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Mirror of Language : THE DEBATE ON BILINGUALISM by Kenji Hakuta (Basic: $18.95; 253 pp.)

March 23, 1986|Joshua A. Fishman | Fishman is the author of "The Rise and Fall of the Ethnic Revival: Perspectives on Language and Ethnicity" (1985). and

For Kenji Hakuta, an associate professor of psychology at Yale University and a specialist in psycholinguistics, the pleasures of bilingualism are primarily the pleasures of the mind. He looks at how bilingualism affects intelligence, exploring whether bilinguals have a different brain center for each of their languages or, if not, how they keep their languages separated. Hakuta focuses on such questions as "do children learn first and second languages in the same way," "do adults learn a second language differently than children" and "is the public debate about bilingual education really about bilingualism or does it have more to do with the economic, political and educational power of Hispanics?" To that last question, Hakuta would answer "yes." Because bilingual education is constantly under political and emotional attack, Hakuta believes Americans fail to consider what psychology, linguistics and sociology have to say about bilingualism.

Even so, Hakuta admits that more research into bilingualism is necessary before bilingual education for mainstream and "side-stream" kids can be conducted effectively and as confidently as education in mathematics, science or social studies. While the questions seem simple, the answers are complex and often no final answer is in. A good body of research, for instance, implies that bilinguals often cognitively combine their two languages, yet other research implies that bilinguals can and do keep languages separated. Hakuta is particularly good at conveying excitement of psycholinguistic and psychoeducational research on bilingualism, how the puzzle changes as one researcher after another tackles related (often interlocking) pieces of the puzzle. He also looks at how the biases of researchers influence methodologies and even findings. Hostility toward immigrants in general and toward non-Anglo Saxon immigrants in particular, for example, colored much of the American discussion of bilingualism and intelligence before and after World War I, just as the middle-class revolt against the tax burden of "poverty programs" and anxieties over the loss of American power on the international scene have distorted our views of bilingual education recently.

This is the second book in the last few years, written for intelligent laymen, to dwell on the social intrigue behind the bilingualism debate. (The first such book, Francois Grosjean's "Living With Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism," 1982, explored the sociolinguistics of bilingualism more fully than does Hakuta. Yet while Hakuta does espy a growing awareness of bilingual issues in the United States, he also points out that this nation, however rich and good-natured, lacks a permanent center for theoretical and applied research on bilingualism. It will be a long time, I fear, before I return home from a trip where I have talked with educated, middle-class Americans who are pleased that their children really know Spanish, or Chinese, or Russian, or Arabic or Swahili. The paucity of such views is itself a mirror of the American mind. Hakuta has contributed valiantly to changing the picture in that mirror. More power to him, and to others like him, who have not given up on either bilingualism or on the American mind.

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