July 07, 2004

Premature multilingualism considered harmful

At first, commentary seems easy.

New Zealand MP Pansy Wong has called for a compulsory second language policy in schools, because "[o]ur children should enjoy the opportunities that are opening up for others by being global citizens and have the confidence to move in the world among people whose language and culture is different". But Jared Savage, writing in an Auckland newspaper, quotes an eminent Auckland University academic to the effect that "[i]mposing a requirement for students to study a second language could hinder learning".

According to "Auckland University's head of applied language studies and linguistics Dr Gary Barkhuizen", this is because

"... if people are required to study in a second language too early it could interfere with their cognitive learning ability. Exactly when is too soon is a topic of huge debate."

He really said this, according to a reputable news source. Quotation marks and all.

So the obvious thing is to point out what an idiot Dr. Barkhuizen is, how wrong his conclusions are, how uninformed he is about about research in bilingualism and even about obvious facts known to every sensible person, how incoherent his arguments are, and so on. We can pair him with Dr. Shin Min-sup, the psychiatry professor at Seoul National University that Reuters quoted as saying that "[l]earning a foreign language too early, in some cases, may not only cause a speech impediment but, in the worst case, make an child autistic."

Commentary seems to get even easier, because Dr. Barkhuizen is further quoted as saying that

"The teaching of Afrikaans during apartheid in black schools (in South Africa) sparked the Soweto uprisings in 1976. Different people have different opinions, so it's a contentious issue."

According to Barkhuizen's earlier logic, this was perhaps because the Sowetans knew it would rot their brains to learn a second language? Although most Soweto residents already knew several languages, then as now? Or perhaps they were already cognitively impaired by premature multilingualism? And teaching New Zealanders Chinese or Spanish today is socially and politically just like teaching Sowetans Afrikaans under the apartheid regime, right?

Feh. The trouble is, who knows if this is what Barkhuizen really said. As we've discussed in several earlier posts, specialists (including linguists) are often quoted in the popular press in ways that make them look like idiots. Sometimes it's because they're idiots indeed, but at least as often, the journalist or some editor completely misunderstood the interview, placed a truncated answer to a leading question in a completely new context, misused ellipsis in the service of some personal agenda, or just made the whole thing up. It's really hard to tell.

Gary Barkhuizen seems to be a real and reputable person. He wrote a chapter (on " Social Influences on Language Learning") in Blackwell's Handbook of Applied Linguistics. He's published a book with OUP. He really is a senior lecturer and head of department at Auckland University.

So my guess is that what he told Jared Savage was something very different from what Savage put in his article. I could speculate about what Barkhuizen really said, and why Savage may have misunderstood or misrepresented him, but instead I've sent an email of inquiry to Barkhuizen, and I'll tell you what he says in response.

[Link via email from David Donnell]

[Update: email from Gary Barkhuizen confirms my guess.

The reporter apparently asked him questions about several different things:

  1. whether it can hinder learning to make students study (other subjects) in a language they don't know well
  2. whether there can be social and political controversies about obligatory second language instruction
  3. whether or not it's likely to be harmful, socially and psychologically, to teach New Zealand children a foreign language

The reporter then wrote a story about (3), in which he included a scatter of quotes from Barkhuizen about (1) and (2).

It's surely true that (1) is controversial, as Barkhuizen said, and there can also be no question that the answer to (2) is "yes". The problem is that these controversies are related to question (3) only in that they all have something to do with language instruction. This is roughly like asking someone questions about surfing accidents and hydroelectric power, and then using the answers in a story about a proposed sewage treatment plant. It's all about water, right?

This leaves us with the all-too-common question of whether the journalist who wrote the story was a fool or a knave. That is, did he get completely confused about the issues at stake and their logical relationships? or did he cynically misuse out-of-context quotations in order to advance a private agenda -- perhaps somehow related to an ethnic power struggle in New Zealand that I don't know anything about? I'll leave that question to New Zealanders and to scholars of journalism. (In fairness, the guilty parties are sometimes editors rather than reporters.)

For us linguists, the take-home message is already clear. When you talk to members of the fourth estate, watch your back. You can try to give them simple slogans that project the message you want to get across. Alliteration might help. But a thick skin -- or at least willingness to accept a certain amount of public embarrassment for the greater good -- seems to be essential. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 7, 2004 11:19 PM