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Pakistan ruined by language myth
July 1, 2012 3:08 AM   Subscribe


 
From what I recall from psych studies children are fully able to be raised bilingually and that such bilingual education tends to give an advantage. Am I recalling incorrectly? Are there contrary studies? Am I misreading this article?
posted by Knigel at 3:22 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Took a quick glance at Wikipedia:

Old misconceptions

Early research suggested that learning two languages in childhood was detrimental to a child's cognitive abilities.[1] This was due to the idea that the two languages were learned independently and the knowledge of learning one did not transfer into the other. It was thought that as more was learned in one language, less could be learned in the other. This gives the idea of there being a total amount of language acquisition, and so the pieces learned in each language together have to add up to this total. For this reason parents and teachers tried to force children to only learn one language instead of cultivating the ability to learn both.

The consensus among linguists, as well as the general public today, however, is leaning towards the opposite; the idea that knowledge in the two languages would be kept separate instead of influencing each other is rejected as irrational by many. For example, a child who has learned the concept of adding and subtracting in one language would not need to re-learn the concept in another language. By that same token, a child who has learned to recognize that spoken language can be broken up into words, which can be represented in writing in one language is not going to need to be re-taught the idea of writing representing spoken language.
posted by Knigel at 3:25 AM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think you're misreading this article. But what you're saying about bilingualism it is indeed true. But in order to have to achieve bilingualism in a monolingual context, you need a lot of money and resources.
posted by - at 3:27 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I suspect that this language myth is common in many developing nations. I know a few English teachers in foreign countries whose students seem to think that learning English is a golden ticket to prosperity.

Knigel, I think that you are reading the article incorrectly. The author states that, except for in cases where the child is already bilingual, teaching them primarily or exclusively in a foreign language is detrimental. Which makes sense. If you are trying to learn a new subject while also trying to learn the language it's being taught to you in, learning is going to be a lot more effort.
posted by KGMoney at 3:28 AM on July 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Ah, I see where I went wrong. Apparently although English is my first language I still can't read.

Actually, the same type of situation was being introduced a while back here in South Korea. The government was trying to introduce a policy that would make many subjects, such as science and math, taught solely in English instead of Korean. I'm not sure, however, where it stands right now (English language policies and proposals change so quickly around here they tend to be hard to follow). Yet I do know that there was quite a backlash against the implementation.
posted by Knigel at 3:43 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of some of the discussions I've heard about Spanish-language education in California. Whatever Pakistan decides to do, I do hope they get their English (or other foreign) language education started before the kids are too old to become fluent. The way foreign languages are taught in US public schools, starting around age 13, is idiotic.
posted by otherthings_ at 3:50 AM on July 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


For an example of a country that seems to do language education right, see the Netherlands. Almost nobody outside of the country speaks Dutch, but most Dutch adults I've met speak at least two other languages, sometimes three, quite well. (I lived there briefly at age 7, and was taught Dutch in public school while my classmates studied English.)
posted by otherthings_ at 3:57 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's Pakistani for Jams O'Donnell?
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:13 AM on July 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Knigel's Wikipedia link to the cognitive advantages of bilingualism is spot on.

There are many other benefits that have been shown, small and large, social and cognitive. One of my favorite examples is regarding the Stroop test. The basic stroop test asks subjects to read aloud color terms: purple, red, black, green, etc. The distractor is that the words are shown in colors that don't match the word, e.g., 'red' is written in blue, etc. Bilinguals tend to be statistically better at this than monolinguals. This is because in their language acquisition bilinguals have learned and practiced categorizing linguistic forms into two different linguistic systems and can more easily suppress distracting information (such as recognizing that a sentence is in one language or another and locating the specific grammar rules they need, or effectively code-switching, or normalizing speech in general).

Another similar myth that persists in intra-linguistically is the idea that text-speak or other forms of online communication and internet slang are ruining English. It used to be thought that speakers, especially young speakers, would get confused and the English language would be reduced to stupidity or otherwised bastardized as a result, e.g., 'nite', 'CU L8R', etc. becoming standard forms. However, many, many studies have shown that exposure to and use of many genres and styles of linguistic communication actually increases linguistic competence and that users who employ these features are capable of style-shifting in ways that people not exposed to these features can't. It also encourages linguistic creativity and expands the lexicon and linguistic repertoire (vocabulary and pragmatic understanding) of a speaker's language use, giving them more resources for identity creation or linguistic expression. The 'typos' seen in, say, academic papers can often be attributed to stylistic use or incorrect acquisition no greater than for other forms/rules, and NOT a sign of confusion or idiocy or decline.

As for the article...this gets into a phenomenally huge problem of language policy and hegemonic language standardization that plays out in ALL languages in some form or another. It's simply not easy to decide to promote bilingualism, in classrooms or elsewhere. It can epically fail (ex. the Ebonics debates) or thrive, under the right conditions (ex., Welsh, Irish-Gaelic). It's not my area of expertise at all, so I don't have much more to add here, other than to say it's ridiculously not easy to implement, or to even agree to implement.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:49 AM on July 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


Yes, if the children were natively bilingual in a regional language and in English, then that would be one thing. And that one thing wouldn't be this. But as they're not natively anglophones — they haven't learned English at home as they've acquired language — then learning English and other subjects exclusively in English is a good way to make it much more difficult for the children to learn those other subjects. It does help their English learning.

The deeper problem, though, and what this writer is arguing, is that the affluent have two advantages in this system over the poor. First, they have access to English instruction earlier, that instruction is better, and they have other additional educational resources available to help them with the difficulties they will have in learning other subjects in English. Second, they have an inherent socioeconomic advantage anyway which will generally more than compensate for the additional educational burden. In other words, such an arrangement intensifies and reinforces the socioeconomic disparity. So it's ironic that the poor believe that this system is the door to economic opportunity when it's only the acquisition of English which is the opportunity, while the method of it being taught is actually harmful to opportunity in other respects.

A point of comparison might be French-immersion schools in Canada for young primary anglophone students. I don't think we should dispute the efficacy of immersion for non-natively acquiring a second language. But it comes at the cost of all other areas of education.

And, of course, this is true in the US with schools that don't offer bilingual early education to non-anglophone children.

The reasons for this are different in all three cases. But they all amount to an ideologically motivated cultural imposition that is in each case justified on suspect educational grounds. The Canadian example is an inversion of the US example (and one I happen to approve of) but it's still an ideological enterprise. So is forcing young non-anglophone children to learn in English, and so is forcing young deaf signers to learn in English.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:54 AM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a Canadian, I have two national languages. Most of us have French classes from grade school up until the second year of highschool. And with the exception of native French speakers, I know almost no one who is fluent or even marginally competent in French. French instruction is a joke and it seems to stall at the same level for 6 or 7 years.

I attended a French immersion school until I was in grade six. When I switched over, I was amazed by how easy everything was. Not just French class, which was at about a kindergarten level, but everything. I'm not sure if the material was less challenging or if it was just that learning in my language was less difficult, but I basically never tried in school again until college (although i was a HS dropout... but that's another story),- and even college, the effort was a lot more about forcing myself to do the work and to show up, rather than truly being challenged (in most classes). It was way too easy to learn in my native tongue. There wasn't enough of a challenge.

Guess what? I barely speak french. The only difference between me and my anglo peers is that I have a better accent, and that I can pick it up again easier. I couldn't get a bilingual job if I tried.

The point? Even in an officially "bilingual" country, making bilingualism happen for you population in a significant way can be pretty difficult to achieve. But I think it has some great benefits for the kids, by forcing them to become more adept learners. Kids' minds are designed to learn. Most of them can handle the extra difficulty.
posted by windykites at 5:32 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I attended a French immersion school until I was in grade six."

My Canadian ex-wife went to a French immersion school from, I think, grades two or three through six. She never said anything about difficulty with the other subjects and generally she was glad of it — it pretty much strongly matched her lefty politics (she came of age during the Meech Lake Accord era). And she continued French lessons from various sources through her childhood.

However, while, unlike you (according to what you wrote) she was fluent in French, she didn't have the level of fluency that I would have expected — that's not my direct judgment, as I have no competency, I learned this second-hand. So it may be that even immersion isn't as successful as some might expect it to be; although I think it probably serves some of the political purposes for which it was intended. What do you think from your experience?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:21 AM on July 1, 2012


This reminds me of some of the discussions I've heard about Spanish-language education in California. Whatever Pakistan decides to do, I do hope they get their English (or other foreign) language education started before the kids are too old to become fluent. The way foreign languages are taught in US public schools, starting around age 13, is idiotic.

I don't think the foreign language studies in high schools is meant to give anyone any modicum of fluency, any more than chemistry is meant to train chemists. They are just subjects to study.
posted by gjc at 8:12 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The way foreign languages are taught in US public schools, starting around age 13, is idiotic.

You assume the purpose of foreign language class in public school is to learn the language.

If you imagine the uproar were we to teach kindergarteners Spanish (say), you can see that is far from the case.
posted by DU at 8:19 AM on July 1, 2012


So it may be that even immersion isn't as successful as some might expect it to be...

So I can relate my experience with french immersion. I was in french imersion for about 6 years, and after that continued with basic french education. I lived in Toronto.

French immersion is awesome, and I would fight tooth and nail to get my kids into it. The french instruction I received afterwards was fairly useless. I never felt I had any problems being taught in a language that wasn't my mother tongue, and I'm not surprised by studies which demonstrate the various benefits of bilinguilism.

After french immersion, I never spoke french again for about 15 years, and it decayed to a point where I could barely put a sentence together. However, now living in Europe, I spent I couple of months in Geneva, and it came back very quickly to the point where I can hang out with people in French again. Also, I was able to learn German to a 'hang out' level in about a year and a half, which no doubt was helped by my second language experience.

Language education cannot replace immersion in a real community of speakers. Full stop. I don't know why people are surprised by this, and I also don't know why people assume the only reason to learn a language is fluency.

I found the article conflated a lot of things.
posted by Alex404 at 8:41 AM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I found the article conflated a lot of things.

Yes indeed, and the Canadian example is telling. What is the difference between Canadian French immersion and the old residential schools where First Nations kids were sent to learn English? One case is about cultural hegemony and the other is about cultural understanding. English and class are so intricately tied together in Pakistan and there is an inherent tension between the socio-economic benefits and the hegemonic forces behind the language. Any discussion about second-language impact on quality of education is a red herring, IMO.
posted by simra at 9:45 AM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I suspect that this language myth is common in many developing nations. I know a few English teachers in foreign countries whose students seem to think that learning English is a golden ticket to prosperity.

For most countries I can think of it's only a myth in that learning English won't guarantee riches. It is absolutely a prerequisite though -- as the article goes to such pains to point out it is the language spoken by the wealthy; If you want to do business with them you'd better speak it as well.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:38 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a serious problem in India, as well. I recently attended a conference for public school teachers in New Delhi that basically devolved into a day-long discussion of why English-language instruction is harming their students.

The general opinion went as follows: when the natal family does not speak English, and the language environment at school is mostly non-English (because most of the instructors are more comfortable in non-English languages -- in this case mostly Hindi), the students' education should not be characterized as "English medium" but as a detrimental hodgepodge that cripples the larger effort on which their education should be focused: sustained engagement with the subject matter.

"Critical thinking" was not a buzzword amongst the teachers at the conference. (In fact, I don't think the phrase was mentioned once.) However, they WERE all very concerned about the Indian educational system's emphasis on memorization and rote learning. They felt largely helpless, though, to oppose this, because they want their students to succeed, and success in the educational system as it stands is a product of very high marks on exams, which in turn requires skill at memorizing massive amounts of data.

Anyway, they largely agreed that in the English-medium classroom, students ended up grappling not with ideas but with the language itself, which worked against their marks. So English was often abandoned for Hindi, with English becoming the focus only in regard to memorizing and mastering the requisite amount to pass the specifically English-oriented exams in high style.

The outcome: while acknowledging that English ability is a crucial (perhaps THE crucial) marker of class status, a good majority of teachers nevertheless ultimately advocated instruction in Hindi throughout the child's youth, until s/he had a solid grounding in elementary skills and knowledge; and then introducing English in the sixth or seventh standard. The minority who opposed this quite vociferously argued that this was basically condemning kids who already had several marks against them (coming from non-English speaking families) to lesser job prospects, etc.

My very simplistic, not-at-all-groundbreaking takeaway: debating English-language instruction in the subcontinent is so fraught because you're never simply debating language skills. You're debating whether or not a child will have the opportunity to advance into the middle and upper-middle classes. The problem, as these teachers bemoaned repeatedly, is that saying, "Yes, you should have the chance to do better than your parents did," is nearly impossible to put into practice, because English-language instruction is both the key to advancement, and also, increasingly, the trap that stalls a student's education in general.
posted by artemisia at 10:44 AM on July 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


I sense an argment in the article that wasn't clearly defined. Let me give a poor example of what I think I saw there:

Please excuse my simplifications for the following argument, a loose analogy.

Beginning with early days of colonization, French was taught to a certain portion of the Vietnamese as a matter of course. This portion of the population also recieved, in various degrees, a classical French education. They became successful writers, scholars, land owners, and politicians. Most of these Vietnamese converted, or were born into Christian families--usually Catholic. An enclave, mostly around Saigon, of these people were very influencial with the governing French colonialists. Their (Vietnamese) version of Vietnam was different from the the majority of the population.

From the late 1700s, a social schism between the (generally urban) French-educated Vietnamese and the rest of the population began to grow. Compiled with other factors, this schism was a major factor in Vietnam in the 20th Century. I would argue that, at the very least, it generated a great deal of internal turmoil (but I don't go so far as to argue that it caused the wars between the Vietnamese and the French and Americans).

I can see some of these dynamics at play in this essay. English as a gate to prosperity, for example, and a presumed concomitant denigration of traditional ways for another. The dynamic is complex. Some think this inducement to become Western is a positive thing, while some may fear this might destroy them. Either way, we are foreign to them. My argument is not that teaching English will westernize the Pakistanis, but that they percieve that it will.

Arguments about the science and psuedo-science of multilingualism is in this case a grasping for details to explain apprehensions that reside more in social structures than failures of the tongue.
posted by mule98J at 10:45 AM on July 1, 2012 [4 favorites]




i have had two different experiences with immersion; first, on and off as a little kid I lived in various Spanish-speaking countries and was able to speak Spanish well enough to get along. I attended Spanish-language kindergarten in Chile. After my family stopped spending as much time in Latin America, I totally forgot how to speak Spanish, or so I thought.

My in laws are Cuban, and they slip between languages without realizing it. I notice it and definitely lose some of the nuances when they do this, but there's enough in my head that I can actually more or less get what's being said.

The other immersion experience I had was as teenager, attending a French immersion lycee in Lausanne. I must admit that I was a terrible and unmotivated student, but I acheived written and spoken fluency in about six months, realizing with a shock that I was thinking in French rather than formulating in English and translating before speaking.

I rarely use my French anymore and it takes a few cranks of the mental starter handle to get out of the internal-translation mode. But both languages are seated and my intutition is that shold I ever find myself living in either a Francophone or Spanish-speaking area again I would not have a hard time.

One odd note about the French immersion was that when we were being taught the basics of grammar and verb tense, I had little difficulty learning the vocabulary but would inevitably use Spanish verb conjugation and word order choice at first, with absolutely no conscious command of either technique.

I think the nativist viewpoint, that institutional education in a locality's language is necessary to provide the elemental tools for local economic and ethnic identity, is an accurate analysis. I also think that immersive linguistic education is the best way to acheive fluency in a language and that this viewpoint does not contradict the nativist argument whatsoever.
posted by mwhybark at 11:12 AM on July 1, 2012



My wife took french immersion 25 years ago and can still speak it a bit even though she almost never uses it. I took standard french instruction from Grades 6-10 and I can't find my way to the biblioteque when le soliel is shining on it like a spotlight ( lack of french is a lot of fun when you are patrilinealy french-Canadian).

French immersion is also quite successful and popular where it is useful and is a gateway to prosperity. Namely in Ottawa where it opens the door to Federal Government employment. French instruction is pretty poor and fairly useless out West and even in the rest of Ontario where most of the students realize it doesn't even have the utility of Latin which at least lets you understand a lot of scientific naming.
posted by srboisvert at 11:14 AM on July 1, 2012


This is a really complicated issue. As an Indian, I think there are major issues with the way languages are taught in South Asian in general. I was one of those elite South Asians who was spoken to only in English in order to prevent any delays in linguistic acquisition, so my Tamil and Hindi lag far behind my English, despite 8 years of Tamil instruction in school and 10 years of Hindi. The thing that I found to be common to the way all these languages were taught in India was that it seemed to be an implicit assumption that you already knew how to speak the language, and just needed to read literature and practice reading and writing in the language.

This is fine if you do actually speak English or Hindi or Tamil at home, but if you didn't then it was really tough to actually learn the language. We never learnt any formal grammar, with the assumption that just reading and writing in the language would be enough to understand -- learning through exposure. This makes sense in some contexts, but if you lose a year of Tamil or Hindi (as I did) it made it very difficult to catch up. I can only imagine what it would be like for the student who didn't speak English at home and had to contend not only with this stupid form of language instruction and other classes in a foreign language as well.

It's so difficult to understand how learning a language completely from scratch is different from learning it when you already know a bit of it from general exposure. I've been trying to learn Russian lately, because of my Russian-speaking boyfriend. He in turn has been studying Hindi and Tamil. I've been finding Russian quite tough, mainly because of the six cases. And then he tells me that I needn't complain too loudly, since Tamil has eight (!!!) cases. And all my life I've been navigating them effortlessly, without even thinking about it!
posted by peacheater at 11:38 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was always led to believe that it was / is easier to learn a foreign language as an elder ie adult person if you had a lover whose first language was that which you were trying to learn.
It´s kind of immersion on a different level. And yes it works.
Where I live in Mallorca there are several foreign schools which also have many local ie Spanish first language speaking pupils. The language in the playground of the English schools among all the kids is inevitably Spanglish.
Then there is the problem of Catalan which the local government has determined that everyone who works in a public capacity must speak proficiently, but as they are cutting the health and education budgets they can´t afford professionals from the peninsular so it doesn´t matter.
posted by adamvasco at 11:46 AM on July 1, 2012


Sorry, Ivan Fyodorovich, i think I need to clarify. I was passibly fluent in Quebecois French while I was in French immersion; I've lost my fluency through disuse.

I think fluency is pretty subjective. Could I have spoken easily in French only with schoolmates and teachers? Yes. With Quebecois? Yes, but less so. With someone from france? Not really.

It depends what you're exposed to at home as well.

As for achieving the political purpose, it depends what you believe that is. To enable effectve communication between French and English speakers? Yes-ish. To allow Anglos to work in employment that requires French contact? Yes. To pay lip-service (heh heh heh) to the notion that Canada is strongly bilingual? Indubitably.

I'd love to hear the thoughts of a Quebecois on this. Most Quebecois I've met have better English than our French. Of course, I met them in English provinces, so who knows what it's like there.
posted by windykites at 2:18 PM on July 1, 2012


You assume the purpose of foreign language class in public school is to learn the language.

DU, what do you see as the purpose of foreign language class in public school, if not learning the language?

Not trying to be fighty, just curious.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 3:02 PM on July 1, 2012


Learning another language in a structured pedagogical setting has a utility besides the possibility of a student becoming functional in that language, even for people who are multilingual natively or from more informal exposure. This is because formal language instruction provides students with implicit insights into language in general and into their native language(s) in particular.

Much of this could be accomplished more directly via linguistics instruction, but that's unlikely to happen at the scale (or at all) at which language instruction is done in secondary schools.

I suspect that DU has other reasons in mind, and perhaps he's cynical about them. But I think what I've mentioned is justification enough.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:17 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


People believe that English is the magic wand that can open the door to prosperity.

That's what the boarding schools promised. Oh wait, they're talking about the Upstairs/Downstairs kind of prosperity. North Koreans working for Chinese wages. US electronics companies moving manufacture back to the US to beat Chinese wages. That kind of prosperity.
posted by Twang at 4:20 PM on July 1, 2012


peacheater, excellent and illuminating comment. Which brought something into focus regarding the Eurocentric immersion commentary above: English and Hindi or Tamil is a different kettle of fish from English and French, German, or Spanish. There's a basic requirement for alphabetic and grammarian education that is more challenging, because the languages are more distinct from one another.

So while we may be critical of the pedagogic bias of the article's criticism of the emphasis on English immersion based on our assumption that the local-area languages are offerred in sufficent formal depth to provide mastery to the students, peacheater points out that may not be the case, and that there is thefore a decent basis to request greater use of educational resources for the local-area language.
posted by mwhybark at 4:30 PM on July 1, 2012


French immersion is awesome

QFT. My kids go to a French school and are amazingly bilingual. I'm almost bilingual, thanks to elementary school French classes and lots of help from my wife.

But I've met quite a few kids over the last 10 years who were the product of French immersion schooling here in Alberta, and they speak French VERY well. This is a huge improvement over what we got in school 40+ years ago...

windykites: Most Quebecois I've met have better English than our French.

I'd change that to "many". I've met plenty of completely bilingual people in Montreal and Quebec City. Outside of those two cities, not so much. I was kind of surprised to find out that lots of people have only rudimentary English skills. But as someone pointed out above, social factors are a big part of how language-learning is prioritized within a community.
posted by sneebler at 5:31 PM on July 1, 2012


Both gjc and DU have suggested that there are other reasons for teaching second languages besides fluency. I'm not trying to be fighty either-- rather, I would genuinely like to know what you folks think those reasons might be. You write as if they're obvious. Care to enumerate?

Ivan Fyodorovich writes: formal language instruction provides students with implicit insights into language in general and into their native language(s) in particular.

Okay, there's one candidate. I don't find this a very convincing explanation for the existence of the extended multi-year foreign language classes offered in US high schools though.

In my (elite, private, expensive, and really awesome) elementary school, we had a class called Language Structures, which gave us elements of grammar, Greek/Latin roots, and some basic ideas that I'd later come to recognize as linguistics. This was in addition to English, and was followed by mandatory Latin in junior high. This seems like a much more effective solution if the motivation were really what you describe here.
posted by otherthings_ at 6:34 PM on July 1, 2012


I think there is a fairly significant difference between:

1. Immersion in a classroom where you are the only non-native speaker of the language you are trying to learn.

2. Immersion in a classroom where your teacher is a native speaker and all the students are non-native speakers.

3. Immersion in a classroom where the teacher and students are non-native speakers and the teacher has questionable fluency in English.

It sounds like children in Pakistan are more likely to have 3.
posted by kjs4 at 6:37 PM on July 1, 2012


The education system in many developing countries are still very backwards with traditional myth system compared what supposed to have today. Some give high priority to English and some not as it is a foreign language.
posted by makshi99 at 11:11 PM on July 1, 2012


This is a really complicated issue. As an Indian, I think there are major issues with the way languages are taught in South Asian in general. I was one of those elite South Asians who was spoken to only in English in order to prevent any delays in linguistic acquisition, so my Tamil and Hindi lag far behind my English, despite 8 years of Tamil instruction in school and 10 years of Hindi. The thing that I found to be common to the way all these languages were taught in India was that it seemed to be an implicit assumption that you already knew how to speak the language, and just needed to read literature and practice reading and writing in the language.

This is fine if you do actually speak English or Hindi or Tamil at home, but if you didn't then it was really tough to actually learn the language. We never learnt any formal grammar, with the assumption that just reading and writing in the language would be enough to understand -- learning through exposure. This makes sense in some contexts, but if you lose a year of Tamil or Hindi (as I did) it made it very difficult to catch up. I can only imagine what it would be like for the student who didn't speak English at home and had to contend not only with this stupid form of language instruction and other classes in a foreign language as well.


It's very similar in Ireland (although we have far fewer native speakers, percentage-wise). The primary school curriculum is structurred towards picking up Irish through osmosis/magic, and then the secondary school curriculum skips straight to poetry/literature without ever having learned the formal rules. Even people who went to Gaeilscoileanna (i.e. schools where all the subjects are taught through Irish) tend to end up speaking a kind of pidgin Irish, with appalling grammatical mistakes, and constructs translated word-for-word from English (this is especially ironic considering the history of the English language in the country).
posted by kersplunk at 3:07 PM on July 2, 2012


I wonder how this works out for immigrants, who end up having to navigate multiple languages and have no resources in their resident country for their native language.

My parents migrated from Bangladesh to Malaysia long before I was born, fluent in English and Bengali. I don't remember what medium they were taught in, but I do know education was and still is a VERY important family/cultural value, and since they're both avid travellers (my dad did his Masters in Turkey) AND have grown up with different administrations (British India, then East Pakistan) they would have learnt multiple languages anyway - English, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali.

Fast forward 11 years to me being born in Malaysia. Apparently as a tot I was bilingual (I'd say the same word twice in Bengali and English in the same sentence - "Gimme dao", "open khulo" etc etc) but at some point I just stopped. Didn't say a word. My parents were appalled and sent me to every medical expert they could think of; I have vague memories of speech therapy.

I wasn't mentally disabled, I wasn't deaf, I wasn't mute. By most health standards I was fine. One doctor suggested that it was because there were multiple languages going in the house, and I was getting confused, so choose one.

Bengali? My parents spoke it fluently (and my mum had a particular interest in Bengali literature) but we were the only Bangladeshis around and there would be no one else I could speak it with unless my relatives came to visit.

Malay? My parents didn't know enough to teach it usefully. My 11-years-older sister and the house maid/nanny type person did, but it was still pretty basic.

English? Everyone knew English, there were opportunities to converse in English elsewhere and with others, so let's stick with it.

My kindy was English-medium, and it also taught Malay (which I was OK with) and Mandarin (which I could not grok at all despite having Chinese neighbours I could have practiced with). From primary school onwards everything was Malay-medium (there were no English-medium schools where I lived), and my parents anticipated that this could be a challenged: my first day at school they moved me from an all-Malay class to a more multicultural class where the main teacher was also fluent in English.

Malaysia, like Pakistan, has some serious class issues with English. As the article (and some comments on here notes), it's seen as the language of "prestige", and people tend to run with some resentment against English speakers: that they're stuck up or show-offs or arrogant. While there's this supposed big push in the national curriculum to teach English to everyone from the very beginning (we start from Day 1), it's all very rudimentary and child-like even at the later years when you're about to leave school. (I was often so bored in English classes that my teachers would let me do my own thing). I was the best student in my entire school career in the English language, but considering what we had to work with? That didn't mean much at all.

I had finished school just before they started teaching Maths and Science in English - I know there was quite a bit of backlash, and questions about teachers' fluency. I'm not sure if they teach it the same way still. I do remember being very envious about that, because I know I would have functioned so much better at school if the subjects were taught in English. I was a pretty good student anyway (I did end up taking Malay Literature, as well as compulsory Malay Language, and was one of the top students both ways) but if my subjects had been taught in English I could have connected them to what I've learnt from my voracious reading & writing. Things would have made sense.

So here I am, trying to work in the one language everyone around me can somewhat agree on (English), working hard to understand the language most things were taught to me in (Malay), failing at my so-called "mother tongue" (Bengali) because I have very little exposure to it. Considering Bangladesh exists because of language I find that to be a huge cultural and personal loss. But I was not allowed to explore my Bengali side, since it was so demonised (I grew up in the middle of vicious Gov-led racism); I had to assimilate, while never really being accepted no matter what. One time I was talking to a teacher in English about something and a classmate quipped "Stop using English, use your mother tongue!". I was tempted to reply in Bengali "OK, do you understand what I'm speaking now? Does anybody?".

Now I'm in Australia, moving to the US, and I find myself lacking vocabulary for certain things. My partner and I sometimes try to talk about math and science, and half the time I'm not sure what he's talking about only because I learnt about these concepts in a different language and don't know what they translate to in English. For example, calculus is something that people often refer to (mostly in moaning about how hard it is), but I don't know what people are talking about when they mean "calculus". I probably know it as something else. I may not have forgotten the central concepts; I just have nothing to connect it to.

As it is, no one believes my first language is English, simply because I don't look like a native speaker. "Your English is very good!" enrages me. Having an Australian degree didn't help prove my English proficiency when I applied for Aussie permanent residency, because I didn't come from an "english speaking" country (I think there was me and one other person in the IELTS testing room that declared English as our first language). I'm rubbish at the one language I'm supposed to know, and I've gone rusty on the other language I was fluent in because I'm out of practice. I've been denied jobs because people saw my name and assumed there was no way I could understand English! Yet back "home" my English speaking skills, first picked up as a tool of survival, is class snobbery, begrudgingly respected. I do feel like I would have functioned much better in an English-medium school, but those places are limited to a certain level of expat/international class - a position I hover uncomfortably in (just because we could live like kings in Bangladesh and be big fish in the small pond of Johor Bahru doesn't mean that translates to anything in the West).

When so much of your identity and position in life is determined not just what language you speak but also what language you look like you're meant to know, trying to figure out who you are can be a massive struggle.
posted by divabat at 5:37 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


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