catapult magazine

catapult magazine


Should we strive toward a National Culture?


Dec 03 2002
05:04 pm

I ran across some thoughts today that were intriguing to me. I was doing some research on bilingual education for Haitian Creole-speakers living in the United States, and I ran across some intriguing opinions, that have a lot to say about culture. I knew there were critics of bilingual education out there, but I found this quote interesting:

“Opponents of multicultural education have warned against the potentially divisive nature of multicultural education, suggesting that it would lead to the disunity of America as ‘it belittles unum and glorifies pluribus.’ (Jacoby, 1994; Schlesinger, 1992)’” (Zephir 1999). (I probably didn’t do that citation right…if you’re really interested, send me an e-mail)

On the other hand, the researcher writing the study believes that “multicultural education plants the seeds of social justice as it leads to equitable access and opportunity for all students, regardless of race, gender, social class, nationality, ethnic and linguistic background.” (Zephir 1999).

I would definitely agree with the second quote, but I wonder if there is any merit in the first quote? Both obviously entail assumptions about what culture is and how it is done. I would tend to believe that the second is more educationally sound, but I’d like to hear other people’s opinions on it. What do you think?


Dec 03 2002
07:08 pm

AH!!! William F. Buckley, Jr.‘s book “Nearer My God” has some provocative thoughts about multiculturalism in the classroom and I’m currently out of town, away from my book and do not want to paraphrase him without refreshing myself as to what his point was exactly. Dang it.


Dec 04 2002
05:24 am

hmm. I just heard a story on NPR about this as is relates to bilingual education in Tucson Arizona. It’s a difficult issue, i think. on the one hand, you want immigrants to learn english as well as they can so that they can be effective in America (which is, for good or bad, basically monolingual). And to really learn a language fluently, you need almost total immersion. If i was to move to another country, I think that’s the way that I would try to do it, even though it would be very difficult at first.

On the other hand, I think it’s good for people to maintain their native language, and I think it’s good to be accomodating wherever possible (for example posting multiple languages in airports, bus stops, etc.). And despite all of the buzzwords on one hand, and the negative backlash on the other hand, I think diversity is one of the best things about America.

So I guess I didn’t answer anything, but I agree that it’s a very difficult and interesting question.


Dec 04 2002
06:07 am

like jonner, i don’t really have any answers to the question, but i do want to applaud the topic. i was reading something about bilingual education the other day and wanted to post, but didn’t have time.

the article i was reading was about English Only legislation that’s already been passed in a couple of states (including California and Arizona) that bans bilingual education. the board of education in CA has even taken out the words “bilingual” and “culture” from its official literature.

within a couple of days of reading this article, i read a story in the paper about how colleges are striving to recruit foreign students.

how do these two things fit together? it’s disturbing to me, but i can’t really articulate why. it’s as though we value diversity as long as its representatives come from another country, but when it comes to our own citizens, we strive for a homogenous populace.

another column i read on the same topic illuminates the benefits of immigrants learning English (like access to better jobs, for example), and i agree insofar as learning the language of any country one chooses to live in will be beneficial. but i think this can be achieved without the dictatorial enforcement of English Only legislation.

but i’m no expert on the topic and don’t have any statistics to back myself up. bridget, do you know anything about the research on this topic? aside from research, is it Christian in principle to force people to learn a language?


Dec 04 2002
07:02 am

Can I mention a few more things on the topic of bilingual education? Some of you received a survey I was doing as part of a project for one of my grad. classes. The purpose was to find out what non-linguists know about bilingual education. It was a very interesting survey because language (somewhat like education) is something that people really think they know about, without ever studying it, or really understanding it.

Take Ron Unz, for instance. He’s the one who championed and helped to pass the English-Only amendment in California, Arizona, and Colorado (It was narrowly defeated in Massachusetts). He not only knows nothing about bilingual education (has never been in a bilingual classroom), but openly admits that he started the movement in order to gain a name for himself in politics…disgusting if you ask me.

If I could mention a few more things I’ve learned about bilingual education…I used to agree with you, Jonner, that immersion was best. That’s how I learned a good deal of the languages that I’ve studied. However, in doing a lot of research reading in my Master’s program, and talking with a good many top-notch linguists, I’ve come to understand that that’s not really true. Research has shown that if students are fluent and literate in their home language, and keep up those skills, thier success in English will be helped. It has been shown that a lot of those skills will transfer. Many of the (good) bilingual programs use the home language as a resource for learning English, trying to ensure that students are bilingual and biliterate.

An interesting point to me, is that there are generally three ways countries and people look at languages—resource, right, or problem. In the US, we’ve generally seen languages other than English as a problem, when pedagogically (and I would argue morally and ethically) it’s more sound to see them as resources, and many countries see them as rights.

Okay, I’ve ranted for way too long. As you can see, I’m passionate about this, but in being so I hope not to alienate anyone who wants to know more about it. I hope we can keep up this discussion!


Dec 04 2002
07:43 am

Interesting question. If you want to see the effects of this type of language legislation, look at Quebec. Montreal used to be nearly split 50/50 between English and French native speakers. Today the split is more like 70% French, 10% English, 20% Other. How did this happen? In the 1970s and 80s Quebec francophones were recognizing that their culture was losing ground to American and Anglo-Canadian influences. Several laws were instituted. One essentially outlawed Enlish-only education, so that now all children in Quebec grow up speaking fluent French. Another terribly controversial law banned foreign language signs on stores and such. (There is a funny little bookstore near McGill that used to have a big sign “BOOKS” in the shop window. After the law was passed they changed it to “BOOOKS,” so that it could no longer be considered an English word.)

At first these laws caused massive emigration from Quebec: scared Anglophones left the province, company headquarters moved to Toronto, industries freaked out and shut down. The eighties and early ninties were times of serious economic depression. But Quebecers were willing to pay this price for the sake of their culture, which now seems to be thriving alongside a revitalized economy. It’s a case of cultural interests superseding economic interests, which we see so rarely in North America.

The moral of the story is that this type of law works. Montreal is now a mostly francophone city, with English generally spoken as a second language. The next generation of Latinos in California may speak Spanish but their children are less likely to unless bilingual education is introduced again.

Think about this: How many of you speak the language of your ancestors? My dad emigrated from Germany and I speak it but will my children? If you look at the makeup of North America, probably less than 20% of the population derives from English speaking ancestry. We’ve all been melted into the pot. The same is likely to happen to American Latinos within a couple of generations.


Dec 04 2002
12:44 pm

We’ve been looking at language planning and legislation in Quebec in my classes recently, and it’s not that English is outlawed on signs, etc, but French must be equally represented.

In California, although Prop. 229 was passed (the English-Only amendment) Unz left some loopholes in the law—there is still bilingual education. Actually, there are exceptions from the law in Quebec as well. In California, parents can sign waivers after 30 days of school, and then their children can be in bilingual programs. There are a few other loopholes as well, which has kept the good bilingual programs going.

There’s an important distinction between bilingual programs I think. There are two general types—transitional, and dual. Transitional programs use the native language as a bridge to the target language, and generally progesses from more native language to less, and doesn’t necessarily produce students who are biliterate. Most of these programs have 90% native language and 10% target in 1st grade, 80/20 in second, 70/30 in third, etc. Dual bilingual programs, however, have students of at least two different backgrounds, and the goal is that the students will be both bilingual and biliterate by the time they complete the program.

A lot of people use your argument, Dan, to say that bilingual educaiton is unnecessary (My mother, uncle, grandfather learned English), but the research has shown otherwise.

I personally think that we’ve lost a lot of our heritage by losing those languages, although perhaps you could argue we’ve become more American. I guess it’s the melting pot versus the tossed salad.


Dec 04 2002
05:33 pm

Bridget I hope this doesn’t distract from your main point but I thought I should clarify the Quebec laws a bit for everyone.

The original sign law in Quebec (Bill 101) required that all commercial and road signs be in French only. No English, Chinese, Spanish, nothing. The culture police were literally prowling around the city looking for non-compliers. In the early 1990s the law was amended to allow the limited use of languages other than French on commerical signs.

Bill 101 also limited access to English schools. Between 1976 and 1990 levels of enrolment in English schools dropped 50%. The sharp decline forced the closure of 200 of these schools.

In 1977, when Bill 101 was introduced, 82% of all written communication in Quebec was in English. Under Bill 101, all companies operating in Quebec with fifty or more employees are required to function in French.

California is a different case. If nothing were done, it would probably be mostly Spanish speaking in a few decades, which is fine by me, but scary for people who like things to stay the way they are. If you want California to stay predominantly English speaking, you’ve got to suppress all types of Spanish influences, though I don’t what the threat is from bilingual education? Places like the Netherlands have quart-lingual education and still manage to hang onto their Dutch language and culture. But bilingual education is something I don’t know much about so I’ll let Bridget do the talking. I don’t have a particular point to make here anyway. Thanks for listening.


Dec 13 2002
05:32 am

Though I’m not as familiar with the language issues here, I have done a lot of thinking about the more general concepts of multicultural education, and I think that it behooves Christians to support multicultural education.

The concept of “one national culture” is stifling to authentically Christian expressions of faith in the public square. Our attempts to develop a “national culture” in the US have led, most unfortunately, to the adoption of civil religion. Personally, I get frustrated by the Religious Right’s efforts to meld Christian faith into US political culture. As a Christ-follower, I think it’s better to bring a Christian voice (authentically) into the public square (here education) and let it speak to the multiplicity of perspectives that are being shared in the setting. If we truly live in a pluralistic setting, then we must be open to this exchange.

I think that the perspectives of marginalized groups also have much to offer the Christian life. There is much that marginality has in common with a Christ-following perspective. It does us good to walk in others’ shoes to see how they might experience God’s world. Their read on Scripture, their read on political events, their read on arts and entertainment tells us what voices the culture is listening to and helps us step out of our saturated selves into something like a fresh perspective.

So, I guess while I support education that gives students a sense of the history of the West, I would ask…what part of the West is important? And, from a Christian perspective…what voices ought we be listening to that might shape our life and practice? Where, truly, is God speaking? In the political, intellectual powerhouses that we are accustomed to knowing or in the stories of marginalized groups that, by nature of the color of their skin, their gender or their sexual orientation have not made the headlines or the text books?

Curious to engage on this topic…