official english legislation

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Mon Jun 4 13:34:46 UTC 2001


Since I am the perpetrator of the preemptive strike against
alternative positions on this matter, let me first apologize for it.
I spend a great deal of my time with "real people" (i.e., not
linguists); I do this not only for the academic benefit they provide
me in revealing their "ethnography of language" (i.e., folk
linguistics), which, I believe, deserves more serious atttention
among ethnogrpahic areas of investigation, but also because it allows
professionals to see what strongly-held folk theories conflict with
scientific work. When I and my assistants go about doing this work,
as we have for nearly two decades or more, we are respectful of folk
knowledge (and by "folk" I mean "nonscientific," not "wrong"), as is
proper if not necessary in such investigation, although we obviously
face ethical problems when we interview respondents who are not
simply misinfomed about the nature of language itself but carry that
misinformation over into racist, regionalist (?), sexist, or other
stances which demean their fellow human beings.

The upshot is that we also have an interventionist ("applied
linguistic"?) as well as research goal. We believe it is easier to
effect "atttitude change" with two sets of facts: the "scientific"
ones and the popular or folk ones, accompanied by an analysis of the
points of difference and the likely ways of bringing scientific
discovery closer to public attitudes and even public policy.

It is most unseemly, therefore, for me to have diatribed (hey, nice
verb, dInIs) against those who hold to popular opinions, particularly
when the press and various proponents of opposing views have done a
great deal to convince them of the woes that a multilingual or
bilingually-educated country have in store for them, and I apologize
for that unseemliness.

It is, frankly, generated by my simply forgetting that I am not
preaching to the choir. Some time ago we had a discussion about who
would and should have access to to this list. I often forget that we
decided that this would not be a "relaxed" list where only linguists
gather to talk about their generally shared beliefs, even those at
levels of sociolinguistic organization. When I forget that, I ask you
to forgive me for doing in-group talk in a public place. I should not.

With this sincerely-meant apology behind me, let me offer two
reflections on the current state of this debate:

First, Frank's comments on bilingual education

>As a corollary, I would add that teaching elementary students in the US in a
>language other than English on a long-term basis seems to me a great
>disservice to those students.  It is OK as an accommodation for a brief
>period, but should only be treated as such, a temporary convenience.
>Proficiency in American English should be a primary goal for all students in
this country.

are straight from the misinformation generated by Mr. Utz and others.
The vast majority of bilingual education programs in the US had as
their goal instruction in a child's second language so that that
child would keep up in subject matter areas while at the same time
providing that child with the English language proficiency which
would allow them to continue their education (at grade level) in
English. These programs, by far the vast majority, acknowledged that
"falling behind" is an emormous cause of school dropout and the fact
that students whose language is not English cannot hope to learn in
English until a considerable period of English language learning has
taken place. These transitional programs always provided English
instruction along with subject-matter instruction in the native
language. (A "glance" at my not completely off-the-cuff "language
policy to the US" will show that I built in a strong English [even a
"standard English"] component, one completely consistent with every
model of bilingual education ever proposed or implemented in the US.)

While it is true that a minority of bilingual programs opted for a
"maintenance" program, in which development in the first language was
also attended to, even those programs had as a major goal the
development of fluency in English. No bilingual education program in
the US ignored the pervasive need for English in this country and no
children, even those whose native language was treated as a resource
rather than a burden, were being done a disservice. Frank's
information is eventually from those whose goals, in my opinion, are
racist and xenophobic, and I will stand by that as much as I am sure
that Frank is no racist or xenophobe himself. That persons who are
not familiar with the tradition and facts of US bilingual education
have been taken in by them (through an honest interest in the welfare
of our younger citizens) is understandable, and, again, I apologize
for my "insider" diatribe against them; my "wiggle room" comment was
obviously not a generous one.

Finally, however, I must reject the idea that this discussion is
"political" and has no place in this arena. Determination of soutions
to such matters should be built of on the hard evidence of years of
research on just such questions as whether or not acquiring two
languages "retards" an individual's development in any way, how long
it takes children of various ages to acquire competence in a second
lanaguage in order to be able to work proficinetly in subject-matter
areas in school, when in social history language has been important
and when unimporant in national "disunity," and other questions which
have research-oriented approaches (not "definitive" answers). That is
the climate in which linguistic research has much to offer, one in
which we hope this discussion can take place in public venues. I just
forgot that this was one.

Dennis R. Preston
Department of Linguistics and Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48824-1027 USA
preston at
Office: (517)353-0740
Fax: (517)432-2736

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