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Multilingualism and Genesis

31 May
This is an Anglican Church in Gitwangax with the totem poles in the background.

This is an Anglican Church in Gitwangax (Kitwanga) in northern British Columbia, Canada with traditional totem poles in the background. UNESCO lists the indigenous language spoken here as “severely endangered“.

In Genesis, Sebastião Salgado has photographed the endangered, the threatened and the rare. Looking at his photographs is like looking through windows. Salgado has opened the blinds into a wild, disappearing, and otherwise hidden world. Here, I relate his photographs to language.

Languages carry social meaning, both for the group – or person – who produces the language, as well as for the group – or person – who perceives the language. With language, a culture can distinguish itself from others; a person can stand out as unique from those with whom he or she is conversing; and a passage of time can surface as different from all those which preceded it, and all those which are to follow. Language is intrinsic to our identities: we express and perceive identity through language. Crucially, when a language, or a form of a language, is lost, so too is an identity, or a form of an identity.

Just like the animals and landscapes Salgado photographed, many languages are endangered, threatened and rare. UNESCO has documented that, if nothing is done, half of the over 6000 languages presently spoken will disappear by the end of this century. These are the languages of the people Salgado captured in his photographs, but also those of the many other colonised areas of the world, such as the First Nations languages in northern Canada (see picture of Gitwangax, where Gitxsanimaax is endangered),  the aboriginal languages in Australia, and the indigenous languages of South America. We see these threatened cultures in Salgado’s windows, hovering on the brink of assimilation with our Western world, and we know, ultimately, they are who they are because of language.

And yet – Salgado can’t take a picture of language. Language is this enormous abstract entity, which essentially loses all meaning unless it is represented across the dimension of time. It is impossible to take a “snapshot” of language as Salgado does of a smile, a gesture, a glance. To understand language, to produce language – and all that which is intrinsic to our identities – one must, at least to a certain extent, acquire some sort of knowledge of that language. If language is recorded, and a slice extracted, as a visual moment is through a photograph, it loses its meaning.

Looking through Salgado’s windows, one cannot hear the voices of the people he has photographed. Language, something so all encompassing, so powerful, is silent. From my perspective, a way to give endangered languages a voice, in one’s own life, is to support multilingualism. The process of language loss is, according to UNESCO, “neither inevitable nor irreversible: well-planned and implemented language policies can bolster the ongoing efforts of speaker communities to maintain or revitalize their mother tongues and pass them on to younger generations“. Peter Austin of SOAS has coined the personal concept of a language footprint. To improve one’s own language footprint, one can, for example, learn a new (perhaps even a minority) language, avoid products and activities that give people no choice other than to use dominant languages, support increased language learning in one’s own country, and learn about the world’s diversity of languages.

For me, such small steps may be a personal way to help counter language loss, and therefore, ultimately, all that is lost therewith.

Esther de Leeuw

Learning through an Aboriginal Language: The Impact on Students’ English and Aboriginal Language Skills

31 Jul

Usborne, E., Peck, J., Smith, D.-L., & Taylor, D. M. (2012). Learning through an Aboriginal language: The impact on students’ English and Aboriginal language skills. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l’éducation, 34(4), 200–215.

In this post, I’m working with the general idea of the blog that learning an additional language (and hence, within a broad definition of bilingualism, moving towards bilingualism) is a positive experience. Note initially that there are some who might disagree with the idea that bilingualism as such is positive, and there are also fathomable instances in which learning an additional language might not be considered positive. That said, in working with the idea that learning additional languages is a positive occurrence, an immediately ensuing question is how those additional languages might best be learned.

Usborne, Peck, Smith and Taylor examined how Aboriginal languages in Canada can be learned most successfully by Aboriginal children and whether the learning of Aboriginal languages compromises the children’s knowledge of the mainstream language (i.e. English or French). This post therefore progresses from last month’s in which research was discussed which indicates that youth suicide rates drop in Canadian Aboriginal communities where Aboriginal language knowledge is prevalent. In addition to arguments based on the inherent detriment of language loss per se, there is thus ample, very pressing, reason for Canada to support the successful instruction of Aboriginal languages. However, as Usborne et al. discuss, challenging questions arise when the decision is made to include Aboriginal language instruction in Canadian school curriculum.

“During our own experiences living and working in Aboriginal communities, we have heard parents, community members, and educators debate the extent to which the Aboriginal language should be used in the classroom. Many Aboriginal families are committed to supporting attempts to have their children learn the heritage language, thereby promoting a strong Aboriginal identity. However, families are also committed to having their children master a mainstream language to allow their children to participate fully in modern, mainstream society. […] When there is a choice of enrolling one’s child in an immersion program in which children spend the majority of their school day learning in an Aboriginal language, parents often worry that their children’s abilities in the mainstream language will suffer.” (p. 203)

Accordingly, Usborne et al.’s research examines parents’ understandable concerns as to whether the mainstream language suffers when Aboriginal languages are acquired within an immersion context. Specifically, the researchers investigated the experiences of children (ranging in age from approximately four to seven) attending either 1. an Aboriginal language immersion programme or 2. an Aboriginal second language (L2) programme in a Mi’kmaq community in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The 84 children in the Mi’kmaq immersion programme were “taught each of their core subjects (i.e., Math, Language Arts, and Social Studies) in Mi’kmaq throughout the school year”; whilst in contrast, the 134 children in the L2 programme were “taught their core subjects in English and took Mi’kmaq as a second language for a minimum of an hour a day” (p. 205). Importantly, the children all had limited knowledge of Mi’kmaq before entering the school (and they all went to the same school), so the assumption was that whatever they had learned or not learned would be a function of the different curricula, rather than their previous knowledge. The researchers then rigourously tested the children’s knowledge of Mi’kmaq and English during the school’s spring break using a battery of age appropriate language proficiency tests.

Expectedly, Usborne et al.’s results indicated that children in the Mi’kmaq immersion programme learned significantly more Mi’kmaq than those in the Mi’kmaq as an L2 programme. Moreover, and this is perhaps more surprising, children in their first year of school in the immersion programme had significantly lower English scores compared to those in the L2 programme; by the second school year this difference was reduced, but immersion children still had significantly lower English scores than did children in the L2 programme. However, and here the results become encouraging, by the third school year, children in the immersion programme had caught up to the English scores of the children in the L2 programme. Usborne et al. summarise that “students in the Mi’kmaq immersion program are not only learning more Mi’kmaq than students in the Mi’kmaq as a second language program, but they are also performing just as well in English [by their 3rd school year]” (p. 209).

Therefore, in line with the call at the end of my previous post for the instruction of Aboriginal languages in Canada in order to counteract high youth suicide rates in Aboriginal communities, it seems that precisely Aboriginal language immersion programmes are a successful mechanism to encourage bilingualism in Canadian Aboriginal communities. Indeed, I suggest that it is exactly these incentives which should be duly financially and ideologically supported throughout Canada.

Esther de Leeuw

Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide

25 Jun

Hallett, D., Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (2007). Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development, 22(3), 392–399.

This blog post takes its impetus from Canadian bilingualism, as discussed in the cover story of this weekend’s edition of the Globe and Mail, ‘Is Bilingualism Still Relevant in Canada?’. The post progresses to recent research by Hallett, Chandler and Lalonde, which examined the relationship between youth suicide rates and bilingualism in Aboriginal communities in Canada (the connection between the Globe’s article and Hallett et al.’s research will become clear as you continue to read).

According to the Globe and Mail’s cover story, many Canadians currently question whether the Official Languages Act, which established both French and English as official languages in 1969, should be reinterpreted to embrace not only French and English, but also many of the other immigrant languages in Canada. Indeed, with “more than five million Canadians speaking a mother tongue other than English or French as of 2006” (p. A10), and a total population of just under 33 million, the call for increased support in the instruction of immigrant languages is potentially highly valid in multilingual Canada. Furthermore, as has been discussed in some of my previous blogs, if bilingualism as such, has cognitive advantages, there is no need for the language combination of bilinguals in Canada to be restricted to French and English, unless the advantages of learning additional languages go beyond cognitive benefits.

Indeed, top reasons why readers of the Globe and Mail want to be bilingual are that they 1. value Canada’s history and heritage (identity reasons); 2. believe it’s intellectually enriching (cognitive reasons); 3. want to broaden their employment horizons (financial reasons); and 4. want to be global citizens (potentially both identity and financial reasons). Certainly, only the first reason (and perhaps the third if limiting oneself to Canadian borders) would constrain itself to a French-English combination. Therefore, to answer the Globe’s title question, yes, bilingualism is still relevant in Canada, just not solely in the form of French-English bilingualism, as Canadians have generally interpreted bilingualism until now.

However, and this is why I criticise the quality of the Globe’s cover story, the learning of Aboriginal languages is consistently avoided as a viable alternative in constructing Canada’s reinterpretation of bilingualism. Not once is even one of the over 60 recognised Aboriginal languages of Canada mentioned in the two page spread. This, in my view, is all the more disappointing if the outstanding research by Hallett et al. is brought into the discussion.

Very briefly, Hallett et al.’s study showed that youth suicide rates in Aboriginal communities “effectively dropped to zero in those few communities in which at least half the band members reported a conversational knowledge of their own ‘Native’ language” (p.  392). Hallett et al.’s writing is so poignant that it is difficult to summarise for the purpose of this blog, especially considering the tragic nature of the exceedingly high suicide rates in aboriginal youth populations in Canada (compare over 95 suicides per 100000 in some of the Aboriginal communities with low rates of Aboriginal language acquisition which Hallett et al. looked at versus the national youth suicide average amongst 15-19 year olds of 11.5 per 100000 in 1996). As Hallett et al. discuss, according to the 2001 Canadian Census, overall, only 15% of the country’s Aboriginal children learn an indigenous mother tongue […]. Given such odds, and without special diligence, no more than two or three of Canada’s still existing indigenous languages are expected to survive beyond one or two more generations” (p. 394). In comparison to immigrant communities, the “perceived threats of indigenous language loss are often seen as even more real and more pressing. For such [Aboriginal] parents there is no ‘homeland’ where whole nation states continue to converse in their language of origin, and so no potential source of ‘new speakers’” (p. 393).

For Canadian Aboriginal communities, when their languages die, so too, one could interpret, do their cultures. Given Hallett et al.’s research, at the very least the instruction of Aboriginal languages should be discussed wholeheartedly in Canadian media, e.g. in the Globe and Mail, and increased support for the instruction of Aboriginal languages should commence as a matter of urgency. This, I believe, makes bilingualism highly relevant in Canada.

Esther de Leeuw