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Interesting Book on Bilingualism

Bilingualism seems to be a hot topic and a widespread aspiration these days. "Bilingual" has even become a Japanese word, although I believe its usage refers rather to foreign language education at an early age to foster facility in a second language. Not only do parents want their children to be bilingual, but they feel it necessary to function competently and compete in a globalized world. Recently, I read an interesting book that I found on the recommended reading list at a bookstore, a slim book of about one hundred pages entitled "Teaching Other People?fs Children: Literacy and Learning in a Bilingual Classroom" by Cynthia Ballenger. Although the bilingual students in question are Haitian immigrant children who speak Haitian Creole and some English and attend an inner city preschool in the United States, the issues presented are relevant for all children learning a second language and their teachers.

First, a word about the author and her methods. She is a member of Brookline Teacher-Researcher Seminar (BTRS), a group of teachers who meet weekly for teacher research. This group is unique in using tapes and transcripts of classroom interaction to discuss questions, a method that provides raw data that can then be slowed down for analysis and reflection. Teachers are able to then listen closely to children from other cultures to understand the approaches to storybook reading, texts, print, and classroom behavior that they bring with them to school. The question facing the teachers was: if all children are born to learn, then why are some having trouble? The transcripts revealed troubling evidence of children from different cultural backgrounds being interrupted or ignored because their stories were too long, confusing or untrue. Despite richness in sound, rhythm, detail, and storytelling technique derived from their first language, their language style was deemed necessary for correction because it did not conform to the expected model of the language used in the classroom. This does not mean that a child?fs cultural background determines his or her approach, but rather than children make meaning in powerful and imaginative ways, drawing on the cultural resources they have. The book is about Ballenger?fs discovery of these resources and how they affect children?fs language and change her teaching. These include the Haitian respect for school expressed in the formality in the classroom and interaction, the weight of oral culture in which book reading is not a major part of family life, a sense of discipline that is not psychologically rationalized, and a strong sense of family and extended family ties.

We are all familiar with cultural differences so this should not be surprising. What is interesting though is the way in which Ballenger demonstrates how all of these factors impinge on communication in the classroom in ways that were initially unknown and frustrating for her. For example, she expects the children to follow the text when she tells a story, and even as an early childhood expert, doesn?ft understand their seemingly random tangents and far-flung associations and their urge to use the text to talk about their lives in a style that is totally foreign to her. It is not until she listens to the transcripts and discusses them with her teacher research group that she understands that for these children, exposure to the print medium, and hence second-language acquisition, was not a means to uncover the richness of stories per se, but to make friends and be part of a community that extended from family to school. Likewise storybook reading was not a time for peace and quiet, but an activity of play.

While not directly relevant to the issue of foreign-language acquisition in Japan, I do see some important parallels. For one, in my own experience, I have noticed that Japanese adults learning English tend to be very interested in discerning levels of politeness, which reflects the degree of importance given to this in Japanese language usage, when, however, in English, the tone of the voice can be just as telling as the specific words used. This, of course, may not be a prime concern of children learning English. Nevertheless, I do hope that foreign language acquisition, or even bilingual education, will not live up to its dry-sounding name and go beyond being an expedient to getting a good running start in life. At the same time, should it strive to mold communication to fit a model that would ignore inherent structures of expression? What are structures that Japanese children bring with them to the process of learning English? These are just questions. While not an expert in education or in children for that matter, I heartily recommend this book. It is filled with great insights.
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