24 August 2011

Mother tongue is mother's milk

I was reading an article on the role of Haitian Creole in the Haitian education system on the BBC news website, and it saddened me a little to see the same old debate that I've seen a thousand times before, and with to see from the comments that people still don't understand it.

The article proposes nothing radical.  The proposal is to teach Haitian children to read and write in their own language.  In academic terminology, this is "mother tongue initial literacy", and it has been proven time and again to be one of the most effective strategies.

In many, many countries, the establishment has imposed the dominant official language on the education system.  Generally the speakers of local or minority languages do badly at school.  Traditionally, this was dismissed by claiming that whichever groups was inferior -- remember that not that long ago, many serious scientists tried to define taxonomies of human "races" showing the "deficiencies" of anyone who wasn't in their own demographic.  Heck, people in my part of the world used to think having dark skin made someone an animal, and a comodity to be traded for a handful of shiny metal discs!

Thankfully, most intelligent people now accept that intelligence is universal.  The apparent differences in intelligence between dark-skinned Africans and light-skinned Europeans are down to the level of development of the education system.

Yet people are still willing to believe that people are in a particular social class because of their intelligence, and are willing to put down failures in education to being "working class".  This is inconsistence, because if hereditary differences in intelligence are such a big factor in academic success, surely we have to believe that race is a factor...?

Please listen to the experts!

It's widely established in academic circles that the language of the classroom is a critical factor in success.  Being criticised for being "wrong" inhibits children's expressiveness and willingness to contribute.  If children don't engage with the class, they don't learn.  It's as simple as that.

But people just aren't willing to accept the expert opinion.  One of the main flaws of democracy is that experts are outnumbered by ill-informed individuals.  As soon as you suggest accepting "how people speak" as a classroom model of language, you're greeted with howls of protest.

If you're talking anout regional varieties of a language, you're accused of "dumbing down", and the other person will rarely see the snobbery inherent in calling someone else's way of speech "dumb".  They won't accept that the suggestion comes from rigorous studies, but tell you you're just being a wishy-washy liberal.

The argument is slightly different when you're talking about teaching in a completely different language, although again you're accused of being a wishy-washy liberal.  We're asked to believe that eaching someone in their own language is robbing them of the opportunity to learn another, more useful language.  By that token, all schools in the world should be teaching English.

But it's not a question of either/or!  You can teach both!

Mother tongue as gateway language

I mentioned "initial literacy" earlier.  When you learn to read in your native language, you use all your knowledge of the spoken language to help you decode the symbols on the page.  Children can often "self-correct" when reading, thanks to their knowledge of sentence structure.  The principles of reading can be generalised across languages, so learning to read another language later is actually fairly easy.

But imagine that your first encounter with writing is in a language you don't speak yet.  You have no concept of how the words tie together and you're trying to sound out stuff off the page.  In the case of Haiti, this is a right pain -- in Haitian, like most creoles, verbs don't conjugate for person (consider a Jamaican Creole speaker saying "me go", "he go", "they go"), whereas in French they do.  Worse! - in French several conjugations are written differently but pronounced the same, and the ending -ent for verbs is silent while the ending -ent for adjectives (eg different) is pronounced.

Initial literacy in a foreign language is very, very hard, and a student will probably never master it.  People do better at the foreign language if the task complexity is reduced and they're not trying to learn two distinct skills at the same time.  The answer is...

The bilingual school

As I said earlier, it's not a question of either/or.  The best model of education, according to the experts, is a truly bilingual school.  Give initial literacy in the mother tongue, while teaching the new language in the spoken mode.  After three years of literacy schooling in one language, you can very quickly teach children literacy in any and all other languages that they speak.  It's an established pattern, and as far as I can see, that's pretty much what's being proposed in Haiti.

But I went to an international school, and I'm fluent in [insert language here]

One or two of the comments on the BBC site were of the form above.  But the International Schools are far from the norm.  On the whole they are expensive elitist schools that pay a lot of money to get well-qualified and very capable native-speakers to travel half-way around the world to teach in them.

This is very different from the situation in Haiti where the teachers themselves are likely to be underpaid native creole-speakers teaching in non-native French.  Believe me, this rarely results in fluency.  4 years ago, I was teaching English to teenagers who had been learning English all their school lives from Spanish speakers.  Their English was, well, extremely foreign.  In fact, you could even describe it as a Spanish-English creole...

Language revitalisation in primary schooling

Of course, Haiti is a place where the local language is strong.  What happens where the language is weaker?

This is where I shake my head in disgust.  There is a growing demand in minority language communities for immersive education, even where the minority language is not spoken in the home.  The only way Scottish Gaelic is offered in primary schools is with the first three years exclusively through the medium of Gaelic, which means for most children, initial literacy is in a non-native language.  Ask what's wrong with the internationally-recognised bilingual model, and you'll be told it's not suitable for an endangered language (everyone likes to feel different, after all).

People are also quick to point out that the Scottish model is based on the most popular option in the Basque Country in Spain.  But I'd like to point out that the model is popular with the parents, and parents are not experts.

In particular, it's impossible to have a debate with most parents about the effectiveness of the teaching their own children received, because they're already personally invested in the idea that they've given their children the best education possible, and they are averse to even considering that they may have been wrong.  You can't use examples of their own children's faults, or they're going to take personal offence, and if you take examples from elsewhere (eg a TV documentary on a Gaelic school) you'll just be told that bad Gaelic's better than no Gaelic at all.

Except that the bilingual model offers the opportunity to learn better Gaelic -- many of the mistakes that kids make in Gaelic-medium classes are caused because the effort of initial literacy distracts them from grammatical accuracy.

But sadly, in education, decisions are made by parents, and most parents really have no idea what education is all about....

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