Mary McGoarty

MARY MCGOARTY

Um well language and identity seem to me to have many different possible relationships and I think people often think that uh learning language means learning culture and it does, but it means things besides that too. I think there are lots of different ways in which language and culture are combined and there’s a a I think often times a kind of static understanding that uh a certain language has a certain culture attached to in and the reverse. When in fact both are actually quite dynamic, uh and they change according to individual circumstances and life experiences. So a certainly uh learning a second language means incorporating different aspects of linguistic behavior and sometimes different cultural values but it also means there’s a lot of room for individual variation uh in language nad culture learning.

Uh yes uh I have learned uh I have actually studied 3 different second languages or 4, but one is not a written language, or not a rather not an oral language, it’s only a written language. But uh I think that learning a language uh is a process of constant learning and I think that sometimes too constantly. Um but I know in my own case I studied many many years of Spanish, which is the second language I know best, after English and I was struck by the fact that after many years of studying and after literature classes that I had quite a good vocabulary for reading say 17th 18th century literature, but not a good vocabulary for dealing with everyday life. Uh as I had to do when I lived in Latin America. And beginning to understand that distinction has always helped me understand more about why people can learn one aspect of a language pretty well and yet not be successful in using that language in another context.

Well uh in Spanish you know I I don’t know of course, so it’s hard to get a view of yourself uh from the other side. But I think in Spanish because I learned it um by uh partly through study partly through emersion, I have a combination of the Spanish language identities that includes uh being a student concerned about things like vocabulary and various grammatical points. But also when you have to survive in a language then suddenly you have to ask a lot of questions and you have to learn uh paradoxically when not to talk, when just to watch to see how things happen naturally. And then try to do the best you can to follow along with that.

That’s a big question and I think there’s there’s a lot of different stories behind language planning and policy in the United States. (Interruption) well I think one version is and and one of the strengths of language planning policy in the United States is that uh people in the US usually don’t think of language as a kind of major uh political issue as it has come to be in certain localities and at certain times a political issue. But most of the time language is assumed other under other core values like individualism or tolerance. And that’s actually one of the strengths of our tradition that uh there have been certain times in our history when we have not tolerated multiple languages, but most of the time when it’s come to a legal decision about whether or not languages can be restricted, most of the time our legal system has upheld the right of of people to speak the language they wish to speak for the purposes of communicating with each other. Uh not every time in our history and not in all context, nor is it always possible to talk about that because sometimes in the contemporary scene rights of people to speak the language they best know how to speak come up against issues like uh questions related to public safety or mutual intelligibility uh and have to be resolved in different ways.

Um well by mutual intelligibility I mean that ability of 2 people engaged in interaction to un understand each other well. And actually mutual intelligibility often now um in public services uh means the requirement for people of for whom other languages than English are the native language, uh to avail themselves in public services, they need uh people like uh police you know firemen, health workers, who understand some of their native language in order to be able to communicate well. Uh though at the same time the question of mutual intelligibility uh imply that when for example when people walk into a store in many parts of the US they expect uh people uh who are are the the retail uh salespeople to be able to talk with them in English. Uh because most people in the US speak English, though not everybody does.

Well I think uh ideas about individualism strongly influence every aspect of American life uh and uh certainly in everything from education to things like recruiting for the armed force you know uh people are urged to be part of the service, so they can be all that they can be. We have a great belief in individual potential uh which is in many ways very good thing. But I think also in some way uh it blinds us to other aspects of the reasons people use and need language to be members of the community. And I think that the tension between being an individual and being a member of a community uh is a theme that certainly uh affects uh daily life in the US. It affects education and it affects the way people understand why people want to use a language learn a new language, or keep the language they speak in addition to learning another language.

I guess it depends on who we refers to. There are lots of different we’s in the educational system and I I think for one thing we sometimes wrongly expect the entire educational system speaks with one voice when in fact there are different teachers, different administrators, different students, different parents, and different communities of uh schools uh in which uh you know opinions need not always be the same. Uh and what a is some people may wish to be assimilated to the you know American way of doing things, and by assimilation I understand um it means taking on the identity uh of uh a new group which of course is not a bad thing to do, but there’s sometimes an expectation but at the same time that means leaving behind uh one’s previous ways of speaking and ways of behaving. And I think the more we know about culture and language the more we know that because it’s so dynamic and fluid it’s very possible to have a whole variety of ways of speaking and behaving so the idea that there has to be one way that’s the difficulty with the assimilation solution, that everybody has to learn to behave in the under current of that they have to learn to act and speak like me. Um uh that’s that’s I think a problem when it gets into elements of coercion. But I think it is true there’s a need for people to understand uh how to communicate with one another uh it’s one reason that uh sometimes it’s argued that rather than assimilation we should talk about uh some uh mode of accommodation that would where people learn as much language as they need, uh as much of the second culture as they need to be successful. Which of course is a good thing, but all of those have to be defined. How much language, how much culture, what does it means to be successful. And they can all be answered in different ways.

Well I think it’s really crucial for teachers to realize that they can support the identity of any child. Uh in many positive ways without necessarily speaking the language that that child speaks. Uh and teachers can do that by demonstrating their respect for the language that the child speaks, um making efforts to respect not only the culture, but understand that when children come to school with languages other than English children do have uh well developed communication systems and so do their parents uh and those systems of communication work very well for child and families. Uh in many settings outside the school. I think children uh teachers can also help children by modeling the fact that for other children the ability to speak another language is not as is sadly so often as is thought um in some ways a sign of ignorance or difference, because it’s construed as not meaning the ability to speak English, but but another way of communicating about the world. And that’s where the teacher as a model uh and the teacher as an authority figure in a classroom has a very important role because I think students learn far more from the silent examples of teachers than they do from the over teaching that teachers give them. And when teachers are able to convey that through simple things like even having books in other languages around their classroom or signs that say welcome to parents in several languages um it certainly doesn’t accomplish anything but it’s a beginning toward establishing an atmosphere of respect that would support any child’s identity.

I’m gonna bag the question because I don’t think there is a good rule of thumb. You know we’re we’re we can never pose that question only in linguistic terms. The reason being that school is not just about language, it’s about learning a lot of important skills in addition to language and teachers must always balance the language demands of the tasks the children are doing with the cognitive demands. And if children are faced with cognitive demands that are beyond their capability linguistically particularly if children are older it’s the most natural thing in the world to try and rely on your native language to try to figure out what on earth am I suppose to be doing. And often, not always, but often that’s what students are trying to do. They’re trying to figure out what’s going on here. So I think that uh the the only rule of thumb is that teachers’ need to develop uh a very very detailed understanding of curricular demands that they make on children. And they need to understand both the linguistic and the cognitive demands. And then the question about should children be allowed to use their native language, I can see teachers having different uh practices for different configurations. I mean native language users could be very fine in some small groups, you might want to encourage children to try for English in other settings, or even the reverse. Well lots of room for judgment. (Interruption)
Well I think when it comes to deciding which language students should be using, when there’s uh lots of room for flexibility and lots of room for teacher judgment.

Well I I think of course there are a lot of individual differences and circumstances of children, but one thing is that many times they’re different standards for younger children than older. Uh and often times of people see younger children running around in the playground laughing happily or singing a song in English or whatever the new language is, they draw the conclusions sometimes erroneously, but none the less they draw the conclusion that the children have learned the language perfectly uh like a native. Uh and when you see uh middle school, high school students trying to wrestle with concepts in science or math or textbook reading assignments uh in social studies uh in languages arts, uh then you realize the the nature of the demands really are different. Uh and older children bring to it a different set of prior experiences as well.

Well I mean there’s so many times that people say well my grandfather did it you know why can’t they? They being you know groups of either recently arrived immigrants or sometimes people who have lived here for for uh generations maybe even centuries, but they come from communities where English isn’t’ the main language of communication. And I think those claims always have to be taken very very very cautiously. Uh I think standards for success are different now than they were then. Um in say the 19th century or in the early part of the 20th century when one could get a reasonable job um with uh sometimes just grade level education or often high school. But as we all know from reading recent reports on economics the segments of the populations earnings power has dropped most dramatically over the last 20 years is that of men with a high school education. Uh because the kinds of jobs in manufacturing that were were once more plentiful that paid well enough uh to guarantee uh at least a piece of the middle class uh are no longer so widely available. And I think that makes every one more anxious about uh education as a path to social economic mobility. But if you look at the education statistics from the late 19 to early 20th century, they are uh by no means as rosy as the phrase my grandpa did would lead you to expect. Many many students never completed school, you know school wasn’t relevant to their educational goals. And yet they got good jobs because their work was needed. And it think the complexity of the relationship between educational credentials and occupational outcomes uh is uh somewhat now beginning to be appreciated that uh every educational historian who has studied immigrant groups or language where English is not the native language has found that in fact the the picture of the golden past um is really largely a myth. Uh there have always been differences in outcomes. Sometimes quite dramatic um in the educational progress of groups who didn’t’ have English as their native language. Which is of course not a good thing but it means you know that current groups of immigrant students are facing uh similarly complex challenges, sometimes even greater challenges and further that they will face more uncertain occupational future. Not because they’re particular future is uncertain, just because none of us knows what lies ahead.

Really uh watch the children, listen to the children, you know listen to the parents. They have a lot of information and often times we don’t know which questions to ask. But I think both students and parents are willing and even eager uh to cooperate in the educational process but they want and deserve uh some voice uh in their goals of their learning as well. Uh and so I don’t have an easy recipe for how to do that, but I would say that’s the important thing every class that comes before you is going to be different and you need to be prepared to learn from them and learn with them about what’s going to work with your curriculum.

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