? They don’t know anything about sociolinguistics, bilingual education, immersion education or first and second language acquisition theories. They don’t know anything about historical linguistics or the ways in which languages develop. The overwhelming majority of our lawmakers cannot speak or understand a second language. Perhaps that is why they are afraid of people who can.

Everyone who lives in The America should speak English – this I agree with in theory, but only because it is to the advantage of the individual. But if an individual chooses not to learn or speak English, that is his right. If immigrants do not ensure that their children speak English, that may be stupid and shortsighted, but it is also their right. Millions of Americans exercise their right to be stupid and shortsighted every day, after all.

Children of immigrants that speak a language other than English are an incredible educational and future economic resource for The America. I watched this Fox News video this morning, in which Michelle Dallacroce, founder of Mothers Against Illegal Aliens, demonstrates the collective stupidity of our country. Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, had just remarked that we need to have a way for people to enter the country legally because 2 million new jobs per year are being created. Ms Dallacroce’s comment to that was, “What jobs do the women and the children do that we have to have them here other than their children's job is to dumb down the American children and overpopulate our schools?”

I am not sure if her remark means that Ms Dallacroce would be happy to have foreign guest workers in The America as long as they left their families at home, or that she wants to clean the toilets at Burger King herself. Yes, we have terrible problems in public education, but they can hardly be blamed on the children themselves.

I am a proponent of bilingual education. Before you argue with me about how it doesn’t work, let me make it clear that I am not talking about the feeble attempts at bilingual education that have been made in the public schools. I am talking about real immersion bilingual programmes taught by teachers who are actually bilingual themselves and properly trained to do the job right (i.e. MA or other qualification in bilingual education). This would not include teachers who have an elementary teaching credential and happen to speak another language – that has been tried and it does not work.

In my model, you have a classroom with (i) a properly trained teacher and (ii) children who are, in roughly equal numbers, native speakers of the two languages that are being used in the classroom. By the time they finish their primary education, all of the children will be equally skilled in both languages in speaking, listening, reading and writing. It has been done in private schools and it works. For this model, by the way, we need children of immigrants and we need not only tolerance, but also support, for the use of languages other than English.

The world does not end at the borders of The America. The America needs commerce with other countries. The America needs people who speak Spanish, Chinese and Russian. According to The Independent, there are 336 languages currently in use in The America. I think we need to make greater use of some of them.


Ludovic said...

Hear hear to that MM, but could I just add, as someone with advanced degrees in this area, that quite frankly legislate as much as you want people will speak the language(s) that are moist useful to them for both instrumental purposes and for identity purposes. Moreover, before we get passionate about the linguistic rights of migrants in the America, or at least at the same time as we do, can we spare a thought for the languages of the first inhabitants of the Americas. A native American language dies every year. So (try to) stop Spanish speakers in Texas and California and New York from speaking their mother tongue, there are millions more elsewhere, but when the last speaker of Eyak, Marie Smith dies, the language will die with her. She is not alone in facing a silence, a loss of culture and identity. THere are about 30 American languages with under 10 speakers left, and another 40 or so with under a hundred.

apols for preaching to the converted!

Monkey's Max said...

Thanks so much for adding those points, Ludo.

I had been considering your first point, that legislation won't make people stop speaking their own languages, but then it didn't make it into my post. I had been thinking of the Czech example, with which you are familiar. The Hapsburgs ruled here for 100s of years and made everything officially German, but the Czechs still spoke Czech.

Tits Malone said...


I agree with you 100% in terms of promoting multi-lingual education.

However, I do have reservations.

I think it will be a waste of everyone's time if the program isn't taken seriously. I went through 10 years of public school French and I am not fluent - which sucks and was a waste of my mother's tax dollars...

How does Holland do it? The Dutch are the most multi-lingual people I know...and they still manage to speak Dutch.

Monkey's Max said...

TM, like I said in my post, it's about doing it properly. A lot of private schools in the US manage bilingual immersion, as well as public magnet schools - those programmes are populated by children whose parents understand the need for their kids to speak more than one language.

It's not just the Dutch, it's the Scandinavians and other Europeans. The Czechs will get there too. They all have a need to communicate with people who don't speak their languages for business and international relations. Americans, Brits and Canadians generally just assume that everyone else will learn English and therefore we don't have a need. I won't deny that that is true to an extent, but it won't always be so.

Back to your question, the Dutch et al teach and learn languages well because they understand that speaking foreign languages is an essential skill that everyone needs for work, travel, etc.

Ludovic said...

I think one of the things that is surprising about those Northern Europeans is that despite being the majority culture/language speakers they recognised a utility in acquiring a second language. I think that a lot of English speakers really believe that only one language i.e., theirs is truly necessary ... because everyone else is learning/should learn it.

Monkey's Max said...

Yes, Ludo, but the thing about those Northern European types is that while they are the majority speakers in their own cultures, they recognise that they are minority speakers in the wider world.

No matter what happens economically with China, India or whomever, English speakers will never really be a minority language group in the world because there are so many of us all over the place. (Unless something very unexpected happens somewhere down the line.)