I've been interested in bilingualism and multilingualism for a long time. I live and worked in a bilingual region and my daughter's family live on the Quebec side of the region. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was a big news story during my high school years, and I went on to study French, German and a smattering of Spanish and Portuguese at the university level. And linguistics.

From the time I took my first course in linguistics, up to and including the present day, it seems that the entire linguistics profession - dare I say industry? - sneers at prescriptive linguistics and prescriptive grammar, in favour of descriptivism. Taken to its logical extreme, if a "native" speaker of a language says something, it MUST be syntactically and grammatically correct. This attitude has led to fads and fashions in the teaching of reading and writing in one's native language and in the teaching of SECOND (and subsequent) languages (both oral and written) as well.

Seems there is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to learn to read and write your first language. And similarly, there is a right and wrong way to learn other languages. Isn't it ironic that descriptivist linguists should - often unwittingly, I suspect - have that blind spot and be so rigidly prescriptivistic in their views on literacy and second language education?

In the teaching of reading and writing, phonics seems mostly to have fallen by the wayside in favour of the "whole language" approach. But do we really KNOW how people typically learn to read? Or if there even IS a typical or best way to learn? Seems to me, the human mind is rather more complex than that. We probably internalize both the micro- and macro- processes and use a bit of each type when we reason something out.

With second-language teaching, the transition period seems to have been some time in the 1970s, when textbooks shifted in emphasis from teaching grammar and irregular verbs to getting students to memorize dialogues. Translation and switching back and forth between languages became strictly taboo! While both approaches have their uses, depending in part on how the students primarily expect to USE the language (I don't recall ever memorizing dialogues in Latin, for example!), I think on the whole, this shift in second-language teaching tended to be even more detrimental to students' learning than the phonics-to-whole-language shift. Why? Because as mentioned in previous blog entries, I think that adults (and older children who are already quite verbal in a first language)learn additional languages mainly through DEDUCTIVE rather than inductive reasoning processes. I'm thinking here primarily of additional languages that are somewhat related to the first one, with regard to vocabulary, syntactic structures, and so on.

So it was like a breath of fresh air to read François Grosjean's book, "Bilingual: Life and Reality". He's open-minded. He has no problem with borrowing and code-switching. He takes on over a dozen prevalent myths about bilingualism and his arguments are well-reinforced by examples of research studies. He outlines several models for bilingualism and multilingualism and they are dynamic ones which account for LOSS of languages over time as well as acquisition of them, or the changing dominance of a person's different languages over a lifetime.

Grosjean acknowledges that there are disadvantages as well as advantages to bilingualism. He actually made me feel a little less guilty about not having kept up my German or Spanish or Latin (or perhaps even my French since I retired), although I still think it would be a good or a nice idea to do so.

The book is divided into two parts: Bilingual Adults, and Bilingual Children. Towards the end, he talks about forms of bilingual education. I've always been a bit leery of aspects of our culture like French immersion kindergarten - at least in cases where the child has two unilingual (non-French) parents so is forced to "sink or swim" in a (to the child) foreign-language milieu. Seems to me that starting school is a big enough step in itself and there shouldn't really be too much unfamiliar stuff too soon. Moreover, I believe that in learning your first language during your preschool years, you are acquiring one very important tool for sophisticated thought and judgement; if that tool is not as sharp as it might be, then learning will be impeded. Grosjean doesn't say this, in fact he only very briefly mentions immersion-style programs. But he does outline the various models, including dual-language education, which has always made much more sense to me.

The book is designed to be accessible to the layperson, though it doesn't insult our intelligence, either - there is certainly plenty of material from the endnotes that may be followed up. I'm also thinking of looking up his earlier work on bilingualism that was of a more academic or scholarly nature.
Hi again and welcome back to the blogcutter's café. One of the most important roles of the media in a democratic society is to expose the plight of the underdog, thereby generating righteous indignation and embarrassing the powers that be, or "overdogs" if you will, into doing the right thing. One master of that process is columnist Hugh Adami, who writes "The Public Citizen" column in the Ottawa Citizen.

In yesterday's column, Adami publicized the plight of Dan Brown, a security guard ousted from his job at NRC because somebody apparently complained he couldn't speak French. Does anyone remember the joke about the lifeguard who didn't save the drowning child because he couldn't swim - but he COULD speak French?

Now don't get me wrong. I love living in a bilingual milieu. Every language you learn is a new system for cataloguing your world, a new set of glasses through which to view your reality. But it must be said that more language and more languages does not always mean more or better communication. In fact, during my years in government, memo-writers often erred on the side of shorter and more cryptic communication because they knew it would have to be translated, and time was of the essence. I recall one particular instance when we were in the throes of reorganization, of a memo sent out to Headquarters and all the regions, where we had to do some research and dig up some information. Since I didn't fully understand it and didn't want to waste anyone's precious time, I phoned the project leader for clarification. I got that clarification but, as I pointed out to her, what she in fact was asking was something very different from what she had written in her original e-mail. I suggested she might want to sent out a follow-up e-mail to all the original recipients of the first one. If I had misunderstood it, chances are some of the other recipients might have as well. But no, she couldn't do that, she insisted, because if she took the time to craft such an e-mail, it would then have to be translated, and so on and so forth. So instead, I believe what ended up happening was she had to talk with each of the recipients individually, except maybe to those who didn't phone her for clarification (who probably went off and performed the wrong research). What a horrendous waste!

Another recent injustice in the Ottawa area that has had a certain amount of publicity lately has been the closing of Nicholas Hoare Books on Sussex Drive. The National Capital Commission raised the bookstore's already sky-high rent by a whopping 74% - and the markup on books is not high enough for the owner to make a go of things. Most commentators on the issue have been pro-bookstore, although a couple of influential columnists have come down on the other side too. What they may not realize is that Nicholas Hoare Books has been a great asset to the Ottawa community over the years. They were instrumental in establishing the wonderful "Books and Brunch" series at the Chateau Laurier (which regrettably marginalized it over the years, possibly due to the influence of Fairmont assuming responsibility for the property). They have sold tickets and passes to the semiannual Ottawa Writers' Festival since its inception. And of course, they have held numerous in-store book-related and other cultural events - book signings, gatherings of librarians, twelfth-night celebrations, the list goes on! I still hold out a small hope that with the attendant publicity, the NCC will see fit to do the right thing and back down on the rent increase.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are important human rights but, as our Charter makes clear in its preamble, no right is absolute, and there's the rub. We have things like "hate crime" legislation which inhibits or suppresses free speech and thereby, in my view, merely lends credence to the extremist views of certain factions. We have court settlements, the terms of which must not be publicly disclosed. And one biggie, which I'll have to save for another day - the veil of secrecy surrounding child "protection" proceedings which allows Children's Aid Societies to function virtually as a law unto themselves. And that is where I shall conclude my posting for today.

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