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The New York Sun


The View From Norway: Bilingual Ed

November 09, 2006

By John H. McWhorter

As the election returns are coming in, I am writing from the Arctic Circle.

I'm in Tromso, Norway, an extremely northern city whose university has me doing some lectures on linguistics.

I am keeping a close eye on the congressional elections. However, I am very, very far from home. In the existence I am living this week, as a linguist, I am struck by how different the Norwegian language here is from the Norwegian in books.

It reminds me that it was 10 years ago that Oakland's school board was putting together their resolution to "acknowledge" Black English in the schoolroom when teaching black children. The country erupted in jokes about teaching in "jive," but this was not what the Oakland school board meant. The resolution reflected a sentiment that had been kicking around for years, that the reason black schoolchildren so often have trouble learning to read is the difference between Standard English and the comfort dialect they learn at home.

So the idea was that the black student used to saying "I ain't got none and they be tellin' me it be my fault" is confused to encounter on the page "I don't have any and they tell me it is my fault." To wit, the claim was that black children would have an easier time learning to read if they encountered their home dialect on the page first, and then were ushered into Standard English as a "separate" variety.

On its face, this was not crazy. Too often, in practice, bilingual education has been a disaster in America. However, the problem has been one of implementation, not of philosophy. Worldwide, it has been shown endlessly that children learn to read more quickly when first taught in their native language and are gently transitioned into the dominant one.

The question is whether black students' reading scores were really due to their not being treated like Chicano students. That is where my sojourn to Norway comes in. Here in Tromso, the local dialect is so different from the standard language that it leaves someone who thought he had mastered Norwegian frustrated. "What" is ka instead of hva. A word you use every two seconds like "I" is æ instead of jeg. Things like this go on and on, and they represent the exact same kind of difference as exists between Black English and the New York Review of Books — not a different language, but different all the same.

Yet Tromso schoolchildren here are not taught in the local dialect, nor are they given readers in the local dialect and "ushered into" the standard. No one has any problem with them using the local dialect at home or in the schoolyard. But in class, standard Norwegian is the order of the day.

And they learn it.

In fact, there was an experiment here a long time ago, where students given local dialect materials learned to read a little faster than students who were taught with standard materials.A little faster, that is. But for any number of reasons not much came of that, and overall, there is no educational crisis in Tromso or anywhere else in Norway.

Maybe it would be superlatively ideal if all Norwegian students were taught in their home dialects — of which there are dozens. But the expense that would entail is not seen to justify giving up a system which works fine anyway.

In the same way, a few studies have shown that black children sometimes learn to read a little faster when first given Black English materials. But the legions of black Americans of all walks of life who have done just fine without "Ebonics" tutelage suggests that this approach might be certainly ideal — but hardly necessary.

Many think that the fact that Black English carries a stigma as "bad English" makes it a different case from places like Norway. The idea seems to be that black students of a certain demographic resist Standard English because of a feeling that it's "not their party," and that we are in the dark about methods of teaching them to read.

Yet from 1967 to 1977, the Department of Education sponsored a study called Project Follow-Through, which focused on lower-income (re: mostly black and brown) children. "Holistic" and "creative" reading programs stressing self-esteem and the like were tested against a rigorous, good old-fashioned program stressing basic skills.

The results resoundingly showed that the basic-skills methods work very well, while the more tutti-frutti ones do not.

Yet the Ebonics controversy proceeded as if this project had never been done. Sadly, the visceral appeal of treating black children as "denied their rights as bilinguals" trumped teaching them to read via a method shown conclusively to work. Education schools year after year produce teachers unaware that, as it were, penicillin was discovered decades ago.

Time zones mean that my deadline is too early to know how well the Democrats have done. But to the extent that they continue letting the teachers' unions pass in pretending Project Follow-Through never happened, they are unworthy of the votes they got from anyone truly concerned with the state of education for the disadvantaged.

Original Source:



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