First language ed. & other lang. skills (Re: not much help)
- Stephen Krashen posted a reaction on Multied-l to a 2/21 letter (below) to
LATimes about a report on English fluency, which prompts some tangential
reflections. He wrote, in part:
"It is obviously false that 'children cannot learn English until they have
some degree of fluency in their native language.' Of course they can. What
we have argued is that developing literacy (not spoken fluency) in the first
language can accelerate English literacy, and that learning subject matter
in the first language can make English input more comprehensible. Bilingual
education is very HELPFUL, but we can not claim that it is NECESSARY."
It is interesting to take this passage out of its original context and from
another point of view: Looking (as a non-expert in African ed.) at over a
half century of mainy monolingual education over most of a region that is
mainly multilingual - subSaharan Africa :
1) It is true that children can learn English (or French or Portuguese)
without much more than a "degree of fluency in their native language" and
zero literacy. Many have, although many more have not (after all we're
talking about systems descended directly from ones that were in part
designed expressedly to "leave children behind" in promoting an elite). The
question is at what cost to (a) the individuals and (b) the local and
national communities of which they are a part.
2) A question that does not seem come up in the US context (in my short
observation) is how fluency - really deepened knowledge - in the maternal
languages is compromised by educational systems that ignore them (in the
African colonial period students were actually punished for using the
"vernacular" in school, not unlike in schools for Native Americans in the
US). Maybe the question should come up more explicitly in the US context -
are schools shortchanging children from non-English backgrounds if they
don't provide first language education as part of a bilingual curriculum?
(This is a different question than how first language literacy facilitates
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.
February 21, 2004
COMMENTARY, LA Times
When English Isn't First
Re "Report Details Long Road to English-Language Fluency," Feb. 14: The
reality is that children cannot learn English until they have some degree of
fluency in their native language. The less literacy you have in your native
language, the less likely that you will be able to master another language.
If you really want children to learn English, you need to help them achieve
meaningful fluency in their native language first. We are just setting these
children up for failure.
- 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...>
[ . . . ]
> 3) A concept I've previously brought up that interests me in thiscontext,
> though I am not in a position now to give it the necessarytheoretical
> foundation, is "impaired bilingualism" - i.e., where a personreceives
> little or no schooling (or even informal education) in theirmaternal
> language, and inadequate education (in terms of methods and/oryears in
> school) in the school language, so has impaired or undevelopedskills in
> both, or at best good skills in one. This is tragic since suchindividuals
> 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
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
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
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.