Gift of Tongues
- Many Voices: Bilingualism, Culture and Education by Jane Miller
Routledge, 212 pp, £10.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9331 4
- Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism by François Grosjean
Harvard, 370 pp, £14.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 674 53091 8
- On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives by Peter Trudgill
Blackwell, 240 pp, £15.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 631 13151 5
Bilingualism, multiculturalism, ethno-linguistic identity – they may not be words to conjure with, but much conjuring has nevertheless been done with them. Even the most casual observer can hardly be unaware of the interest in minority ethnic groups, their language and their education; and this has been paralleled by a concern for indigenous groups who speak the national language in a non-standard form. Where once the assimilative urge reigned supreme, we now see a growing tolerance of linguistic diversity and a respect for cultural pluralism. Where once, in Britain, Welsh and Scots Gaelic-speaking children were punished at school (and usually again at home) for using their mother tongue, we are now increasingly asked for bilingual education. Where once, in the United States, Spanish-speaking children were shunted into classes for the ‘educationally sub-normal’ we now observe a high-profile, affirmativeaction, politicised system of Federally-supported bilingualism. Furthermore, in these and other contexts, bilingualism at school is not only supported as a method of more expeditiously easing children into an English-speaking mainstream: it is also the hope of some that bilingual education will become a permanent fixture, characteristic of schooling for minority and majority alike, and a servant to the cause of a lastingly pluralistic society.
All of this, at least in its current historical incarnation, is really of quite recent provenance. A multicultural policy was made official in Canada in 1971, bilingual education got its enabling legislation in the United States in 1968 (about the same time as the ‘new ethnicity’ appeared on the scene), and in Britain and Australia debate over the position of minority languages and sociolinguistic diversity is even more recent. Two features may be noted here. The first is that public reaction towards these matters has been heated and occasionally vitriolic. This is not surprising since, after all, important societal changes would follow if a country decided to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, and many would see such a move as a threat to a longstanding national identity. Since the issues are often to be played out in the educational arena, children are involved, and this provides further emotional charging, for there is the worry that children may become pawns in the political game of diversity: ‘digits in the revival statistics’, as one observer of the Irish educational scene put it.
So diversity is an emotion-laden topic, usually centring upon education. Is it any wonder, then, that much of the argument is cast in ‘us-and-them’ terms? On the one hand, we find apologists for multiculturalism, linguistic pluralism and bilingual education who claim that these are the wave of the future, the desired counter to bureaucratic centralism and assimilation, and morally irrefutable. On the other, we see a violent repudiation of state-supported diversity, usually on the grounds that it represents a return to an archaic nationalism, that it continues to ‘ghettoise’ groups within society, and that it is socially fragmenting. As with most polemical issues, it is the middle ground which is both unexplored and worth exploring. The cultural pluralists are indeed overly strident – this sort of devotion always ends in disappointment. Yet the forces behind linguistic diversity are not all ignoble, including as they do a respect for minorities and a desire to see sustained world-views which could enrich us all. The critics of pluralism, whose violent rejections can also appear to have the character of an ideological imperative, are nonetheless correct to point to the difficulties of pluralism, to the lack of historical precedent, and to the curious tendency of minorities themselves to be more assimilationist than ‘spokesmen’ would have us believe.
Vol. 5 No. 13 · 21 July 1983
SIR: In his review of recent writers on bilingualism (LRB, 7 July) John Edwards rejects the argument, advanced by educators in this country, and most recently by Jane Miller, that ‘it is time to make use of language diversity.’ There is not much evidence in the review, however, that the specific intentions in this argument have been grasped by him. His comment on Miller’s proposal that ‘this accords to language matters a self-conscious and artificial attention which resembles not at all the almost organic course of language’ is misconceived: for it converts into a lockstep solution Miller’s much more flexible emphasis. In general, Edwards appears to approach a case developed in the British setting from a perspective which is too much influenced by North American debates about the melting-pot and a narrowly-formulated version of bilingual education. Miller’s book is misrepresented as a consequence.
Edwards begins his review by evoking, in the argument about diversity, rival polemicists and their rhetoric. The crucial questions, however, are relatively straightforward. Suppose that there is in an East London school a 13-year-old girl who speaks, in addition to English, three major languages from the Indian sub-continent. Suppose that she also speaks, reads and writes Arabic. Suppose that in addition to all this she also has some knowledge of an East African language, Swahili. What is it that we want our education system to be able to do for such a child? What is it that we want such a child to be able to contribute to our national culture? What is it that we want teachers, administrators and makers of policy to understand about her experience? Questions such as these, which are relevant not just to one but to thousands of children and adults in Britain, entail no single administrative formula. Even to ask them, however, implies a breadth of cultural concern which sees more in these matters than just a ‘problem’ or an issue which is only of relevance to minority groups.
In his personal preference for a middle ground between contentious arguments, Edwards returns repeatedly to ‘the curious tendency of minorities themselves to be more assimilationist than “spokesmen” would have us believe’. But this tendency is not so curious. Edwards’s observation ‘that the act of emigration itself shows a willingness to make shifts in life-style (including communicative language)’ misses the point that the culture of the host society is not merely mainstream or majority but dominant from the point of view of minorities. But this dominant culture is changed by the mere fact of the arrival of different communities. Thus the decline of what Edwards calls the ‘public markers’ of group identity does not settle the questions which need to be considered: for the culture is now diverse, not homogeneous. The concern of minorities to become fully a part of society is in no way negated by the attempt to gear the education system to the diversity of culture which it serves and promotes.
Two considerations, especially are emphasised by Miller. Firstly, there is a potential within bilingual communities which is both linguistic and cultural, and which surely might be considered as a national resource rather than an individual oddness bordering on deficiency. Secondly, behind the phenomenon of bilingualism there lies a significant and important experience – significant for the special shading given to universal questions of identity, cultural allegiance and cultural dividedness, and a site where major preoccupations in 20th-century literature have emerged.
Miller, unnoticed by Edwards, seeks especially to steer discussion in this second direction. She sketches parallels, therefore, between the choices made by bilingual writers in this century about the language in which they will write and those made by children at present negotiating cultural difference. She points to the common gaps between what can be spoken of in the language of home and among one’s own people and what outside; and to the cultural (not merely the linguistic) dimensions involved in taking over another’s language for one’s own purposes. Her argument makes its way on the fronts both of literature and education. But a central purpose is to alert us to a level of understanding which is often missed within the narrow ways in which issues about bilingualism are formulated. Schools, Miller suggests, need to take on not just the task of teaching English, nor even just the further task of making provision for the teaching of mother tongues. The experience of bilingualism needs to be engaged.
Again, Edwards limits the question of schooling, and attributes to Miller a much more narrowly political argument for the role of school than is actually put. Miller does not suggest that ‘real political and social advance can be obtained’ merely ‘through school programmes of language and culture’. There is little doubt, however, that there are many things which might be done in and through school which might help; and it is indeed possible to point to innovative practice already in being.
Edwards fears, among advocates of multicultural education, outside manipulation of the culture of minorities and interference with identity maintenance. It is a reasonable concern and one which it is right to retain. But it is one thing to manipulate and interfere, and another to seek to understand an experience which is now part of our culture and from which all can learn. The gaps and allegiances negotiated within the bilingual experience are only a more explicit form of a universal cultural dividedness and may, as Miller shows, illuminate questions of identity and language more widely. The issue is not the middle ground available between extreme positions but the ground to be shared within a culture and an education formulated on more adequate understandings.
Institute of Education, University of London, WC1
Vol. 5 No. 14 · 4 August 1983
SIR: I should like to make a brief response to Tony Burgess’s letter (Letters, 21 July) about my recent review. His own position is apparently pro-diversity and pro-minority, but to the extent to which he implies mine is not, he misleads the reader. A critical stance need not be a hostile one. He says that I reject the argument that ‘it is time to make use of language diversity.’ What I do reject, in fact, is the interventionist approach which ‘make use’ suggests. His example of a young girl competent in Indian languages, Arabic and Swahili indicates a resource to be encouraged at school, but apart from a highly desirable general tolerance, it is not clear that any active educational programme using these languages will benefit either this hypothetical student or the student population at large. (I am not referring, clearly, to language programmes intended to assist foreign speakers to gain competence in English.)
There is simply no evidence that school programmes of the type advocated can, when acting in isolation from other social trends, substantially bolster, maintain or propagate shrinking minority languages. Consider the situation of Asian-language newspapers in Britain. While there are about three dozen such publications, the familiar pattern still exists of minority-group children losing fluency in their mother tongue. Thus the future for these papers is not bright. Can schools reverse this sort of trend? What are the real social dynamics creating this situation? If we paid more attention to these, we would be less likely to engage in wishful thinking about schools sustaining a permanently pluralistic society.
It is entirely possible to agree that linguistic and cultural diversity is a valuable social commodity, while entertaining the gravest doubts about the role of education in propping up declining languages. Furthermore, I believe that it is dangerous for schools to be cast in this role because their chances of success are small and, more importantly, because their predictable failures may have a ripple effect which can harm private aspects of group identity. Of course, Burgess’s hopes that we may all learn from new cultural experiences are unexceptionable, but what do these hopes become in actual school programmes? I suggest that they often translate into exactly that attempted manipulation – well-meaning though it may be – of language and identity which Burgess himself rejects. It is interesting to note that calls for multi-lingual and multi-cultural programmes are usually made at times when minority communities are seen to be in some danger: but if the social forces which inexorably act upon all features of identity are causing erosion of original group boundaries, can educational efforts alone usefully oppose these? Indeed, should they try?
St Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia