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How engaged should the government be in preserving minority languages?

Should the state preserver minority languages? This is a question that ethical philosophers have been discussing a lot over the last twenty years. Those who are for government involvement focus on the communal aspects of identity and the role language plays in maintaining it. They argue that each sub-group’s language should be preserved, and even promoted. The argument from the other side focuses on the inhibitions to integration that a separate language presents. The issue is often raised among Latino parents upset that they sent their children to an American school and yet their children did not achieve full fluency in English. Such sentiments were some of several divergent opinions behind California Proposition 227 which banned bilingual education in the state, and was passed by a majority of voters in California in 1998 with strong support from several segments of the Latino population. Those who supported proposition 227 did so for various reasons, but the reasons mentioned by supporters in the Latino community were that the educational bureaucracy had so entrenched bilingualism that a student could graduate from high school having been instructed in Spanish all the way from kindergarten. Supporters of bilingual education felt this to be a good thing, detractors – both Hispanic and pro-English whites – thought it terrible. Those opposing bilingual education pointed out that a non-English speaker in 21st-century America was automatically disqualified from a large number of jobs, and especially the better paying ones. So with proposition 227 we have a concrete example of a state government becoming directly involved with the language. Clearly there are pros and cons on both sides.

It is questionable whether the government can somehow avoid any influence on the issue of language. It seems any policy, especially in education, will have will have an effect one way or the other. Research has shown that bilingual children achieve the best long-term educational outcomes when they have their initial reading instruction in the language in which they have the largest speaking vocabulary. Once they have mastered basic literacy in their primary language, it is then far easier for them to transfer the skill into a different language. Concretely then, a Spanish-speaking child should be instructed in reading first in Spanish, and once having mastered the basics of literacy can then be taught English as a second language. Outcomes are better than for children who struggle to master reading in a language which they can barely speak. So in that sense California Proposition 227 was actually detrimental to the education of non-native speakers, although in practice bilingual teachers in many classrooms have been allowed by school district policies to impart the basics of literacy in the student’s native language first. Other practical problems include the fact that if a non-English speaker studies in a classroom full of native English speakers, they will pick up English fairly quickly. But if a non-English speaker finds herself in a classroom full of other non-English speakers, she will all pick up English far more slowly. And if the class teacher is bilingual but a non-native English speaker and not a very good one, you can see how students could go from kindergarten through 12th grade and never managed to master English even though they were studying in California. [In case anybody is wondering how I know all of us, my wife is a bilingual teacher and reading specialist in California.]

Hispanics are not the only non-native English speaking minority with ESL problems in California. Similar issues exist in Armenian neighborhoods, as well as in neighborhoods with concentrations of people from various Asian countries, such as those with Chinese speakers, Cambodian and Thai speakers, and Vietnamese.

Beyond full languages is the question of dialects. Certain forms of English are not generally accepted among mainstream whites as “normal”. The city of Oakland in California became the subject of much ridicule when it attempted in 1996 to institutionalize a dialect of English (though they called it a full West African language) common among African-Americans, which is termed Ebonics. (You can read the school board’s resolution here: ). The Oakland school district wanted to treat Ebonics as a foreign language, and black students as non-English speakers. The only thing more interesting than the backlash was the fact that research, both in the United States and Europe, solidly supports treating dialects as foreign languages for the purposes of literacy instruction. Both England and Germany have strong traditions of regional dialects so distinctive that they are unintelligible between regions, as well as official versions – Queens English in England and “High German” in Germany – that were taught in schools and became the common language across regions. (I believe France also has a tradition of strong regional dialects; in Slavic countries the dialects became independent languages – Serbian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, etc. so that Russian does not have a tradition of dialects in the same way. I’m sure there are examples from other parts of the world as well.) What research supports then is treating Standard English as a non-native-language when instructing speakers of a dialect such as Ebonics.

But treating a dialect as a foreign language for the purposes of teaching Standard English is one thing. Instructing students in the dialect with no intention of introducing Standard English is another. And it was not Oakland’s recognition of Ebonics as a dialect that was controversial (that fact was already well established among linguists) it was Oakland’s intention not to even try to teach Standard English that attracted so much attention. Which gets back to the issue of public policy and minority languages. Should the state encourage or even imposed standard English on students in the public school system? The ideal behind such a proposal would be a mainstreaming of what are currently distinctive cultures so that over two or three generations the culture gradually disappears, much the way Irish, Sicilian, and Polish cultural heritages are today largely insignificant among those whose parents emigrated to the United States between the 1880s and the 1920s. Others see a terrible loss in cultural heritage that starts with language, and hope to preserve the uniqueness, and also the separateness, that comes with a strong non-mainstream language and cultural identity. Which option is preferable? I suppose it depends on the outcome you are seeking. If you want people to be equal culturally and socioeconomically then it helps to emphasize and reinforce similarities, including language. But if you want people to be free and distinctive, then you would find it important to preserve language as the basis of identity.

Mandating instruction in Standard English inevitably results in a gradual diminution of distinctive cultural identity, though the process usually takes a few generations. Whether this amounts to a suppression depends on the intention behind it, and whether it is desired or resisted by those subjected to it.

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