Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Advantages of Bilingualism

Colliers overarching message reminds me very much of Carters argument, and some of Johnsons. Collier seem to believe that while English language acquisitions is essential, it is both oppressive and counterproductive to ignore the importance of a child’s first culture and language as equally important. In fact, Collier seems to argue, that the more a student’s native language and culture are embraced and validated, the easier it becomes for the student to be successful in a second language. Two examples she cites are with acceptance of language code-switching techniques, ‘bi-dialectism’, and becoming literate in a students native language first. Personally, I have seen the benefits and ‘awesomeness’ of all three strategies. Unfortunately, I feel the atmosphere in this country is not supportive of bilingualism or bi-dialectism over monolingualism and the dominant dialects.
While living in West Africa, I heard people code-switch constantly. In Dakar, Senegal, people would often go back and forth between Wolof (the local language), French (the national language), and other languages like English. Senegalese used ‘sequential switches’ often when in mixed language crowds, and switched to Wolof as an ‘identity marker’. Foreigners used French and Wolof ‘fixed expressions’ to create bonds and show respect. ‘Quotations and paraphrases’, and ‘stylistic switches’ enhanced many conversations for foreigners and locals. The conversational benefits of code switching are endless. In the same way American schools encourage students to learn more English vocabulary to help them communicate more effectively, we could also encourage the acquisition and use of other languages to develop our youth’s means of communication even more and with more people.
Colliers and Carters view on code switching is not just with language, but dialects also. The importance of bi-dialectism was an eye opening theory for me. Why should everyone in such a large country as ours have the same dialect? Who decided which of these dialects needed to be the dominant (acceptable) one? These are questions I had not asked myself before. Reading this made me reflect on a student I have this year (I will call him Joe). Joe does what Collier refers to as ‘first language interference’ were he uses Spanish (his native language) word order and pronunciation with English sometimes. Really this has become a dialect with in English. I have not addressed this with Joe thus far; but as Johnson would say, I should ‘call a fire a fire’ by acknowledging it, and then like Carter would suggest, teach the alternative (dominant culture) way to speak. I feel the need to express to Joe how cool it is that he can use English vocabulary with Spanish word order and pronunciation. The knowledge that it takes to understand as much as he does about two languages is so much more than my knowledge of just one language. I also wonder if it would beneficial to give these accolades among his peers, who might see his language skills as an intellectual deficient. Anyone have thoughts on that?
Finally I would like to cite my husband’s skills in a second language to agree with Collier that becoming literate in one’s native language first, enhances literacy in a second language. My husband grew up in a monoliguist home (even though his mother spoke French as her first language). However, once he started spending his summers in France he quickly acquired the spoken language; then, by the end of high school he was reading the same French language books as his friends in France. I have always admired his knowledge and use of languages, and have thought from the very beginning that his use of the English language would not be nearly be as good, had he not learned a second language.
So why is it that our schools do not see the benefits of mastering two languages? So many studies report the linguistic benefits of bilingualism. In addition, Spanish is widely used in America, and spoken in many different countries. By encouraging native Spanish speakers to master both languages would benefit them immensely in their lives and careers; and encouraging native English speakers to learn Spanish could only benefit their acquisition of their native language and increase their means of communicating in global society.


  1. Thia -
    One of the quotes from Collier's chapter that seems to mimic your ideas is on page 227 when he is discussing number 3: "Don't teach a second language in any way that challenges or seeks to eliminate the first language." He goes on to say, "to affirm the home language means that they will not be told that they are wrong, or what they say is vulgar or bad. Instead, the teacher analyzes with the students the differences betweent heir dialect and the standard variety: grammatical patterns, pronunciation differences, vocabulary items, varying social contexts, and so on" (237). Like you said, code switching has many values and I think can lead to many teachable moments, much like Zeke used in his classroom.

  2. Thia,

    I love your idea about pulling in Joe's language into his lessons, and maybe even using it in your classroom. I think that it would enhance his appreciation for his home language and help to make him feel more confident about his skill and even help him in grasping the concepts in your classroom. I also think it would be good for our English speaking students to be exposed to language in context of learning. It makes me think about how my district is so focused on literacy of reading and writing across the curriculum. Perhaps we need more of this in the language department as well.

    Thank you for sharing those two stories-- your experience in Senagal, and your husband's experience as a child and his speaking French. Both stories were very interesting, and proof that multiple languages can be a part of our culture if we work hard enough.

  3. Thia,

    I found the information you shared about Senegal and your husband so interesting! I find it fascinating you have traveled so much! I too wonder why our schools don't embrace bilingualism. I wonder if it is the notion that in America, we simply speak English. Even if there are many langauges, especially Spanish, that are spoken as well, perhaps it is just "English rules"??? I'm not sure. It is important to include in our classrooms and lessons as it is a part of our daily lives and especially our students'.

  4. Thia -
    Awesome connections to the previous pieces we have read as well as personal connections! Your explanation of code switching the views of Collier and Carter. It is very important that we find a way to embrace the "awesomeness" as you put it, of these dialects. By giving a student the chance to identify with their culture and show that they have a place in society is ideal. Now we just have to get there!

    I always hear from the language teachers at my school that the English department is not doing their job because the kids don't know proper grammar and the basic rules that they should. I wonder if we were to promote bi/multilingualism more if we would increase our students' attention to the rules of the language as well as promote a more welcoming environment for students of all cultures.