One Language or Two? More is Better.

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Regularly, I read journals and other publications written for literacy professionals like me. I subscribe to several, and with the blossoming of online publishing archives, along with my university’s library, I have access to the world.

Because part of my work is to collect translations and narrations of books for beginning readers in the Unite for Literacy digital library, I am aware of many of the issues of teaching English and its literacy to those fortunate few who speak other languages in their homes.

Yes. They ARE the fortunate.

This image from Facebook shows two children forced to wear sacks for speaking Luganda in school.

This image from Facebook shows two children forced to wear sacks for speaking Luganda in school.

On the This is Africa forum ( I encountered an article from 2014 about African children being shamed or even punished in school for speaking their home languages when the only accepted language on campus is English.

English, of course, is probably the major language of business around the world and teaching English is seen by school authorities as hindered by the knowledge and use of ethnic and tribal languages. Thus, use of the only language the children have ever known up to that point must be discouraged, making room for the learning of English, the language of commercial success.

Americans can see this same cultural and linguistic atrocity in the history of our treatment of Native Americans and their languages over the last 200 years. The U.S. government not only discouraged the speaking of Navajo, for example, but forced Navajo-speaking children to learn English in a manner that today appears to many as utterly destructive, certainly not well-informed pedagogy.

The deep flaw of these policies is that they dismiss and disrespect the fact that every child’s home language is inseparable from their identity and right to self-determination, and cannot simply be replaced by the dominant culture’s language. That said, we humans can actually learn to enjoy communicating in several languages to the betterment of themselves and others. It is now well-established that children who grow up speaking two languages easily demonstrate fluently speaking each of those languages earlier and better than their single-language peers can fluently speak just one language.

Mother-3-2Second language learning seems to positively impact home language mastery, as well! With each subsequent language being learned, children develop insight into communication clarity and culturally sensitive issues through their multi-lingual encounters.

Beyond schooling, these understandings and sensitivities operate well for those working in sales, business and governmental negotiation or other critical, cross-cultural activities.

With increasing opportunities for interaction with those from various language communities, children learn to productively adapt their language choices, and as circumstances change, also to revise language use within their dialects, providing them with the tools to not just be comfortable themselves in encounters with those outside of their home communities, but also to make those from outside their home communities feel comfortable with them.

With these realities increasingly common, the celebration of language diversity in children, as opposed to the rejection and even punishment that so many suffer, could become the norm, strengthening ancient communities around the globe and newer ones here in the Americas.

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2 Responses to “One Language or Two? More is Better.”

  1. Mary Avalos January 10, 2019 at 8:21 am #

    Thank you, Mark! Excellent message!