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Language Planning and Social change & Forked Tongue The Politics of Bilingual Education

reviewed by John Fanselow - 1991

coverTitle: Language Planning and Social change & Forked Tongue The Politics of Bilingual Education
Author(s): Rosalie Pedalino Porter
Publisher: Transaction Publishing, Piscataway
ISBN: 1560008814, Pages: , Year: 1996
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If you have any interest in language policy, and you have the time, you need to read both these books. Cooper defines language policy and illustrates various facets of language planning by four examples: the founding of the French Academy in 1634, the promotion of Hebrew in Palestine, the use of nonsexist language, and a mass literacy campaign in Ethiopia. He concludes with twenty-four generalizations about language planning that he has carefully developed and documented throughout the book. This exploration of the field of language planning is packed with insights and is a model of scholarship—clear, engaging, careful, broad, and easy to read.

Porter advocates a change in language policy in the United States regarding bilingual education. While Cooper writes to explore, Porter writes to advocate. When you read a bit in Cooper you might be reminded of a comprehensive library, an exciting course you took, or a fascinating lecture you went to. When you read a bit of Porter you might be reminded of a school board meeting, a heated discussion among panel members at a professional meeting, or an editorial. If you do not read Cooper, the engaging scholar, along with Porter, the engaging advocate, however, you might forget the value that scholarship brings to any issue: perspective, balance, recognition of subtlety and the complexity of issues, realization that there are multiple causes of any problem and that there is rarely a one-to-one relationship between a problem and a solution. If you do not read Porter along with Cooper you might forget that the issues of bilingual education and English-only legislation in the United States are as central as and are likely to have as far-reaching consequences as the examples that Cooper presents to illustrate the characteristics of language planning.

Reading Cooper’s description of the multiple variables that affect the success and failure of language policies prepares us to see the limitations of the simple unidimensional solutions Porter is fond of presenting. Cooper surveys issues of language planning from a distance and provides historical as well as geographical and social perspectives. Porter surveys issues of language planning from the point of view of one person in a nonurban school district trying to implement some language policies and resist others. Cooper is trying to show how complex it is to successfully implement language policies. Porter tries to show first that the language policies that have been in effect for twenty or so years have failed and, second, that she knows why they failed and how to successfully implement an alternative language policy: the use of English for instruction for nonnative speakers of English. While she refers to other authors, she makes many claims based on her own experience: “My own observations . . . have led me to the following conclusions” (p. 82) based on “my research, my professional experience over two decades, and not least, my personal experience in living through some of the same difficulties that our students are encountering now” (p. 232, emphasis added). She seems unaware of the possibility that others could present different suggestions based on their research, their professional experience over two decades (or even three decades), and that others might have personal experiences that are in fact closer to those she seems to think her students are living through now than hers were.

Reading a book by a practitioner, which Porter often reminds us she is, can be engrossing. Porter is full of energy, engaging, seems to be hard working and compassionate. But the value of some of the language policies and sensible alternatives she advocates are weakened by her disregard for the positive values of scholarship: perspective, distance—the need to see beyond the “I” and personal experience, the ability to see many sides of an issue, the realization that simple solutions to complex problems do not exist, the understanding that there are multiple causes of any result, the avoidance of the perhaps natural tendency to exaggerate and group people as good or bad. She gives lip service to the complexity of issues—“No quick formulas exist” (p. 232), yet she also writes that the new approaches to pursue are self-evident. Does something that is self-evident not share characteristics with “quick formulas”?

Let me cite examples of the types of statements that I think greatly weaken Porter’s book. Porter classifies as people who are members of “the bilingual establishment” or “bilingual bureaucracy” (pp. 6, 9, 35, 39, 41, 55, 56, 60, 83, 84, 202, 223, 254), or who are “linguists” (pp. 10, 99, 117) or “experts” (p. 253). There are exceptions, however. On page 70, linguists are redeemed because they, along with educators, have concluded “that teaching English and subject matter at the same time is the most effective way to develop English-language skills for academic purposes.” Also, “linguists now emphasize the importance of not dividing up the skills” (p. 80). So some linguists seem to be acceptable and some not; the same label means both good people and bad people depending on where they stand in relationship to the truth, which Porter has found. Linguist Paulston is good (p. 30); linguist or educational psychologist Hakuta is bad (p. 202). If you are a teacher, or one of the “best language teachers,” of course, you are good (p. 82).

Cooper avoids good/bad classifications. He not only tends to give respect to all groups but is humble enough to use words such as might, at least, and probably—reminding the reader how little we really know. To the extent that one seeks technical advice in the creation of a writing system, it might be more useful to talk to anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists than to linguists and psychologists” (p. 131; emphasis added).

Ironically, Porter seems to recognize that the things she does that weaken her book are not good. She speaks of the complexity of educational problems in general. She says “there is no decisive evidence for the superiority of one teaching method over all others” (p. 82). Yet a few lines later she lists the “most effective” teaching methods, which “the best language teachers also endorse” (p. 82). Who are the best language teachers? When were they asked to endorse the methods she lists? Effective teaching consists of practices such as these: using and practicing English in “thoughtfully planned, real-life situations” (p. 83). What does she mean by practicing? Is repeating sentences practicing? Is a real-life situation asking the time? She lists practices as if they were ingredients in a recipe. “Delaying the early learning of English while teaching subject matter in the native language clearly will inhibit the students’ later development of the English language” (p. 233). How does such a statement reflect complexity? Cooper presents results of many studies that in fact contradict Porter’s claim. He says: “The success with which additional languages are learned via their study as school subjects varies widely” (p. 114).

Porter states that the debate about English-only laws needs to be “examined dispassionately if possible, with a damping down of the overblown rhetoric both for and against such an amendment” (p. 208)—“My low tolerance for extreme positions, I am sure, has been apparent throughout” (p. 222). Yet on the issue of bilingual education one can argue that she herself uses  “overblown rhetoric” and presents an extreme position. Consider these sentences: “A centralized government such as the Soviet Union’s . . . can effect social engineering to a high degree” (p. 96); “Effective time on task . . . is, as educators know, the single greatest predictor of educational achievement” (p. 63); “Children learn what they are taught” (p. 63). Nothing is an extreme word! No exceptions are possible. Describing her own experience as a nonnative speaker of English in a classroom she writes, “Although, I cannot recall the process of learning English . . . I know it was painful. I can remember, however, that within two years I felt completely comfortable with English” (p. 14). The entire process of learning English was painful though she cannot remember the process. She was completely comfortable. Any extreme words here? Any “overblown rhetoric”?

Overblown rhetoric and a failure to recognize complexity combine in some of Porter’s claims about cause and effect. “Because I was a mature women with a family who had lived the experience of being in an alien culture, I found an easy rapport with the Santiago family” (p. 18). If I am an immature man in a domestic culture will I not be able to find “easy rapport”? Who determined the rapport was easy? How can we be so sure of the cause of the easy rapport?

In discussing the use of Irish in Ireland and Hebrew in Palestine, Cooper points out that politics is a key part of any language policy. “The choice [of the use of Irish or Hebrew for instruction] was made primarily on political grounds and for political ends” (p. 109). While a close look at language policies around the world makes such a point quite evident, Porter seems a bit surprised by this. In discussing reactions to some of the alternatives she tried in the school district she was working in she writes: “The unrelenting attack on the Newton program clearly sprang from the political expedience of the dominant ideology and had nothing to do with good education for the children” (p. 53).

When Porter presents features of the program she has run for many years in Newton, Massachusetts, she lists five conditions that she says “have produced the best English-language learning and school achievement for this population” (p. 129). Cooper reminds us of the danger of such claims: “But even if we were confident that we had identified all important relevant variables (thus meriting a special place in hell for excessive pride), we generally cannot control them in the settings of everyday life” (p. 54).

Should some of the alternatives Porter presents be tried in schools? Yes, but not necessarily for the reasons Porter presents—and the results will probably be different from those she predicts. In addition, the alternatives are likely to vary greatly with different groups not only because the groups might be different but because the implementation will probably vary. The reason Cooper must be read along with Porter is that he points out differences between planned outcomes and real outcomes, between goals and realities. He points out variables that affect programs that Porter seems not to have considered.

If the solutions to the development of English among nonnative speakers in the United States were as self-evident as Porter claims, there would be no need for her book—it is ironic that she felt she had to write a book to outline the self-evident approaches she advocates. Cooper, on the other hand, does not claim that the four instances of language planning he uses to introduce the multiple variables affecting the outcomes of language policies are self-evident. In fact, one of the purposes of his book is to point out for all of us instances of language planning and their possible consequences so that we can study our own predicaments and compare our proposed policies with those others have used. We can compare characteristics of our own programs with characteristics of Richelieu’s development of the French Academy, the promotion of Hebrew in Palestine, the use of nonsexist language in the United States, and a mass literacy campaign in Ethiopia.

If you want to get on the bandwagon of those who advocate ignoring the first language of students, from reading Cooper you will probably be able to see the limitations of bandwagons in policy development. If you prefer reflection and the world of thinking to the reality of the implementation of language policy, read Porter and you will see why the experts Porter seems to have little use for are vital in any society.

If you have time to read only one of these books, read Cooper. His book is a model of thoughtful, thorough, disciplined, fascinating writing. In the long run, we will be able to increase language-development opportunities for people in many countries through reasoned analysis from multiple perspectives, not from the quick fixes that Porter advocates.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 92 Number 4, 1991, p. 646-650
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 346, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 12:53:28 PM

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