Bilingualism Approaches in the Private and Public Social Sphere
By Maria Melendez
Bilingualism in children is a skill that is recognized by many for its importance in early education. However, it takes an informed parent with access to local or personal resources to be able to fully take advantage of this critical learning period. Because of disparate disadvantages between public language education and the resources of lower-income parents, and that of more exclusive or private school programs, it is interesting to compare the two in their approaches to language and the facility of learning they allow.
Children are a part of a larger system of environment that affects their lives. This idea is discussed in the work of American psychologist Urie Bronfrenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. In this model, a system of social hierarchies are laid out with each circle of influence having an effect on the ones within it. The child is placed at the center of several systems of the social world that affect him/her directly or indirectly. The microsystem is made up of the most immediate and direct social forces that affect the child including family and peers. The following level of impact on the child comes from the exosystem which includes such forces as community, school boards, and media. The furthest level of effect is the macrosystem, which includes social conditions, laws and economic systems. This is the general social setting that the child does not come into direct contact with but which affects all the systems within in it. Looking at this chart we can see that as Norma Gonzalez points out “Children are the ultimate “others,” subjects who are constructed as being voiceless because their voices are viewed as unformed and consequently uninformed.” (163) Therefore, children are positioned as receivers of other ideologies as imposed by outside sources because their understanding may not be recognized.
Norma Gonzalez studied children in a Dual Language Immersion Program in Arizona three years before Proposition 203 was passed, which removed all bilingual programs in the state. In this program, native speakers of both English and Spanish were immersed into bilingual English-Spanish classrooms which taught in both languages with the hopes of achieving fluency in both languages. This type of program was also made with the intent of allowing children to become respectful of multilingual expression and to avoid the disconnect native Spanish speakers may feel when being immersed into an English dominant classroom where their own language skills are not recognized and they may face ridicule or low expectations. (165) Despite the benefits of this program, the “English for the Children Act” disrupted its progress. Therefore, despite the initiative of parents and schools to put children in this program, the larger force of laws caused the end of a positive educational resource. Meanwhile, the child is stuck at the heart of the loss.
The name “English for the Children” suggests that the legislation was an enlightened program that sought to remove bilingual education for the sake of the children and not for their own political or ideological motives. However, Norma points out that children’s reaction to the proposition as it was in the process of being approved was not one of ignorance but rather showed that they understood much more than they were credited for. For example, when a child in this program was asked to think of an antonym for bilingual, he says “tonto (stupid, foolish), clearly refusing interpellations that construct bilinguals as in need of remedial or compensatory programs. This child inverts the deficit discourse of bilingual education and recasts those who do not have skills in more than one language as lacking academic achievement.” (169) Another child, when expressing her unapproval of the removal of the dual language program recognizes that the reason “they” want to get rid of their bilingual education is because they are ignorant and do not understand the benefit of learning in a dual language environment. (169)
Despite the battle over English-only education in places such as California and Arizona, when taken out of an urban context and put into a higher socioeconomic social sphere, there is a completely different view on language learning. In a video from Parents, a popular self-help parenting magazine and website, the value of early bilingualism is discussed. However, in this video we can see a very different form of bilingual learning, through small private classrooms with children around the age of three. In this way, children learn at a young age through play that engages them emotionally and introduces them to new cultures. The fact that these parents are providing their children with this type of education shows that they have access to not only the knowledge of developmental milestones but also that they have the financial means of providing their children with this advantage. One of the fathers interviewed mentioned that he put his son in the program to learn Italian in order to give him a competitive advantage in a more globalized world. Parents also are seen enforcing their own personal desire for their child to speak another language because they cannot speak one. It is also interesting to note that every teacher interviewed in this private program spoke English with a heavy accent; something which is commonly looked down on in public schools where English-only is the emphasis.
Other than private classes, it is also suggested that parents hire a foreign speaking nanny or relative to teach their children another language. Hiring a foreign caretaker to teach your children a foreign language is without a doubt a signifier of disposable income. Despite the fact that relatives are mentioned as an alternative, this is not always a viable choice in the case of native Spanish speakers learning English because the relatives may not have a full grasp on the language themselves or may not feel comfortable speaking. Another suggestion made in the video is to purchase foreign language learning programs so your child can learn the basics of a foreign language. Even for parents who can afford this option, it is not always the best because young children require interactive learning programs in order to have an effective learning experience and even then there is a limit to this learning method because of its design and the inability of the child to be within a language community to maintain this knowledge.
An SNL skit shows a parody of the popular Dora the Explorer show that pokes fun at its interactive story telling style and the inter-sentence translation. In this sketch Dora is replaced by a blunter and socially critical character called Maraka who takes exaggerated pauses when asking questions and demands that children follow her requests to flap and pump their arms and lay on their belly without questioning why they are making these movements. This criticism is more than just critical of the mode of learning but also of more complicated issues of free will and if this show teaches children to accept the position of receiver and not question what the media tells them is correct. This goes back to the positioning of children within the ecological systems theory and the forces that influence their life because children are taught from an early age to respect media as a source of valid information and to be uncritical consumers. Does this type of learning facilitate language ability and the kind of confidence and self-esteem a child might get from talking a private class in language? Or will they just learn to follow directions? Moreover, the form of teaching in this program is directed towards pre-school children so after they are too old to gain any sort of conversational knowledge from the program, it is difficult to continue to expand their lingual knowledge.