Learning By Root
issue 191 - January 1989
The streets of Toronto buzz with everything from Portuguese to Tagalog;
immigration has transformed the city into a cosmopolitan metropolis. This makes
it a more interesting place to live. But what language should immigrant children use
in schools? Wayne Ellwood reports on the 'heritage language' controversy.
My parents were born and raised in The Beach, a solid, respectable working-class Anglo district edging on Lake Ontario in the east end of Toronto. The little neighbourhood park was (and still is) called Kew Gardens, an indication of the area's British roots. There were a few Jews, an Italian greengrocer and a Chinese laundry. But that was about it: for the most part they were loyal, true-blue, Anglo-Canadians.
That vision of Toronto is long gone. Now when my mother flies in from Vancouver she barely recognizes the city that was her home for nearly 40 years. And it's not just the dizzying development and the smell of money that pervades the downtown area. It's the people. Anglo Toronto is fading fast and a new multicultural city has taken its place.
Downtown is awash in a torrent of languages; you only have to ride the subway to see the city is no longer the prim, white Anglo-Celtic centre of 40 years ago. Jamaicans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, Uruguayans, Guatemalans, Chinese, Portuguese and Italians jostle for seats and hang from the straps along with remnants of the Anglo population like me.
For outsiders the cultural energy of the city is palpable. The variety of languages spoken on the streets and in shops is extraordinary - for new immigrants as well as the old Anglo settlers. In my neighbourhood I can hear a sampling of Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Urdu, Polish, Italian, and West Indian English when I take my children across the street to the park. Neither they nor the other kids take any notice of this polyphony. English is the common language of the playground; it's the grown-ups who are speaking their national language.
But for Anglo-Canadians of my parents' generation the rich immigrant culture of Toronto is more unsettling. In a lifetime they have gone from a self-assured majority to a beleaguered minority, strangely distanced from the city that has grown up around them. The Anglo population is now less than 50 per cent and continues to fall.
What has really unnerved the once dominant majority has been the decade-long fight by immigrant groups to have their languages taught in the schools. Anglo-Torontonians were apoplectic that 'heritage languages' like Persian, Portuguese and Punjabi would have the classroom status of French and English - the two official national languages.
The debate was revealing because it exposed the core of racism and bigotry beneath the liberal rhetoric of Canada's much vaunted multiculturalism. The problem was not immigrants speaking their own language. They had always done that. The problem was they now wanted their languages accepted within a major social institution. They wanted into the mainstream.
Canadians have been raised on the myth that we are part of a rich cultural mosaic, in stark contrast to the self-centred egotism of the US melting pot to the south. In fact the goal has always been to make newcomers adopt both the language and the values of the white, Anglo majority. Until the late 1960s, multiculturalism was a word scarcely imagined. New arrivals were expected to blend smoothly into the fabric of Canadian life. If they were determined to hang on to their culture then they were to do so quietly, without bothering others.
The heritage language issue was a signal that Canada's non-Anglo immigrant communities were coming of age. Jim Cummins of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has closely followed this public controversy.
'It's one thing to hear Italian or Portuguese spoken in the street,' says Cummins, 'but when you give those languages status within the school system and pay for promoting them, that rankles.'
Opposition was based on apparent commonsense blended with a measure of self-righteousness. The main point was that English should be the first priority in a society where English is the working language. Opponents argued that teaching other languages, especially those spoken at home, would impede the ability of children to speak and write English. As a result they will end up speaking both languages poorly. Other opponents were more blunt. 'You knew the rules when you came here. If you come to this part of Canada,' they said, 'then you speak English.'
The second main argument against teaching heritage languages was money. Critics argued that school budgets are tight and that available funds should be used to reinforce the basics, not to teach frills like Korean or Latvian.
Comments by conservative school trustees bordered on the hysterical. Teaching heritage languages during the school day 'will guarantee second-class status to any student attending a third language school,' wrote trustee Michael Walker. 'I believe it will ultimately tear the public school system apart.'
'But the point was not to get rid of English,' says Antonio Garcon, an active Spanish-speaking parent with three children in the Toronto school system. 'All of us want our kids to learn English - the language of work. But we also want them to understand their roots, to have some pride in their culture and their history.'
Nick Manimanakis, a Greek-speaking parent, agrees. 'If you don't know your roots, you are nothing,' he says. For many immigrant families there was a strong linguistic schism between children, parents and grandparents.
'My kids now feel comfortable in the house when we speak Greek,' adds Mr Manimanakis. 'They can talk with their grandparents and write to their relatives in Greece. That kind of confidence and pride in their roots is the most important thing we can give our kids.'
What shifted the debate in the end was the strength of the heritage language lobby. The immigrant groups had the numbers, even if they didn't have control of the media or the school board. By 1982 a Toronto Board of Education survey found 37 per cent of first-year high-school students were born outside Canada and that nearly half of them spoke a language other than English or French as their first language. Society was changing rapidly even if institutions like the Anglo-dominated education system were slow to admit it.
Slowly it began to dawn on school board trustees and education bureaucrats that immigrants were not only voters, they were also tax payers. 'Look,' says Antonio Garcon, 'immigrants are also paying taxes. If we as tax payers can't decide what is done with our tax dollars, then who can?'
In addition to the emotional arguments of keeping families together and developing cultural roots, evidence was mounting that teaching heritage languages and culture as part of the regular school day also had straightforward educational benefits.
Research by Jim Cummins and others showed clearly that the better kids develop their first language, the better they do in English. A 1982 report to the Toronto Board of Education noted that a sense of identity and self-respect were the most important by-products of teaching heritage languages.
Says Jim Cummins: 'Kids who are proud of who they are and who have no ambivalence about that have no problems in school'. Once that information began to spread into the community the opposition began to crumble. The bottom line argument against heritage languages was always that they were bad for the children. When the opposite proved true, opponents didn't have a leg left to stand on. Even the argument that there was not enough money to pay for the programme soon dissolved when heritage languages were actually seen to help immigrant students succeed in other subjects. That's why parents like Antonio Garcon believe the $10 million heritage language programme is small change in the province's $500 million education budget.
There are now 90,000 primary school students studying 58 different languages (from Swedish and Lithuanian to Urdu, Arabic and Cantonese) in more than 70 boards of education across Ontario. The growth and support for the heritage language programme within a decade has been remarkable. It is now entrenched so deeply there is little chance of it being overturned.
Supporters like Jim Cummins maintain that heritage language teaching is an important step in helping immigrant students realize their potential. But he says there is still a long way to go in ridding the educational system of what he labels 'institutional racism'. What we really have to worry about, Cummins believes, is the 'Anglo conformity' that permeates the education hierarchy from top to bottom. This is not the old-fashioned racism inherent in 'streaming' immigrant kids into vocational and technical courses. That still happens but now teachers and parents are aware of the pattern and are trying to do something about it.
What Cummins refers to is the dominant world view that shapes teachers in the classroom. If we really want to empower minority students, he says, educators themselves must find out why students are failing and how they can be helped. Cummins believes that minority students are 'empowered' or 'disabled' as a result of direct interaction with their teachers.
Simply put, the success of immigrant students depends directly on the support they get in the classroom. Placing value on heritage languages and cultures is important but that value needs to extend beyond primary school and across the entire curriculum. Too often minority students themselves are blamed for their failure. Instead, argues Cummins, we should ask whether they are being given the confidence and motivation to succeed academically. Let's look first at the system as the source of the problem, he says. 'What we need is not multicultural education but anti-racist education.'
Wayne Ellwood is a Co-Editor of the NI in Toronto.
A good store could manage 10 feet of shelving on books about language and not have got past C for Chomsky. Much of this is actually linguistics however - something of an acquired taste. It's a subject whose passion for diagrams and abbreviations and formulae can give nuclear physics a run for its money.
If you only buy one book on language, then there is no competition. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language (Cambridge University Press, 1987) is a masterpiece of comprehensiveness and clarity. 'Encyclopaedia' might give the impression of the usual rag-bag of independently-written articles stitched together in alphabetical order. This is nothing of the sort. For a start it is written by one person. David Crystal is a British linguist with a prolific output on language - one could recommend almost any of his publications. And the book eschews alphabetical order in favour of thematic logic - to good effect. You won't see much change from a $50 bill or a hard-earned £25 but if you are remotely interested in the subject it's an excellent investment.
If the encyclopaedia has a weakness it is that it sits on the fence on controversial issues. That's not a criticism you could level at Language - the loaded weapon by Dwight Bolinger (Longman, 1980). Bolinger, a Harvard Professor shoots from the hip. His ostensible targets are the 'shamans', the TV and magazine pundits who lament any change in the way language is used. But many other speakers and writers stray into the firing line. He shows just how loaded is the language we use - and how easily it can be subverted. Many of the issues raised in this edition of the NI have their origin in this particular book - so if you want more evidence this is the place to go.
By the same author but less polemical is Aspects of Language by Dwight Bolinger and Donald Sears (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), 1981. This is written for students of linguistics but also offers a good introduction for the general reader.
It's a pity not to be able to recommend any books by Noam Chomsky himself. They are mostly technical and make few concessions to the casual browser. A better way to approach him is through books like Modern Linguistics - The Results of Chomsky's Revolution by Neil Smith and Deirdre Wilson (Penguin, 1979). Chomsky's theories are constantly developing and this book explains clearly the stages through which they have passed.