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Talk-ED: Babble, Babel, Babble


Over the past week one education topic keeps on cropping up in my life – bilingualism.

First  I read a thesis that emphasises that students who are learning English as an additional language are not disadvantaged when it comes to academic achievement.  Then I attend a lecture where all the whys and wherefores of bilingualism and its place in life and in schools is outlined clearly and with some force.  I get up this morning and the newspaper has a major article on bilingualism in an Auckland school and notes the various successful diplomats that have been fluently competent in the linguistic sense.

Monolingualism is the “English Disease” or should that be “unease”?

People of English background do not accept generally that they are in a minority in terms of language competence when compared to say the native population of Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands, or the vast majority of Europe.  No, we speak and use the finest language in the world and that is the end of the discussion.

But a truth that one day will dawn on us is that until New Zealand becomes wholeheartedly bilingual, we will continue to stutter along at the bottom of the Pacific.  And never has the opportunity presented itself in the ways that does now.

The tired old arguments against Te Reo Maori have somewhat subsided and a new generation is coming through that has a comfort, but often not a competence, in that official language of New Zealand.  There are high levels of competence in a range of Pacific languages from the fluency of the older generations to the passive bilingualism of many of the young members of those communities. We have a vibrant Chinese community bringing with them a language of global and future significance.  Similarly, the Indian community continues to grow and with it higher levels of presence of that great sub-continent.

The other factor that enters the discussion at this point is the fact that we struggle to get adequate levels of competence in literacy from so many of our young.

One answer to lifting achievement in our schools might be to take seriously once and for all the teaching of second languages to students in schools. A number of reasons commend this idea at this time.

First the general educational reasons for doing this are compelling.  Bilingual brains are better brains – there is plenty of evidence of this.  So it would make our young people sharper and fitter academically.

Secondly, if we are serious about development of competence in English we had better address the issue of linguistic competence generally and one way of doing this is through the teaching of languages. Students come to understand how language works not through bucket loads of grammar and rulkes but through understanding how and why languages are different. How many out there say they know about grammar but would also attest to the fact that they picked this up through learning French, or German – for this is what “second languages” was defined as for much of our history.

Thirdly, we have a wide and growing supply of people who are competent to teach those languages. They are out there in the community rather than in the colleges of education and the schools. Yet again the question is raised – who should be teachers?  Again the answer is – a group that includes wider sets of skills than the traditional trawling of the ranks of the graduates that the academy produces.  Finland has all students learning Swedish (and vice versa in Sweden) in the last three years of primary school.

Fourthly, the educational practices of the 18th and 19th centuries play a strong part in the decline of Te Reo Maori competence among so many Maori up to the 1960s when such pioneers as Richard Benton starting to draw attention to the “state’ of the language. New Zealand seems to be achieving a remarkable feat in reversing that trend arresting the slide of a language to being a museum language.

Are we going to stand by and again see this scenario played out with Pasifika communities.  Already there is concern about the levels of language capability among the young in the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau communities.  Sheer numbers mask a similar worry but perhaps at lower levels of proportion among the Tonga and Samoa communities.

We have an opportunity to do so much right this time. To deny continued growth in the languages of the homes to those whose first language is not English is simply to place restrictions around their development of English and all that goes with that situation in the schools and other places of learning.  The depressed performance of Maori over a long period of time in this country is to a large extent due to this very factor.

But it requires action.  I am sick and tired of all the lip-service that is paid to language learning, of all the homage paid to our few linguistic heroes, and of the disproportion levels of failure foisted on non-English language groups by our language practices.  I am embarrassed by our continued ignoring of the language skill in our communities and the persistence here in little-England of adamant monolingualism.

Ireland, Wales, most of Europe, significant areas of India, Scandanavia, some parts of the USA – many other places just get on with it.

When it comes to language its time for the talking to stop and the action to start.


Published inEducation

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