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Review of  Guia para padres y maestron de ninos bilingues

Reviewer: Shaw Nicholas Gynan
Book Title: Guia para padres y maestron de ninos bilingues
Book Author: Alma Flor Ada Colin F. Baker
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Spanish
Issue Number: 14.457

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Date: Sun, 09 Feb 2003 22:51:44 -0800
From: Shaw Nicholas Gynan
Subject: Review: Guía para padres y maestros de niños bilingües

Ada, Alma Flor and Colin Baker (2001) Guía para padres y maestros de niños
bilingües. Multilingual Matters, paperback ISBN 1-85359-511-X, xxii+231 pp,
£12.95/ US$19.95/ CAN$24.95Parents' and Teachers' Guides 5.
Shaw N. Gynan, Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Western
Washington University

Reviewd by Shaw N. Gynan, Western Washington University

This volume was supposedly written to answer "the
questions most frequently asked by parents and teachers on raising and
educating bilingual children." The answers are provided in what is described
as clear and simple language, avoiding academic terminology. An introductory
chapter to the Spanish edition goes into more detail about the audience,
specifying US Latino parents who raise Spanish-speaking children, mixed
marriages, and English-speaking parents who wish to raise their children in
another language. Yet another introductory chapter adds monolingual parents
and teachers, doctors, speech therapists, psychologists, and counselors.
The book is divided into sections on the family, language development,
problems, literacy, pedagogy (including types of bilingual education,
achievement, and languages of the classroom), general questions, references,
and a glossary. Each section has typically around twenty questions.
The issue of bilingual education has become highly politicized in the US.
Millions of parents are on their own when it comes to determining the right
language policy for the home. Can a single volume provide what all of the
people listed in the introduction need? Is this format useful? The
publisher classifies this book as applied linguistics, but that is
questionable. Linguistics is supposed to be science, not advocacy. The
authors are forthright in declaring their advocacy and their intention that
this work not be academic. This text, nevertheless, is replete with academic
terminology. One example of this is the statement that "To be bicultural is
somewhat different from having two monocultures united" (page 17). Reading,
writing, speaking, and hearing are referred to as dimensions and then
shortly thereafter as abilities. Majority and minority languages are
referred without explanation. In a discussion of mixing, a number of terms
is presented (page 64, transfer, alternation, interference) The meaning of
those terms is not necessarily transparent, and the language here is not
straightforward. Indeed, the glossary has over 400 terms. These are not
indexed and there is no consistent way of directing the reader's attention
to them. Words in the texts are frequently printed in boldface, but many
times this is merely for emphasis. No systematic way of directing the
reader's attention to the glossary is developed.
There is a problem with a book that is supposedly simple and that tackles
complex issues. First, the assumption is condescending and patronizing.
Secondly, the very field the authors purport to represent is dismissed as
unnecessarily technical. The result is a book that instead of being easy to
use is very difficult. The questions presented are supposedly those most
asked by parents and teachers, but we learn nothing about who they are, and
in some cases, the questions simply don't seem to have been generated by the
audience specified: "What are the most important factors so that a child
will become bilingual? This does not sound like a question a parent would
ask, and although the authors claim that these are frequently asked
questions, there is no reference to how they might have been gathered.
In the chapter on family questions, there are a number of questionable
recommendations. The authors present a plan of action for parents who want
bilingual children, but this is before they explain anything at all about
the nature of language acquisition. They recommend that if a couple gets in
an argument about bilingualism, they should make a list. In response to a
question about whether bilingualism affects marriages, the authors cite no
studies to back their contention that there are no problems.
This is a recurring problem in this book - no specific data, either from
large-scale or small-scale longitudinal, ethnographic work are cited in
support of many contentions. On repeated occasions, studies are referred to
without any documentation. To cite just a few examples, on page 69, children
in bilingual programs are claimed to show superior achievement. No reference
is given, but an asterisk takes us to page 69, where we are then directed to
pages 2 and 61. There are no references to these studies on those pages
either. On page 70 the authors note that there have been many studies on
bilingual brains, but that these are at an early stage and that no
conclusions may be drawn. There is no documentation of this. Many references
are embedded deep in the text with no cross-listing in the bibliography. We
find bibliographical references on pages 26, 32, 39, 92, and 150, for
example, but these are not at the end of the book. On pages 96 and 97 there
is no documentation of claims made with respect to cross-linguistic
interference in reading. Another conspicuous omission, from a section that
runs from pages 104 to 107, is documentation of studies that show that the
whole language approach is superior to phonics (incorrectly translated as
the phonetic approach). On page 164, mention is made of bilingual children
being improperly placed in special education classes, but no documentation
is provided. On page 187 we learn that many politicians are opposed to
bilingual education, but no names are mentioned, no campaigns against
bilingual education are highlighted. And a final strange tidbit is the
"fact" that 100,000 languages have died. Since the highest estimate of
languages currently in the world is around 6,000, the larger figure must
refer to all languages that have ever existed. In any event, there is no
reference to the name of the author who wrote about this calamitous sequence
of events.
Reference is made to the issue of diglossia and bilingualism, with no
attribution (Fishman is never mentioned, for example). An inaccurate
description of language use in Paraguay is also undocumented. (Paraguayans
are described as using only Guaraní at home, which is false. Readily
available census data show that over 50% use both or only Spanish.) The
reference list is not highlighted as a bibliography. There is no
alphabetical list of authors. Perhaps this is all done to avoid making the
book an academic work; however, author and subject indexes, bibliographies,
and proper documentation throughout texts do not render them inaccessible,
but instead make them more user-friendly. In the absence of such
organization, a text is opaque and impenetrable.
The authors lament that there is much prejudice regarding bilingualism, and
recommend that it be combated with "real and truthful information," but time
and time again they provide none. We read of questions about racist
attitudes, but no studies citing such attitudes are mentioned. Parents might
be left with the impression that such attitudes abound, when indeed they may
be an exception. Whatever the truth may be, no attempt is made here to
discern it. By page 23, which is well into the chapter on familial aspects
of bilingualism, we are finally presented with a specific example, that of a
Finnish family that adopts a seven-year old Russian girl. The problem is
that this example is entirely hypothetical. Of far more use to parents would
be a systematic exposition of life stories. There are occasional references
to the authors' own families, but we learn almost nothing even of their own
experiences. The authors easily could have used their families as sources of
detail and inspiration on how to manage languages at the family level.
In such a loosely organized work, it is difficult to discern themes, and
there are in fact many contradictions. The authors begin the work
questioning the existence of balanced bilinguals but repeat the
recommendation throughout the book that equilibrium be the goal. Along with
equilibrium, the authors are fairly consistent in recommending that the two
languages be separated, and while they make mention of the fact that mixing
is inevitable, they continue to push for separation as a goal.
On page 34, we are told to develop bilingualism in our children as soon as
possible, that the second language will not affect the first language
negatively, and this just after we have read that the family needs to
establish a good foundation for L1 when it is a minority language. Much
later, on page 111, we are told of parents who do not wish to send their
children to an English language school at a young age for fear of how that
experience may affect the home language. If the minority home language is
maintained, there should be no reason why another language could not be
learned in pre-school, and if that were the only exposure the child had to
the second language, then the experience would be very helpful in
facilitating the development of English. Whatever the truth may be about
this matter, the book presents contradictory recommendations about it.
Yet another conspicuous contradiction is found in reference to the issue of
bilingualism and cognitive ability. On page 40 we are told to approach
claims of advantage with caution, but on page 68 the relationship is
described as positive.
Along with contradictory recommendations, there are others that are simply
ineffective. One that is truly mystifying is that parents have "faith in
bilingualism" (page 22). In the section on language development, the reader
is warned not to compare bilingual languages abilities with the ability of
monolinguals. Well, one might wonder why not? Right or wrong, children will
be compared with monolingual standards throughout their years in school.
Parents should be educated about bilingualism, but an introductory course in
linguistics would be better than a self-help book. It would be very
difficult to design a course around this guide. The authors have left most
of the work to the teacher. Let's hope for a better contribution from this
team in the future, one in which they share with us the myriad personal
experiences that they and others have had in bringing up and educating
children bilingually.

Shaw N. Gynan teaches Spanish and linguistics at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Washington. Gynan studies sociolinguistic aspects of language contact, principally the US and Paraguay. He has published articles on US or Paraguayan bilingualism in Ethnic Studies Review, Southwest Journal of Linguistics, Hispanic Linguistics, Journal of Sociolinguistics, and Current Issues in Language Planning.p