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Bilingualism: double language, double standard

Bilingualism is widely recognised as a valuable asset ... so why are the skills of bilingual speakers of non-European languages ignored in Western education?

The list of the benefits of childhood bilingualism that is posted on the National Literary Trust website includes meta-linguistic awareness, increased cognitive flexibility, and social sensitivity. It also mentions research from Goldsmith’s, which shows that multilingual children can outperform monolingual children in secondary school. Behavioural psychologist Dean Keith Simonton adds: “Research has shown that intensive exposure to two or more different languages helps build the cognitive basis for creativity. ” I can’t really vouch for any of these qualities affecting me (especially the bit about outperforming monolingual children academically!), but speaking another language enables me to communicate with my non-English speaking family (so it’s pretty essential… although when the family nags, complete ignorance of what they are saying might admittedly be useful), and it is also the medium through with I can assert a link with my second culture.

Knowing how precious my language is to me (and how my schools always applauded and encouraged my language acquisition), I was horrified when Sonia, a Chinese-American friend, described her first year at primary school; as a fluent Cantonese speaker, she would sometimes mix Cantonese with English, including when speaking to her teachers. In response, her teachers told her parents to stop speaking Cantonese to her, which they did. As a result, her level of fluency dropped and as an adult, when she moved to Hong Kong for postgraduate study,  she was faced with the task of recovering a language that she shouldn’t have lost in the first place. The saddest thing in this story is that language mixing in bilingual children is actually very common and very normal; as the National Literary Trust explains, “children will not get confused by learning more than one language in the household; up until about the age of 10 or 12, children learn foreign languages almost as if they were one big language.” When a bilingual child speaks, they will therefore use the first word that springs to mind regardless of which language it is from. They will grow out of this – that is, if an adult doesn’t screw it up for them – with both languages intact and fluent. Remembering her story, I wonder if it wasn’t just ignorance that had made her teachers react in that way; I can’t help but think that if she’d been ‘confusing’ English with a European language, she would have been met with more patience. Perhaps she would even have been applauded for having a rare and valued linguistic talent.

Stories of other Asian friends in England and Australia with similar experiences – in which their other language was either repressed or ignored within formal education – have lead me to ask if this is not a wide-spread trend, in which a European language trumps a Non-European one. Muriel Saville-Troike, in her book Introducing Second Language Acquisition, agrees: “Maintenance of indigenous and immigrant languages other than English is not widely encouraged (in the US) and is often actively discouraged.  Indeed, pride in ethnicity along with associated language use can be seen as very threatening to the dominant group, and as a symbol of disunity and separatism.” Liberals like to cheerfully remark that, despite our train-wreck economy, and our PM who sold reserves of gold when the market slumped (perhaps the hint should have been in the name: he’s a reverse Midas – everything he touches turns to Brown), multiculturalism is definitely one thing that Britain does well. So perhaps, Saville-Troike’s comment doesn‘t apply to us…. Sorry kids. No such luck.

When I asked an Indian friend of mine whether his Punjabi skills were ever valued in school, his response was: “Why should they be?” It’s a response that says it all. On further questioning, he admitted that perhaps this was because Punjabi is considered “more primitive” (despite being the product of one of the most ancient civilisations in the world), in contrast to (for example) French, which brings to mind high fashion, depressed poetry, and cups of artistic and/or existentialist coffee. Modern Foreign Languages secondary school teacher I spoke to agreed, although she was also keen to point out that GCSEs in native languages are available at special request (that is, GCSE as a foreign language, resulting in the ludicrous situation of, say, a fluent speaker of Guajarati taking an exam in beginner’s Guajarati).

One argument for their difference in status may be that French is widespread around the world (and therefore more useful), but so are many Asian languages (Sonia’s ‘useless’ Cantonese is spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China, and Chinese is the most spoken language in the world). Besides, you can’t look into a crystal ball and say: “During the course of this child’s entire life, we know for absolute certain that he/she is never going here, here, and there, so he/she doesn’t need to learn that language.” You never know when a language will be useful, or where someone will end up in the future. Furthermore, in terms of brain development, it doesn’t matter which language the child speaks in order to derive a benefit, yet the opportunities (or should I say lack of opportunities) available to speakers of non-European languages in British education doesn’t seem to reflect that.

English Linguist Kit Fields, in her book Issues in Modern Foreign Languages, laments: “Why is it that a child bringing into school a particular skill in music or drama or sport will have that skill nurtured or encouraged, but that a child whose skill lies in being able to speak Turkish or Chinese or Bengali, as well as English, is likely within our education system to have that skill ignored? Why is such a skill not seen as important for the cognitive and emotional development of that child and as a resource which can promote the language and cultural awareness of all pupils? Why do we not value an outstanding performance in a Gujarati examination as highly as a mediocre one in French?” I hate to be the one to say it Kit, but that sounds like a type of intellectual racism to me.

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