Gift of Tongues

John Edwards

  • 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.

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