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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science in Society"
September 16, 2005

Eric Raimy


Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Eric opened the conversation by reviewing a summary table of statistics (see Table 2), prepared by the U.S. Census Bureau regarding language use, English ability and linguistic isolation of 5-17 year-olds in this country in 2000. 18% of the children in this age group have a primary language other than English, and 3.25 million children do not speak well enough to conduct business in English. (This data is self-reported, and the presumption is that, if people say they can use English "very well," the figures regarding those who are functional in the language are conservative.) What does that mean for our educational system?

Using a chart from Ofelia Garcia's 1997 "Bilingual education," in The Handbook of Sociolinguistics, ed. Flouria Coulmas (Blackwell, 1997, p. 410), Eric reviewed fourteen different approaches to the "common goal of producing students literate in standard English," Ranging from "submersion" and "immersion," through "maintenance," to "segregation" and "withdrawal," these approaches differ in goals, costs and efficiency. The "most effective" approprach seems to be the "transitional" system (from "the mother tongue" to the "dominant language"), in which students are first taught to read and write in their native tongue, and then prove to be more successful in becoming literate in a second language. This approach is more "palatable" when used with small children; it would be much harder for educators to employ it, for instance, with a monolingual Spanish-speaking high school student.

Eric suggested that the "end of the role of science" was to offer such "useful observations"; compiling such data is "all that science should do." Science has a very limited role to play in answering the question about "what should be done" in education. Historical context was evoked: a hundred years ago, no arguments were being made about the need for bilingual education; there was common agreement that the business of public schools was to assimilate children into the public culture. The presumption was that, to "make American citizens," they needed to be literate in English. Whether that is still the norm is affected, in part, by the way the question is asked. If bilingualism is presented as effective in attaining English literacy, then respondents favor it; if it is suggested that it is detrimental to English fluency, then they will oppose it.

But why do we need many different languages? Is the argument for a full range of languages comparable with the argument for biodiversity? Does a healthy planet require as many different languages as it can sustain? Do children need to learn secondary (and further) languages for enrichment: to step out of their own cultures into other worlds? Or is the effect of bilingualism to pull foreign cultures (and assimilate them) into American culture? What of the example of deaf culture (discussed at great length at a Tri-Co Symposium this past fall on Signs and Voices): when more hearing people, and fewer deaf people, are learning ASL, "whose culture is it? Who owns the culture?"

There was lively debate about what we want our schools to do. To be functional in the existing culture, one needs to have a mastery of the dominant language, and some thought that it is the role of schools to enable children to gain that mastery. But some questioned whether it should be the aim of schooling to perpetuate the power structure, by preparing children to participate in the status quo. If a group wants to be socially distinct, they have an impetus for their language to diverge. Should it also be the goal of public education to prevent the disappearance of such languages?

It was predicted (with some exaggeration?) that there will eventually be only three languages on earth (Spanish, English and Mandarin). There was a counter-account of the fact that dialects are becoming increasingly distinct, and the "disintegration" of Latin into the Romance languages was described. If language, then, is always changing, diverging in some areas and converging in others, is our educational policy increasingly clear? Are we obliged by "cultural justice" to serve the needs of linguistic minorities--and of members of the majority, who need, as part of their world education, to be able to converse with others? Real pluralism is not a "mosaic patch" of separate languages; there needs to be interaction among them. It is possible that the most efficient method of bilingual education, the transitional method, contributes de facto to the death of various mother tongues, which become the means for children to learn the dominant language. Should we also be deliberately using the educational system to preserve the non-dominant languages?

Mention was made of a related debate, in the 2003 Summer Institute for K-12 teachers, about what language is appropriate in the urban classroom: Are we increasing opportunities for our students, by insisting that they learn to use proper English? Or are we narrowing their options? Are we asking them to forget who they are? Whose English is it? Who owns the culture? Is there a gender difference among teachers, w/ women insisting on the need for proper English to make the transition to success, and men being more comfortable w/ allowing slang in their classrooms?

There was some lively discussion about whether it is the job of teachers to teach grammar, and so prepare their students for further study. Eric hypothesized that the TOEFL scores of second language learners are higher than those of native speakers (because the former learn English by memorizing prescriptive grammatical rules; the latter do not). What counts, then, as competency? Knowledge of grammar, or fluency of speech? Wherein lies the ownership of a culture? And of a language? How are we changing the culture, if we learn and use other languages? Eric ended the conversation with a story about the Basques, who are "culturally very strong, with a united and unique identity, but very few (10%) native speakers. He suggested that the "luxury" of equating a unique culture with a unique language is ceasing to exist, and that cultural identity will (increasingly? this is a trend, not a fait accompli) be divorced from language.

Further discussion of such questions continues in the brown bag on-line forum area. Next week, on September 23, Catherine Riihimaki (Geology) and Rheanna Bensel ('06) will lead a discussion of "The 'control' of nature in New Orleans." While hurricanes continue to batter the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, it is timely to discuss the environmental choices that were made in the region leading up to Hurricane Katrina and future choices that may or may not make a similar disaster less likely in the future. Catherine and Rheanna will present the history and geology of how New Orleans came to be a disaster-waiting-to-happen, whether Dennis Hastert was right to question rebuilding efforts, and how humans can interact with natural hazards in safer ways.

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