Category Archives: Language learning

A few (language and literacy) thoughts


  • I feel that my background in early childhood education holds me in good stead when it comes to the subtleties of first and second language acquisition. What comes naturally when we support children in their primary languages does not come as naturally when we are working with older learners. There are clear developmental differences but communication almost always is the goal. Instrumental motivation is commonly accompanied by integrative motivation(Baker, 2001, p.123). The useful purpose (instrumental) someone wants to learn a language for often relates to identifying with or joining another language group (integrative) and communicating with people from a distinct linguistic background. ‘Discourse analysis has shown that a second language learner and a native speaker work together to produce purposeful and efficient communication” (Baker, p.118).
  • This ties back to caregiver speech (or ‘motherese’). The caregiver and the infant do not speak the same language at first but they communicate in a mix of verbal and visual cues. They negotiate meaningful input and language development comes about as a ‘process of implicit rule formation, rather than explicit habit formation’ (Baker, p. 119). I remember when I was working in a preschool setting and first heard “I runned to the shop” (or equivalent). I don’t remember if I responded at the time, but if I did I doubt I would have said, “no it’s ran, you ran to the shop” (instinct would hopefully have had me say the second part without the initial negative correction). I now know more about language development and I know that the child was making a hypothesis that actually shows positive cognitive development. What is key is that the child is telling a story and if we interrupt that story to explicitly correct, the train of thought is lost, and the child may shut down.


  • A number of years ago I took part in a collaborative study to see whether we should make a foreign language part of the regular day, at the private school I worked at in Brooklyn. I was already the before and after school French and Spanish teacher, and my passion for languages would have swerved me slightly in the pro camp. After a period of months, of meetings, and readings, we decided that there was already a lot on in the day, including specialist science and music, and decided not to bring a foreign language into the regular school day. There was no clear evidence to show that the children at this privileged school would be better prepared to formally tackle a foreign language in fifth or sixth, if they had taken the language a couple of times a week from kindergarten on. The only ‘real’ benefit seemed to be in terms of accent. I found this process to be of great interest as the articles we read challenged the concept that young children pick up languages so easily and it’s harder the older you get. It is of course much more complex than that. While there are many factors in play, Hakuta (in Baker, p.98) states that the evidence for critical period is scanty and that there are no qualitative differences between child and adult learners.
  •  Something I hadn’t explicitly thought about before is the use of English for science and math (Baker, p.210, point 3). I have always believed that math should be in the home language as the skills are transferable (Baker, p.210, point 4). SFUSD has a math curriculum in Spanish but when I was supervising two student teachers both in second grades, one class used the Spanish language version and the other class used the English version. I had never questioned the use of English for science as I felt it was a given as all schools I’ve visited have had science in English, but now I do. This ties straight into a presentation I saw at CIES 2017 regarding the limits of using Western theorists in the African context, especially when there are African theorists to use, such as Nyerere. Birgit Brock-Utne discussed the use of English as people move through academia, including in Norwegian universities. She recalled a discussion she had with a man in Tanzania who moved into English from Kiswahili when a particular topic came up. She asked him whether the language existed in Kiswahili to talk about that topic, and he said it didn’t. Brock-Utne then said to us that language only grows by using it. A couple of hours later, in a different context, a man from Namibia said he was back in his village, he works in the US, and went to speak to the children at the local school. He works in multimedia and information technology and he found the words for that don’t exist in his mother tongue. We have critical mass with Spanish but even so it is hard enough to get a wide range of quality resources in language arts and social studies.
  • On the way to the airport the other day I spoke to a taxi driver from Tajikistan. I don’t think I’ve met anyone from there before and I didn’t know they speak Farsi, as well as Russian (looking it up now I see that Tajik is a version of Farsi). He has two young children and so I asked the driver what language they speak at home, as I often do. They speak Farsi. The phrase that crossed my mind was that “unless you speak fluent English it’s better to speak your home tongue”. This was quickly replaced by the fact that it’s important for children to learn the language of their heart, and that even if the parents do speak fluent English they should still speak the language of their heart at home. It goes beyond being able to speak to the elders; it goes straight to core preservation value. Children quickly learn what language has power, prestige and preference (Baker, p.92), but they also learn the language of the heart and family. Early on children have the ability to use the appropriate language within appropriate contexts (Baker, p.91). The role children play as language brokers has many positive outcomes (Baker, p. 105). Language brokering can often be a lifeline, but there are certain ethical dilemmas when it comes to interpreting sensitive information, such as medical or educational information. Ideally, trained community interpreters can fill the role but in their absence children may need to step in.
  • Language brokering in less sensitive areas, such as when shopping, or banking, highlight student skills in areas a classroom teacher might not be aware of (Jiménez & Orellana, 2006). The suggestion of using journals to access this information is a strong pedagogical tool that opens a window, not only into occasions of language brokering but also emotions surrounding these. Harnessing these skills for academic growth taps into funds of knowledge the student may not know they possess. It may also strengthen positive ideologies surrounding home languages, if these languages are not high status. Children learn early on (Baker, p.106) one language never fully parallels another. Language brokering is not so much about interpreting word for word, but it is also about finding equivalencies. These equivalencies might not always exist, the words comadre or compañera for example come to mind, but the importance is finding the spirit in the sentiment.



 Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed). Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Jiménez, R., & Orellana, M. (2006). Flipping the Educational Script: Teachers as Learners. California English.



Tend the linguistic garden


Colin Baker (Baker, 2001, p.53) comments that language diversity requires planning and care. He uses an analogy of a garden to illustrate his point. Smaller flowers may be in need of more protection, and sometimes radical action needs to be taken to preserve particular plants. Baker comments earlier on that language shift is more common than language stability. This intuitively makes sense but it complicates the preservation of languages that are not viewed as high status and/or are spoken by a small group of people. The Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights (1996) is a beautiful document to read but it is difficult not to view it as a utopia for language communities. It is a critical document to have, imagining other worlds is a powerful liberatory tool, and it is comprehensive, bringing in invasion and colonization and other references to uses and abuses of power. Linguistic diversity is promoted throughout this document as a peace builder, as a key factor for harmonious social relations, and a political framework based upon respect and mutual benefit.

Baker points out that language rights can sometimes be more idealistic than realistic (p.370). He describes the distinction between tolerance-oriented rights and promotion-oriented rights. A tolerance orientation is often legalistic in form, and one of its aims is to protect against discrimination in different settings, schools being one of the most highly charged. A promotion orientation implies the active inclusion of all language communities in question, going beyond the letter of the law. This can be costly to implement and oftentimes impractical. Home language instruction ideally would be offered to all students in the US but it is impossible to provide for all communities. Speakers of Spanish are best served as they make up a large group of non-English speakers in many parts of the country. Speakers of Somali may be served in the Minneapolis area but less so outside of this region.

The territorial principle may also be in play when it comes to tolerance and/or promotion of linguistic rights. In Article One of the UNLR a language community is considered any human society that has developed a common language as a natural means of communication, whether or not there are historical ties to the territory they find themselves in. This accounts for immigrant and refugee communities, among others. Baker reminds us (p.43) that the politics and power situation in which minority languages are situated is important. Beyond hierarchies of language, the power differential between people who believe they belong in this country (and Australia and the UK)-based on being a native speaker of English is vast. Around two thirds of the world’s population is bilingual and multilingual and this number is growing. The UNLR was likely written by people who speak multiple languages, and a challenge to the primacy of English did not have a place in this document (it can be read in the lines however). English is a global and imperial language and monolingual English speakers often feel entitled to the territory that comes with it.

Power and ideology determines whose language is taught, which language practices are valued and which are minoritized (García, 2014, p.89). Hegemonic educational practices in many Anglophone countries draw on the cultural capital of the white, middle-class, English-speaking student. The acquisition of ‘foreign’ languages is seen to be beneficial morally, socially and globally for the white, middle-class student, while the language communities that speak these languages as home tongues are seen as deficient (Baker p.347). Ofelia Garcia (p. 91) states that the most important aspect of language education is having teachers who are educated to respect the multilingual ecology of their classroom and to develop the bilingualism of their students. This happens too seldom in teacher education programs and in ongoing professional development for classroom teachers. Language education pedagogies are products of their time, and often reflect retrograde notions. Until a year or so ago, I carried with me a visual of the purgatory of ‘semilingualism’: people who don’t have academic home language or English. Leaving aside the problematic of the definition of ‘academic’, it was only when reading a recent article (Flores, Kleyn, & Menken, 2015) that I saw how erroneous that visual is. Garcia challenges monoglossic ideologies, in particular the concept that there are fixed first and second languages. She proposes instead the concept of languaging that is complex and interrelated, and does not emerge in a linear fashion. Garcia writes that continuing to talk about L1 and L2 keeps power in the hands of monolinguals that speak the dominant language of the society in which they live at birth and who can acquire a “second” language independently. This “native” speaker is seen as White, monolingual and loyal to their nation, whereas Brown and Black bilingual speakers are marked as ‘foreign’.

Language diversity, language rights, the territorial principle and power and ideology lead us in a circle that is ever expanding. Without intentional and critical reflection on bilingualism and its relation to power and privilege we may subsume language diversity and language rights beneath a neoliberal mantle. We need to crack that mantle and creatively plan for the maintenance and promotion of the rights of all language communities, wherever they reside. It is a complex and messy business, as with so much work in education, but if we don’t ask the questions we remain in purgatory.



Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed). Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Flores, N., Kleyn, T., & Menken, K. (2015). Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14(2), 113–132.

García, O. (2014). Chapter Six: Multilingualism and Language Education. In C. Leung & B. V. Street (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to English Studies (pp. 84–99). London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

UNESCO. (1996). Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. UNESCO. Retrieved from



Beware the apologetic stance of liberals


“Ignorance is never innocent and is always shaped by a particular ideological predisposition”. This quote from Donaldo Macedo (Macedo, 2000) is in response to educators objecting to the term “colonialism” to characterize the present (writing in 2000) attack on bilingual education (an attack that is still underway). He comments that the apologetic stance of some liberals, faced with the ignorance of educators who blindly oppose bilingual education, is not surprising as classical liberalism always prioritizes the right to private property. Market forces and neoliberalism are a logical extension of classical liberalism. Whiteness and English go together to suppress people of color and other people whose lives are pushed to the margins. English is not the only colonial language but it is the most widespread. It could also be argued that it is the most insidious as it continually morphs and spreads its webbing, increasing its influence.

Cheryl Harris introduced the concept of “whiteness as property” (Harris, 1993)and this can be extended to “English as property”. Speaking English is too often equated with ‘intelligence’ despite clear evidence that native English speakers do not have a monopoly on complex thought. In fact to even enter into that debate shows the dominance of English expression at the expense of other languages and mother tongues. In reference to Prop 227, empirical evidence that showed that in San Francisco and in San José bilingual graduates were outperforming their English speaking counterparts (Macedo, 2000) was deliberately ignored as it didn’t fit the deficit narrative pushed by politicians, the media, and English Only proponents. The days of overt punishment for speaking home languages other than English may be over, but students from lower socio-economic settings are still punished when forced to abandon their mother tongue in formal school settings.

“And then I went to school..” Macedo (2000) states that the ideological principles that sustain debates over bilingual education and the primacy of Western heritage are consonant with a colonial ideology designed to devalue the cultural capital and values of the colonized. It is impossible to extract relations of power and privilege from language teaching, and from teaching in general. The supposed ‘objectivity’ of Dominant American English plasters over the legacy of colonialism and exploitation, that is still very much in play. It is heartening, however, to read the work of researchers in the field, and educators in various settings, who challenge deficit thinking when it comes to students who speak non-Dominant American English. The authors of a 2008 review of research (García, Kleifgen, & Falchi, 2008) posit that the central idea to emerge from the report is that there is a growing dissonance between research on the education of emergent bilinguals and policy enacted to educate them. Eight years on we are fortunate to have even more work focused on the education of emergent bilingual students, work that may serve to buttress the hatred and intolerance now legitimized in too many places.

In terms of policy, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act, renamed No Child Left Behind, pushed nails in the coffin of education of ELs. Instead of linguistic references to bilingual education the goal was English acquisition at all costs. There is little doubt that the assault on bilingual education is directly linked to the number of Spanish speaking emergent bilingual students. At an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Lau v. Nichols, one of the attorneys on the case mentioned that it was a strategic decision to have Chinese families file the class action suit, and that if it had been, for example, Sanchez v. Nichols, the result could have been different. It’s hard not to react to that viscerally, but it reflects the attitudes of the time, and prevailing attitudes of today. Around 80% of emergent bilinguals speak Spanish as a home language, providing critical mass in terms of presence and policy. It is impossible, however, to generalize about people who come from vastly different countries and vastly different cultures. The 2008 report provides us with an overview of the data and an overview of programs set up to support emergent bilingual students. The authors contend that the recent shift toward teaching Spanish-speaking English language learners in English alone with no use of Spanish to scaffold their learning appears to be the result of the public’s misunderstanding of the nature of bilingualism and its benefits, as well as cultural politics that have little to do with what is educationally sound for the children.

A report from 2007 authored by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that in a preschool setting when the Spanish speaking children spoke with their teachers in Spanish, conversations were more elaborate, children were rated higher by their teachers in terms of character traits, and there was less bullying and anti-social behavior. The amount of Spanish that children experienced in the classroom was significantly related to teachers’ ratings of children’s frustration, tolerance, assertiveness, task orientation and peer social skills. The use of Spanish in the classroom had no influence on their English language acquisition. When we talk about academic language and academic achievement we must bring in social and emotional hooks, as that is what home languages provide in abundance. These hooks can also come about when children learn native languages relevant to their cultural identity. As these are often languages not used much in the home, the complexity of expression may be mooted, but the importance of the language is not.

Too often decisions on how to teach emergent bilinguals are being made not in the classroom but in legislative chambers and voting booths; not on the basis of educational research data but on the basis of public opinion, often passionate but rarely informed (Murray, 2007). An outspoken advocate of bilingual education, James Crawford (Crawford, 2000), stated, “In a small way when government offers bilingual assistance, it elevates the status of language minorities. It suggests that immigrants and Native peoples need not abandon their heritage to be considered American-or at least to be given access to democratic institutions. In short, it alters structures of power, class, and ethnicity. The demand for language restrictions, by contrast, is a demand to reinforce the existing social order.” Education is always political and bilingual education tends to elicit greater political involvement than other areas of education due in no small part to the colonizing power of English and English-only movements. It is this colonizing power we face and we need creative solutions to support our students’ hearts and souls.


Crawford, J. (2000). Anatomy of the English-only Movement. In At War with Diversity. Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

García, O., Kleifgen, J. A., & Falchi, L. (2008). From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals (Research Review). New York, N.Y.: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Harris, C. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1709–1791.

Macedo, D. (2000). The Colonialism of the English Only Movement. Educational Researcher, 29(3), 15–24.

Murray, M. (Liz). (2007, May 23). Current Political Realities and their Impact on Young English Language Learners. Hunter College, CUNY, New York, N.Y.


The Arrival

Thoughts from a recent trip to Japan:

A couple of days after arriving in Tokyo I took a taxi from our hotel to Ueno Park, about a half hour drive. I was reminded of the Shaun Tan masterpiece The Arrival. All the signs around were in Japanese and the modern feel of the place put me straight into a world reminiscent of Blade Runner and other futuristic sci-fi settings. Tokyo doesn’t have flying cars or apparent androids but it’s a city like no other I’ve visited before. The first time I read The Arrival I had an inkling of what it might be like to be in a place that uses a language you are completely unfamiliar with. The protagonist arrives in this city to escape a threat in his homeland. He is hoping to bring his wife and his daughter with him once he is set up. There are no words in this story but you can identify what passes for written language. You can identify signs and labels without knowing what they say. This highlights for me that you only learn to read once, and that once you are able to see abstract symbols standing in for concrete and abstract words, you can recognize what is script in foreign languages. The dizzying feeling of my first reading of the book never came back, and as a native English speaker it’s rare I’ve felt that way since. No matter where I go I can expect that someone will have at least a smattering of English. Riding in the taxi I wasn’t completely at sea as street signs often use English as well as Japanese, some ads have English words in them, and inside the taxi there is information in English. Most taxi drivers we met spoke only a small amount of English but we had place names written in Japanese to help with directions and hotel staff also helped translate when needed. Inside all taxis there is a ‘point and (something)’ sheet. Anyone travelling to Japan from elsewhere needs some English to get by. There were a couple of people we met in shops who were native French speakers and one who was a native Brazilian/Portuguese speaker, but they all spoke English too. The day tours we went on were all conducted in English. When I googled English monolingualism I came across this article regarding English as a lingua franca. It’s a quick and interesting read that gathers quotes from elsewhere so I’m not able to synthesize the points raised. There is no doubt English is useful for any travellers, but native English speakers benefit so much from learning even a few words in another language as it truly opens up the heart and soul. It helps you see the world through different eyes. Science fiction and speculative fiction stories also open up hearts and minds to a different reality. This is why I enjoy reading them so much. The next time I visit Tokyo I’ll be on the lookout for more experiences like the one in the taxi. I know it’s tricky to truly get lost, and to be in an unforeseen locale, but if it’s going to happen, there is no better place than Japan.

Fish is Fish

I had a shiatsu massage today and as I was relaxing on the table I was thinking of calming images and one of a frog came to mind. This led to thinking about the book Fish is Fish by Leo Lionni, and from there it was a quick leap (haha) to interpreting it as a metaphor for being multilingual. In infanthood both fish and frog/tadpole do the same things and see each other as more or less the same. As happens with frogs, the tadpole soon grows legs, leaves the pond and travels the world. Frog doesn’t forget his friend though and comes back to the pond to tell Fish about all he’s seen. I’ll admit that this bit sometimes makes me feel a little strange as I feel a bit sorry for Fish who hasn’t been around the world, but let’s leave that to the side for the moment. Frog is now a multilingual entity and poor old Fish is still monolingual. Frog describes all the places he has been but Fish can only see them through his pond/monolingual eyes. Fish tries to jump out of the pond at the end but he can’t breathe air so Frog saves him by pushing him back in the pond. To keep with my metaphor it would be great if Fish could learn to breathe air and share the experiences Frog has, but this isn’t to be. The image I had of Frog as I was on the massage table is that Frog straddles two worlds and can live in both. I don’t want to stretch the metaphor too far, and the fact that frogs are endangered isn’t really symbolic of multilingualism as a whole. There are too many endangered languages, but outside of English speaking westernized countries people are far more likely to be at least bilingual. Charlemagne is credited with saying that to have another language is to possess a second soul. I also like a quote from Wittgenstein, “the limits of my language are the limits of my life”. I’ve used the second quote a few times as an opener to academic papers, generally when the topic relates to bilingual education in an English speaking country. While looking up these quotes I came across one that I’m not as familiar with but it’s heartbreakingly true:

Many Americans have long been of the opinion that bilingualism is ‘a good thing’ if it was acquired via travel (preferably to Paris) or via formal education (preferably at Harvard) but that it is a ‘bad thing’ if it was acquired from one’s immigrant parents or grandparents. -Fishman

I can’t quite tie this quote in to Fish is Fish as there are no family members in the pond as such, and I’m adding quite a personal slant to the book in any case. This is what it comes back to for me though, that we are all so much better off if we shed a monolingual coil and let in other words and languages, to whatever degree we are capable of.

Oo! Usithetha kakuhle isiXhosa, sisi!

I started ‘seriously’ learning Xhosa today. Over the last few months I’ve been listening to the tapes but I haven’t sat down to read the book and listen to the conversations in depth. I’m using Teach Yourself Xhosa that I had to order in the US as the bookshops in Johannesburg only had TY English and TY Afrikaans. I can’t remember if there were other methods there, but if there were they were there to teach English and Afrikaans only. It’s clear which languages are of higher status in South Africa.

I’m a fan of the Teach Yourself series. I used it to learn Spanish before going to Mexico many, many moons ago. I taught English as a foreign language in France and too many of the instructional books barely used the space given to them. I’d always combine material but whenever it was a matter of teaching business English it was hard to keep my eyes open. In Brooklyn I taught French and Spanish classes to third graders, before and after school. My main objective was to have everyone speaking as much as possible so we sang mostly movement based songs and played games that involved moving around too. A few of the games involved question and answer forms that are key to communication. What I like about the TY Xhosa book is that naturalistic conversations are used to introduce language forms. The first chapter had two women meeting on a plane and then in chapter two one of the women visits the other woman at home and we meet their husbands, and a son. The two families are the Thamsanqa family and the Murray family (uncanny ;-). When Thandi and Jenny meet on the plane, Thandi is impressed by Jenny’s mastery of Xhosa; at the Murray’s house Thandi and Themba ask Jenny’s son David if he is learning Xhosa at school. The Murray’s speak Xhosa without an accent, as far as I can tell, but the premise that they are not native speakers allows for discussion around learning the language, so we can say things like “Oo! Usithetha kakuhle isiXhosa, sisi!” (“You speak Xhosa well, sisi!”). I’m looking forward to the day someone says that to me 🙂