Sunday, May 14, 2017

Some myths about language

Osmania University celebrates its centenary this year (plus a few other anniversaries!). As part of its celebrations, it has brought out a freely downloadable volume called Insights on Global Challenges and Opportunities for the Century Ahead (and here's the direct link to the PDF).

As the Preface notes, the 400-page volume "contains 81 articles with insights from eminent personalities including Nobel laureates, World Food Prize winners, Padma awardees, Heads of national and international organizations, distinguished scientists, social workers, and spiritual leaders."

Among the several interesting contributions to the volume is "Some myths about language" by Duggirala Vasanta, Aditi Mukherjee, and Dipti Mishra-Sharma (pp. 95-99). Addressing a general audience, they briefly discuss the following 10 myths:

Myth 1: Sanskrit is the ‘mother’ of all Indian languages.

Myth 2: Borrowing from other languages or language-mixing ‘spoils’ the purity of a language.

Myth 3: ‘Dialects’ are inferior to ‘languages’.

Myth 4: ‘Script’ is an essential part of language.

Myth 5: Exposing preschool children to multiple languages / scripts will hinder their cognitive growth.

Myth 6: The alphabetic writing system of English is inherently superior compared to Indian scripts.

Myth 7: Sign languages are not real languages / there is just one universal sign language.

Myth 8: Men and women differ in their linguistic / spatial abilities because their brains are wired differently.

Myth 9: Machine Translation (MT) will replace human translators.

Myth 10: Machine Translation output quality is so bad that it is useless.

Do take a look at these useful reminders.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Myaamia revitalization and well-being

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas drew our attention to an inspiring story of language "resurrection": that of Myaamia, the language of the Miami tribe in USA. As  Lorraine Boissoneault says in the Smithsonian Magazine article, "Despite the threat of language extinction, despite the brutal history of genocide and forced removals, this is a story of hope. It’s about reversing time and making that which has sunk below the surface visible once more. This is the story of how a disappearing language came back to life—and how it’s bringing other lost languages with it".

But it takes time, as linguists David Costa and Daryl Baldwin know. Costa has already spent 30 years on reviving Myaamia, and we're told that he "anticipates it’ll be another 30 or 40 before the puzzle is complete and all the historical records of the language are translated, digitally assembled, and made available to members of the tribe". As a project that will probably outlive its initiators, the focus has to be on youth. One result of their work has been wide institutional collaboration: "From this initiative came National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages. The workshop has been held in 2011, 2013, 2015 and is slated once again for 2017.... The workshop has hosted community members from 60 different languages already".

And the benefits of this revitalization are startlingly tangible!
To emphasize the importance of indigenous languages, Baldwin and others researched the health impact of speaking a native language. They found that for indigenous bands in British Columbia, those who had at least 50 percent of the population fluent in the language saw 1/6 the rate of youth suicides compared to those with lower rates of spoken language. In the Southwestern U.S., tribes where the native language was spoken widely only had around 14 percent of the population that smoked, while that rate was 50 percent in the Northern Plains tribes, which have much lower language usage. Then there are the results they saw at Miami University: while graduation rates for tribal students were 44 percent in the 1990s, since the implementation of the language study program that rate has jumped to 77 percent.
As the website of Healing Through Language summarizes: "One tool for improving health has become apparent in recent years: language. Communities that maintain their Native language have lower suicide rates. Elders often find renewed vitality when called upon to help the younger generations recover a language. Youths in language programs graduate from high school at higher rates than those who take a mainstream language like Spanish."

Thursday, January 5, 2017

MTME needed beyond early grades

In his fortnightly column, Anurag Behar has just published 'The focus for education in 2017' - a comprehensive 'cheat-sheet' of 'approaches and issues, which will be worked upon and fought about, this year and next'. The list of 25 issues range from the high-minded (constitutional values) to the everyday (inadequate water in schools).

About mother-tongue education, he says:
21. Mother tongue is the most effective medium of education in early grades. However, given the reality of the social capital of English, all children must have the opportunity to learn the language.
In fact, mother-tongue medium (MTM) education is most effective not just in early grades. It is most effective throughout the schooling years. Several studies show that length of time spent in mother-tongue (L1) schooling is the best predictor of academic performance. This includes performance in the second language (L2). In the world's largest longitudinal study of minority education (over 210 000 students), Thomas and Collier (2002: 7) conclude that 'the strongest predictor of L2 student achievement is the amount of formal L1 schooling. The more L1 grade-level schooling, the higher L2 achievement'. Early-exit to a dominant language does not yield good outcomes. What is needed is a mother-tongue based multilingual education (MTME).

Regarding this study and another, Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar (2010: 96) note, 'The length of MTM education was... more important than any other factor (and many were included) in predicting the educational success of bilingual students. It was also much more important than socio-economic status.' We've blogged earlier about their excellent overview of education of indigenous peoples, tribals and minorities. In the context of this post, see especially Chapter 8, 'What forms of education would be consistent with law and research?' (and section 8.1.3 therein).

Earlier in their monograph, Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar also cite Kathleen Heugh's study (2000) in South Africa (which we've blogged about too) which shows that even under the racist policies of apartheid,
secondary school pass rate rose, with 8 years of MTM, to 83.7% by 1976 and the English language as a subject pass rate rose to over 78%. When after the Soweto uprising MTM education went down to only 4 years, with an earlier transition to English-medium, the secondary school pass rate declined to 44% by 1992, with a parallel decline in English language proficiency. (p. 53)
A final pair of examples for this post are from Assam and Odisha in India, from the work by Ajit Mohanty and his colleagues. In a well-controlled study, Bodo children learning in Bodo-medium outperformed Bodos studying in the regional language Assamese. In Odisha, Kui-speaking tribal Kond children in Kui-Odia bilingual programmes 'in their later grades (i.e. the high school grades) were found to perform in Odia language tasks at the same level as the Odia-only monolingual children'. (Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar, pp. 97, and 70-71)

So, a more accurate phrasing of Behar's point would be:
21. Mother tongue is the most effective medium of education. Given India's multilingual reality and the social capital of English, all children must have the opportunity to get a mother-tongue based multilingual education.