Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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AUTHOR(S): Hadi-Tabassum, Samina TITLE: Language, Space and Power SUBTITLE: A Critical Look at Bilingual Education SERIES: Bilingual Education & Bilingualism PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2006
Debbie Cole, Department of English, University of Texas, Pan American
This monograph records and analyzes observations of participant behavior in a fifth grade dual language immersion classroom in the United States. Children in this classroom voiced meta-linguistic awareness of inequalities between Spanish and English, pointing out that ''we need to add more Spanish words'' (197). The teachers agree both on theoretical and pedagogical grounds, but in practice English is always the default language out of perceived convenience and necessity. The book makes an interesting and timely contribution to our understandings of linguistic inequalities and bilingual program implementation: When authoritative teacher voices do respond metalinguistically to student observations of linguistic inequalities, teacher mediations favor English-dominant interlocutors perceived as needing protection from a possible alienation that might result from not understanding more words in Spanish. The author, Samina Hadi-Tabassum, raises reader consciousness about three current issues: The relationship between theory, research, and practice in classroom pedagogy, the asymmetrical power relationship between student-teacher discourse, and the details of the received ideological binary distinction between Spanish and English in current public debate.
In Chapter 1, the author introduces the research site as an exemplary space for observing linguistic border negotiations. The democratically stated pedagogical goals and practices of a dual immersion classroom are made explicit: Child fluency in Spanish and English are to be achieved through classroom practices that give equal time to each language. The reader is positioned to see the dual immersion classroom as a space where institutionalized linguistic equality has a good chance of succeeding because many participants (parents, teachers, students, administration, the larger community) support the endeavor both vocally and practically. The information provided in this chapter makes the subsequent failed negotiations over unequal language borders particularly poignant, even more so because the negotiations were often initiated by children.
In Chapter 2, the author shows how advocates of dual language programs justify strict temporal and spatial divisions between Spanish and English in the classroom on evidence that bilingual speakers have separate mental representations for different languages. The logic goes 'since the brain keeps track of these two languages in discrete mental spaces it must need discrete kinds of input that can be guaranteed by separate-but-equal spaces, times, and activities in which one-and-only-one language is used at a time.' The author notes that dual immersion program advocates did not actively make use of research-based evidence that mental representations of multiple languages can be either distributed across the brain or that brains access the same areas regardless of which language is being produced. This chapter implies but does not fully explore the possibility that an acknowledgement of a more networked, distributed language storage and retrieval system (i.e. the brain) could lead to more successful teaching practices and learner outcomes in second language acquisition.
In chapters 3, 4, and 5 readers share the author's observations of student-student and student-teacher everyday interactions as they move back and forth between Spanish speaking times and spaces and English ones. In their dialogs, participants stumbled over language borders enforced by authoritative discourses claiming bilingual equality, yet whose very presence at metalinguistic epiphanies where students point to inequities seems to function to police the language divide. Since teacher practices informed by research in education are also such that spaces and times were made available for student reflection, students sometimes exerted the agency they are afforded to question the validity of claims about linguistic equality.
Each of Chapters 3 through 5 is didactic, making the book suitable for students of pedagogy. Through the detailed descriptions of classroom life, we become virtual members of a particular third grade classroom sharing the author's gaze as a student of human behavior. The ''The Cheers'' chapter teaches that although educators may have the tools and resources to create spaces where children can become reflexive about language practices, they seem to lack the ability or willingness to allow student concerns about inequitable behavior to change their own behaviors in ways that actually address those concerns. The ''Jack, Su Mama, Y El Burro'' chapter teaches that when children attempt to hold authority figures accountable to their promises of linguistic equality their efforts are applauded but then no attempt is made to actually make good on those promises, in fact it becomes clear that there is no plan for such an eventuality. The ''The Flow and Movement of Music'' chapter teaches that authoritative claims about authentic and inauthentic language can be elided in shared musical practices where sound-based intragroup interactions (rhythmic, auditory, vocal, etc.) not only provide effective alternative ways of learning new linguistic material but enable shifts in perspective about socially prescriptive binaries like las fronteras between idiomas.
The children in this study felt free to engage in metalinguistic discussion of inequities precisely in and around those conversational spaces where they were encouraged to perform culturally structured texts (creating a class cheer, performing a class play, singing Spanish folk songs). Since this propensity for humans to use culturally structured linguistic texts as sites for the performance of otherwise repressed speaker agency has long been well described and understood in linguistic anthropology, this monograph may appear on the surface as just another case study. However, the particularity of the authors' site (the joint facts that the metalinguistic cognition occurred in child utterances and that the particular language borders being negotiated are English and Español) make the book read like a text book example of the details of sociolinguistic conflicts and resolutions arising in second language acquisition environments.
Two dimensions of the author's writing practices in the book are instructive. First, one apparent danger of the particular gaze that seeks to encompass the whole classroom and all the bodies and discourse within it is the tendency to slip into a social psychoanalytical perspective that claims authority in identifying and interpreting unexpressed mental processes for which the reader may or may not have evidence. An example of this is in chapter 3 where the author claims that a mental residue remains after a missed opportunity for self-identification by students as authentically 'dual-language' even though the students and teachers never discussed what appeared as disappointment in their behavior. Another example of this occurs when the author attributes a feeling of alienation to an English-dominant actor in the school play upon hearing improvised lines in Spanish, even though the dialog itself and the author's description of the actor's facial expression support an interpretation that he was simply ''puzzled'' (202).
The second and perhaps more interesting instructive aspect of the text lies in how the author gets caught in the politics of representation. In observing students struggle to inhabit and reproduce the binary distinction between English and Spanish in the classroom, the author found that students recognized the binary's role in their own lived experiences and had the confidence to both explicitly identify the binary and to question assertive discourse making claims about representing linguistic equality in public performances of scripted texts. When these authoritative claims later proved to be largely unsubstantiated and student concerns largely ignored, the author notes that the participants did not then proactively engage in practices that would balance inequality, question why student concerns were not being addressed, nor discuss potential ways that classroom inequities were related to life outside the classroom. In the writing of the text itself, the author's metalinguistic awareness of failed negotiations around language borders has done little to offer an alternative to maintaining an English dominant binary even within academic discourse. Like the other participants in the study, the author's position reinforces the authoritative production of dominating English, as has mine in this review.
Although the text does not reflexively address complicitness in English domination, it does raise important questions that could lead to getting out of representation politics and into multilingualism. What for example might be the effect of not including translations into English of participant discourse in the observed classroom? Presumably the book would then provide some advantage to the Spanish dominant reader, and in some cases the represented speakers themselves. This option is theoretically and practically available since the author clearly commands an understanding of Spanish, so perhaps the fear of alienating the imagined English-dominant audience is at work here as well.
Another set of research questions comes out of observations about effective mimesis in chapters 4 through 6. The author invites us to consider a '' narrative constitution of the Spanish Other ...[that]...subsequently raises the possibility of a different, non-ethnocentric way of relating to Otherness.'' (189). The evidence provided for this in the text is that this different way of relating is mediated through the physical properties of sound. One English-dominant speaker describes her articulatory fluency in other languages like this, ''I guess I have an okay accent and I like saying words. I just don't know what they mean.'' (190). The author goes on to describe the students' abilities to present themselves comfortably in their second languages as producing ''an uncanny effect'' where student ''voices oscillated between being themselves and being their Spanish other character'' (189). What would it mean for us to apply this observation of child facility with linguistic border crossing to our own practices? What would it mean to talk instead of ''oscillating between being themselves and being their...[English] other character''?
Taken as a whole, this book points to exciting possibilities for collaborative research in the areas of learning theories, sociology and anthropology, political science, cognitive musicology, pedagogy, language acquisition, and neurological science. Further, este libro is a useful reminder of our propensity to enforce physical borders between languages in our own practices of representation. En mis clases, I only rarely make choices to hablar en Español even though I teach courses aimed at raising student consciousness about linguistic equality to a student population overwhelmingly comprised of Spanish speakers: I am afraid to relinquish the power of the floor and of potentially being misunderstood. My research, reading, and critical thinking, however, tell me that there is solamente un cuerpo: Practice is articulated theory and linguistic acts are completely physical. To step outside of the brain and the physicality of language is to go nowhere. Hadi-Tabassum has pointed out that our current version of linguistic equality is ''an abstract mathematical oscillation between Spanish and English, of a 1:0 and 0:1 ratio'' (271). Vamos a trabajar together to redefine linguistic equality as something closer to a ratio of uno to one.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Debbie Cole is an assistant professor of linguistics and anthropology in the Department of English at the University of Texas Pan American. Current projects include a student produced "Codeswitchers Guide to the Rio Grande Valley: Un Diccionario of Pan Americana" and research on listener attitudes towards Spanish influenced accents of English.