Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Great Language Divide

We were flicking around the channels last night, and I saw a piece on Fox News (don’t shoot me; it pays to know what the other “half” thinks). The story was about an education initiative in California, just north of San Diego, where kids would be taught in a bilingual environment. By that I mean that school, for kids from the age of five, would be conducted as normal, with the addition of ‘deep language immersion’. Every class would be delivered in both Spanish and English.

What a great idea, particularly in an area like this where two ethnic groups with two languages are living side by side. This can only be a very good thing.

Apparently not for everyone! Fox was interviewing a woman who was vehemently against it, and was willing to send her children ‘across town’ to another school district where lessons were taught only in English, while other parents were literally camping outside a school to get their little ones enrolled where the bilingual programmes were underway.

Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a piece this weekend on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. Studies are showing that people who are bilingual have greater situational awareness as they consciously and subconsciously monitor their environment for cues.

And then of course there are the social and societal benefits: if people can understand and communicate more easily, they can relate more easily, do business, form relationships and most of all, have respect and empathy. Two ethnic groups in one area become a single community.

From here, it looks like all win, although I concede that in reality, it’s not easy to achieve that kind of blended society, and shared bilingualism alone won’t do it. Still, I don’t see a downside to children being taught a second, socially relevant language.

Republican Rick Santorum must see a downside. In fact, he told voters in Puerto Rico that if it was to gain full statehood, it would need to embrace English as its primary language. He even quoted a (non-existent) law about English being the first language in the USA.

Mitt Romney was responsible for helping get rid of bilingual education in Massachusetts and bringing the English-immersion movement to the state when he was governor – the exact opposite of what is happening near San Diego. He actively discouraged the learning of foreign languages in school.

It’s almost a cliché these days for politicians to talk about the things that unite us being greater than those which divide us, but what about when those things are as basic as language? Is it better to mandate a single language as a unifying force, or promote multiple languages in areas where two or more cultures co-exist?
 And here in Australia, we’re having a similar debate; we just don’t know it. The Coalition talk about dollars, and measure debit. The progressives talk about values and measure achievement. The Coalition uses the word ‘values’ to refer to traditional Christian values; the progressives use the word ‘values’ to talk about human rights and environment.

When we’re all speaking different languages, how do we find consensus?

Our two sides of politics are different cultures who have to work together but who speak different languages. We need to find a common language and a set of values we agree on before we can hope to make progress.

1 comment:

  1. I have no idea what could be bad about this, unless you are racist and don't want your kids talkin that Mexican...