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.

These books make contributions to a reasoned understanding of linguistic diversity. While the authors clearly have their preferences, they are for the most part temperate in their expression, and give some attention to views they do not themselves endorse. And, while the contents differ quite widely from book to book, there are themes which invite comparison. Jane Miller’s book deals centrally with linguistic diversity in education, and the author attempts to show that this is a strength to be built upon rather than a problem to be solved. Although she implies a good reading knowledge of French, German and Russian, Miller states that she is not bilingual, not a linguist and not a second-language teacher. She is, in fact, a university lecturer in English who has also taught that subject to London schoolchildren. We have, thus, a well-informed teacher’s account of bilingualism at school, which is liberally fleshed-out with anecdotal material. Almost a third of the book is comprised of interviews with bilingual speakers (more, if one includes Miller’s comments and interpretations). Although such material can provide an immediacy usually lacking in discussions on the topic, I am surprised that a vigorous editing was not employed. This is especially so since Miller herself tells us that the conversations are ‘often anecdotal’, that her comments are ‘impressionistic’, and that it will be impossible to ‘generalise conclusively’ from them. While the telling anecdote, the personal revelation, can do much to inject life into academic treatment, it is at its best when it is terse and does lead to generalisation. After all, the potential for such information is infinite, and this requires careful selection: otherwise, we tend to approach the material as if it were Biblical quotation whereby anything can be proved, any point made.

Miller begins by overstating her case: ‘to be genuinely multilingual or multidialectal in contemporary Britain is allowed, then, to be a drawback.’ This is not the issue, even for her own book. The question, rather, is what if anything should be done with existing diversity within the school. Of course, as some of the students interviewed indicate, access to more than one language raises issues of cross-cultural and home-society contrast, of uncertainty and even dislocation. But it is clearly advantageous to be bilingual, and another matter entirely to deal effectively with situations of language choice and cross-cultural adaptation. Miller’s position, that multilingualism can be ‘an unqualified good’ and that ‘it is time to make use of language diversity’, appears unexceptionable when placed against the view that currently ‘the melting-pot image is the best we can do.’ However, this accords to language matters a self-conscious and artificial attention which is not at all compatible with the almost organic course of language. A great deal of rubbish has been written about the melting-pot, which has been represented as a conspiratorial attempt at forcible assimilation. For one thing, the melting-pot image has never completely represented ethnicity; for another, it simply reflects an adaptation of minority to mainstream which usually accords with the desires of immigrants themselves. Miller criticises a society ‘which behaves institutionally as though it were monolingual’, yet this is to criticise reality. The dynamics are simple enough: a host society – largely linguistically homogeneous – receives minority-group populations; the imbalance here is a natural one. From the point of view of non-English-speaking immigrants, the act of emigration itself shows a willingness to make shifts in life-style (including communicative language). This entails assimilation, but not necessarily at the cost of complete identity loss. There is a distinction to be made between ‘public’ and ‘private’ markers of group identity: the evidence shows that in societies like Britain, the United States and Australia the former tend to decline in the face of an increasingly desired move to the mainstream, while the latter (which are, incidentally, singularly resistant to outside manipulation, educational or otherwise) remain for precisely as long as they are needed or wanted.

Miller’s difficulty, shared with many others, is to overweight the value of communicative language retention in situations generally unfavourable to it. This may, indeed, lead to further difficulties for minority-group members, especially if the school is enlisted in the service of this process. Miller discounts an earlier writer’s (correct) view that we cannot rely on schools to maintain language and identity, and appears to endorse another’s proposal to assign schools a political role in promoting minority-group interests. The best that can be said for this proposal is that it is well-meaning but misguided; the worst is that it may actually damage minority groups by interfering with identity maintenance and development and by suggesting that real political and social advance can be obtained through school programmes of language and culture.

Grosjean’s book is much broader in conception and, as a general introduction to the whole area of bilingualism, contains useful information presented in a non-technical way. Like Miller, Grosjean employs testimony from bilinguals themselves, but here it is effectively incorporated into a more general discussion. He devotes half of his book to a consideration of bilingualism as a social phenomenon, and the other half to discussing individual aspects of second-language acquisition, development and use. In both sections, Grosjean gives a generally objective account. Referring to Canada after the 1759 conquest, he notes that the French Canadians were left to their cultural and linguistic fate. Another way of expressing this would be to say that the English made no official moves to assimilate the French forcibly. Which way of expressing the point best accords with behaviour and intention? Grosjean also refers to lack of French Canadian enthusiasm for the Official Languages Act of 1969, which confirmed English and French as ‘charter’ languages and which promised support for bilingualism. He notes that ‘bilingualism in a minority group is often synonymous with assimilation.’ What he no doubt intended to convey was that, in minority circumstances, bilingualism may often be only a way-station on the road to assimilation. Since, however, it is largely the French Canadian population which produced bilinguals anyway, one might have thought that the Act would have been welcomed by them as at least slightly encouraging their English counter-parts to meet them half-way. The interesting twist here is that bilingualism on the part of English Canadians could be seen by Francophones as an incursion into their ‘special’ status and, perhaps, their cultural heartland. On this same topic, Grosjean might more tellingly have mentioned French Canadian unease over the 1971 multiculturalism policy: here, the fear is of being relegated to the status of ‘other’ ethnic groups, of losing charter status.

Turning to the United States, he acknowledges that bilingualism there is almost always transitional. The power of English is formidable, although there has been a history of general tolerance towards immigrant-group identity and language. Grosjean cites a question asked by a previous writer: why was there such a rapid flight from original cultures in such a society? Why have minority languages ‘shrivelled in the air of freedom’? My comments on Miller’s book provide the answer here, I think. To refuse to adapt and to alter life-styles would be to make worthless the often harsh sacrifices entailed in uprooting and emigration. The American experience shows that, in the absence of coercion, minority groups exhibit a sensible awareness of necessary change. This alone makes the writings of many pluralists and ethnic ‘spokesmen’ seem condescending and patronising, for they imply that ordinary group members have been unable to sort themselves out, linguistically and otherwise, in the new society. Grosjean, like Miller, shows a poorly-considered sense of the power of bilingual education to alter strong social currents. Once again, the schools are to effect the preservation of identities, languages and cultures, and to resist the juggernaut of assimilation. In fairness, though, Grosjean does acknowledge that even the much-vaunted ‘immersion’ programmes (in which well-off and well-motivated majority-group pupils receive early education exclusively through a second language) do not seem to have the social results intended. It has been a source of great interest to me, over the last few years, to follow the large and convoluted literature on immersion education, in which statistical significance has reigned supreme over psychological and social significance: we now see (unsurprisingly, I should think) that for all their increased competence in the second language, students do not make much use of it (even when, as for English Canadians in Quebec, they have ample opportunity). Once again we see the power of society at large rendering educational innovation alone somewhat trivial.

The third book is by Trudgill, a British sociolinguist, and is largely composed of previously-published articles. It will be of less interest to the general reader simply because it is more technical than the other two. It is, however, an admirable collection which shows the value of disinterested linguistic observation. In particular, Trudgill discusses processes of language variation and shift, and how these relate to identity. Perhaps the most relevant chapter here has to do with language and identity among Albanians (Arvanites) in Greece, a rural population. Their strong non-Greek identity has been gradually eroded through increasing Greek cultural and nationalistic pressures. Thus Arvanitika (an Albanian dialect) is a dying speech, and both unofficial pressure and actual discrimination have hastened the demise. Current attitudes are unfavourable to Arvanitika within the group itself. However, Trudgill reports that most of his respondents (97 per cent) felt pride in their Arvanite tradition at the same time as they reported feeling themselves Greek. The link between language and ethnic identity – so often seen as essential – is not always strong, as Trudgill’s research shows. This in turn indicates that, although philosophically we may want to see minority languages preserved, social dynamics may act against this without necessarily destroying group identity. There are no signs of an Arvanite language revival at the moment, though there are many national precedents for one. Can we see, therefore, among these Albanians a pattern of adaptation to social forces which would make a purely linguistic preservation effort (particularly via the schools) ineffective and possibly ludicrous?

Other, related topics given excellent treatment by Trudgill include: dialectology and English rural dialects; differences between men’s and women’s speech (the latter is more conservative and more likely to contain prestigious forms); the ‘covert prestige’ attaching to non-standard English (it is seen to have connotations of masculinity and ‘toughness’ attractive to males and, indeed, to younger females); attitudes towards nonstandard dialects in Britain (many hold prejudicial views of non-standard speech, which lacks prestige and status, although a completely valid linguistic system); the ‘correctness’ and aesthetic quality of dialects (it is only the social connotations of speech which produce judgments of aesthetic pleasingness – these qualities are not inherent in dialects).