Being a naive progressive, my opposition to the illegal policy of compulsory Catalan language immersion has always been based on appeals to the old liberal idea that we should be free to use whichever language we choose, with the odd reference to “rights” enshrined in international conventions and publicised via absurd junkets like UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day and the struggle waged by Catalan speakers during the dictatorship.
A polemical piece by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas entitled The right to mother tongue medium education – the hot potato in human rights instruments suggests that I (as well as parties like the PP and Ciutadans, and the sane wing of the PSC) might be better off making a pragmatic case–that language immersion is likely to inflict severe long-term economic damage:
Minority children have to become minimally bilingual through their formal education. Bilingual education of all kinds is a very specialized and sensitive area of both research and policymaking. However, detailed knowledge of it is a prerequisite for being able to make sound recommendations. An important complicating issue is that some of the scientifically sound and practically proven principles of how to enable children to become high-level multilinguals with the support of the educational system are in fact counter-intuitive: they go against common sense.
If indigenous or minority children who speak their mother tongue at home, are to become bilingual, and learn the dominant/majority language well, one might, with a common sense approach, imagine that the principles of early start with and maximum exposure to the dominant language would be good ideas, like they are for learning many other things – practice makes perfect.
In fact, sound research shows the opposite: the longer indigenous and minority children in a low-status position have their own language as the main medium of teaching, the better they also become in the dominant language, provided, of course, that they have good teaching in it, preferably given by bilingual teachers, just as the Hague Recommendations on the Educational Rights of National Minorities and the UNESCO Education Position Paper Education in a multilingual world (2003) recommend.
I shall give two examples of recent very large-scale longitudinal and methodologically extremely careful studies from the United States, Ramirez et al. (1991) and Thomas & Collier (1997, 2002; see also other references to them in the bibliography).
The Ramirez et al.’s 1991 study, with 2,352 students, compared three groups of Spanish-speaking minority students. The first group were taught through the medium of English only (but even these students had bilingual teachers and many were taught Spanish as a subject, something that is very unusual in submersion programmes). The second group, early-exit students, had one or two years of Spanish-medium education and were then transferred to English-medium. The third group, late-exit students, had 4-6 years of Spanish-medium education before being transferred to English-medium.
Now the common sense approach would suggest that the ones who started English-medium teaching early and had most exposure to English, the English-only students, would have the best results in English, and in mathematics and in educational achievement in general, and that the late-exit students who started late with English-medium education and consequently had least exposure to English, would do worst in English etc.
In fact the results were exactly the opposite. The late-exit students got the best results, and they were the only ones who had a chance to achieve native levels of English later on, whereas the other two groups were, after an initial boost, falling more and more behind, and were judged as probably never being able to catch up to native English-speaking peers in English or in general school achievement.
The Thomas & Collier study (see bibliography, under both names), the largest longitudinal study in the world on the education of minority students, with altogether over 210,000 students, including in-depth studies in both urban and rural settings in the USA, included full MTM programmes in a minority language, dual-medium or two-way bilingual programmes, where both a minority and majority language (mainly Spanish and English) were used as media of instruction, transitional bilingual education programmes, ESL (English as a second language) programmes, and so-called mainstream (i.e. English-only submersion) programmes. Across all the models, those students who reached the highest levels of both bilingualism and school achievement were the ones where the children’s mother tongue was the main medium of education for the most extended period of time. This length of education in the L1 (language 1, first language), was the strongest predictor of both the children’s competence and gains in L2, English, and of their school achievement. Thomas & Collier state (2002: 7):
the strongest predictor of L2 student achievement is the amount of formal L1 schooling. The more L1 grade-level schooling, the higher L2 achievement.
The length of MTM education was in both Ramirez’ and Thomas & Collier’s studies more important than any other factor (and many were included) in predicting the educational success of bilingual students. It was also much more important than socio-economic status, something extremely vital when reflecting on the socio-economic status discussions and choices in relation to the Roma in most recommendations. The worst results, including high percentages of push-outs, were with students in regular submersion programmes where the students’ mother tongues (L1s) were either not supported at all or where they only had some mother-tongue-asa-subject instruction.
This research helps explain the disgraceful rates of school failure for Spanish mother-tongue speakers in Catalonia–at 42.62%, more than twice those for Catalan speakers–and I think provides a key to understanding why–and this is personal experience–they are frequently incapable of expressing themselves adequately in either Catalan or Spanish.
Useful comparisons can be made between some aspects of the Catalan language regime and pre-democracy policy in South Africa. I think Nkonko M Kamwangamalu hits the nail on the head when in Language policy and mother-tongue education in South Africa: The case for a market-oriented approach, writing of the use of apartheid mother-tongue education as enshrined in the 1953 Bantu Education Act as a means of excluding blacks from public goods and services, he says that
the main problem with mother-tongue education is not whether it is good or bad but rather whether it can empower those to whom it is targeted.
Modernising, republican elements in Catalan nationalism echo the public voice of Italian fascism in the 20s and 30s, interpreting their mission as being one of preventing marginalisation, of providing equal opportunities for all, irrespective of their origins. In fact, I think it is fair to say that language immersion here is a manufactured disaster which serves to exclude, not empower.
Whilst it is understandable that its success is celebrated by ethnic and class warriors who deride Spanish as a language of and for maids and servants, the poor and the vulgar, illiterates and those of little class, it’s difficult for me to understand why it continues to enjoy the support of many who regard themselves as being on the freedom-loving left.
- Unesco: some mother languages are more equal than others
Which is why Davidson L Hepburn will be welcomed to Barcelona next week.
- Balearic teaching union opposes English-language instruction
It has always struck me as pretty damn schizo that proponents of forced Catalan immersion often suggest that, while Spanish is taboo, they would be open to the use of another vigorously expanding global language, English. So it’s good to see that in defence of the high-quality public education for which the Balearics are known the …
- “Catalan on the road to extinction”
More panic-mongering from the linguacrats: Carme Junyent, director of the low-activity Group for the Study of Threatened Languages at Barcelona University apparently believes that UNESCO says that any language with less than 30% social use is on its way to extinction, and that since the social use of the official language of Andorra, Catalan, is now 29%, …
- In defence of Catalan language immersion
It’s a fine example of practical neo-feudalism, and screw the serfs.