Sunday, September 10, 2006

Book Review: Introduction to Bilingualism (chapters 7-14): Sociolinguistics

(Click on the following concepts to see previous reviews of Introduction to Bilingualism by Charlotte Hoffmann: Defining bilingualism , Language development in children , Features of bilingual speech , and Contradictory and inconclusive research.)

The rest of Hoffmann's very informative but somewhat dry book concerns bilingualism in social and societal contexts; much of it is not relevant to the target audience of my blog (parents and teachers of children learning second languages), so I'll try to be quick in my summary. Chapter 7 discusses views of bilingualism across the years--for example, some experts in the early 20th century believed that bilingualism leads to "moral inferiority" (p. 138)--and emphasizes the challenge that bicultural bilinguals have in establishing and/or articulating their identities. Hoffmann suggests that parents should help children sort out which groups and nationalities they identify with.

Chapter 7 also addresses the difficulty in assessing bilingual proficiency: the current methods and techniques are unsatisfactory, the setting in which tests are done can render them invalid, they are hard to compare to other tests, the language used and information tested may not mirror a bilingual person's skills and experiences, taking tests is not the normal way bilinguals use language [and I would add, not the normal way any of us use language!], and "formal tests tend to stress linguistic form....[and] may not reveal the bilingual's ability to communicate" (153). Additionally, in other sections of the book Hoffmann points out that many degrees of bilingualism exist; rarely does a bilingual person have the exact same level of competency in both languages, comfortably using both equally well in any given situation.

In chapter 8, Hoffmann discusses multilingual societies by way of historical and contemporary factors, such as the use of French, German, Italian, and Romansch in Italy. Chapter 9 covers language choice and language shift (the latter due to factors like migration, industrialization, and prestige). Chapter 10 develops the idea of language and national identity mentioned in chapter 7, while chapter 11 delves linguistic minorities (focusing on western Europe keeps it from getting overwhelming and allows Hoffmann to discuss topics like assimilation). The book concludes with detailed summaries of three case studies of bilingualism in western Europe: the Alsatians in France, the Catalans in Spain, and migrant workers in Germany.

The discussions of the Alsatian dialect and its speakers were of particular interest to me personally, because I lived in Alsace for a year (1996-7) where I met many young people who understood their grandparents' Alsatian but couldn't speak it themselves. Occasionally the local newspaper would publish articles in Alsatian, though, and all the street signs in my modern, industrialized city (Mulhouse) were written both in French and in Alsatian.

However, there is a very distinct difference between the two sections of the book (Part I: Psycholinguistic Aspects of Bilingualism, with its focus on individuals, and Part II: Sociolinguistic Aspects of Bilingualism, which examined bilingual societies). The latter half seems very well suited to a graduate-level class on sociolinguistics (or to people curious about places where the residents are bilingual), but I would recommend the first half to those wanting to learn more about the effects of bilingualism and how children acquire a second language. Still, this is definitely a tome with a theoretical focus--good for academics and linguists, but not offering a lot of ideas or techniques that a parent or teacher could apply to a would-be bilingual child. The fact that it's no longer a recent book (published in 1991) concerns me, too--I'm sure that in the past fifteen years research has emerged that clarifies some of the issues that Hoffmann admits we don't have answers to or explanations for. Perhaps ways of assessing bilingualism and its effects have also been finessed. But I chose this book to review well aware of its publication date, expecting it to give me a good, academic overview of bilingualism, and indeed it did. My next book review will cover something more practically rooted, I promise. Thanks for wading through all this theory and research and linguistic terminology with me!

(To see a review of a case-study book by a linguist who raised his child trilingually, click here.)

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