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Semilingualism?

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  • Don Osborn
    Last March 2 (in msg. #85, First language ed. & other lang. skills ) I wrote the following concerning what I dubbed impaired bilingualism. Not surprisingly,
    Message 1 of 2 , Aug 18, 2004
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      Last March 2 (in msg. #85, "First language ed. & other lang. skills")
      I wrote the following concerning what I dubbed "impaired
      bilingualism." Not surprisingly, others have been working in this
      area long before, with the terms "semilingualism" and "limited
      bilingualism" being used. (more below)

      --- In Multilingual_Literacy@yahoogroups.com, "Don Osborn" <dzo@b...>
      wrote:
      [ . . . ]
      > 3) A concept I've previously brought up that interests me in this
      context,
      > though I am not in a position now to give it the necessary
      theoretical
      > foundation, is "impaired bilingualism" - i.e., where a person
      receives
      > little or no schooling (or even informal education) in their
      maternal
      > language, and inadequate education (in terms of methods and/or
      years in
      > school) in the school language, so has impaired or undeveloped
      skills in
      > both, or at best good skills in one. This is tragic since such
      individuals
      > could have acquired strong knowledge of both.
      >
      [ . . . ]

      Semilingualism "postulates that certain populations of learners know
      no language at all, or speak all languages in their repertoire with
      only limited ability" (MacSwan 2000) and the term "limited
      bilingualism" was coined by J. Cummins in 1981 as a more benign
      sounding alternative to semilingualism (ibid.). (He also mentions
      Chomsky's distinguishing between "linguistic competence"
      and "linguistic performance" - the latter would be close to this
      topic.)

      I came across this in an article critical of the use of the terms and
      claiming that in fact they have no theoretical foundation. The
      article (Jeff MacSwan. 2000. "The Threshold Hypothesis,
      Semilingualism, and Other Contributions to a Deficit View of
      Linguistic Minorities." Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, Vol.
      22 No. 1, February 2000 3-45). The article is motivated by a concern
      that such labelling can be negative for language minority students.
      As such this is a point of view I had not thought of when I brought
      this subject up.

      From personal observation and discussion with others in Africa, I
      think that it is empirically demonstrable that there are individuals
      who have not had the benefit of (much) education in any of the
      languages they speak, and in fact have a limited though functional
      command of the languages (including what might be called a basic
      fluency in their maternal language - thinking here of the observation
      of Hausaphone rural people in Niger who in taking adult literacy
      classes were learning new terms in Hausa for aspects of their own
      livelihoods). This of course is not due to any lack of intelligence
      or will to learn, but to poor educational opportunities and
      communications.

      Moreover, limited language skills arguably are part of language loss
      in the case where the number of speakers is relatively low or their
      isolation from each other reduces chances for use of the language.

      Beyond that, there is the interesting hypothesis that limited
      language skills equal limitations on ability to communicate and in
      turn social and psychological problems.

      All of this may seem to reach too far, but I think that the
      connections between different phenomena apparently associated with
      limited language training (phenomena studied by more or less separate
      disciplines) merit attention in understanding what the outcomes of
      language/education policies and sociolinguistic change are in human
      terms.

      Re theoretical constructs for "semilingualism" or "limited/impaired
      bilingualism," MacSwan claims that Cummins' "Threshold Hypothesis"
      does not hold. Are there others? I'd be interested in any comments
      on this from anyone familiar with this debate.

      Thanks in advance.

      Don Osborn
      Bisharat.net
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