Tuesday, July 16, 2013

English as a Second Language, But Don't Forget Your First

My husband and I have recently embarked on a journey of teaching Spanish to our daughter.  Using the One Parent, One Langauge approach, I speak only Spanish with my daughter and my husband only English.  The library has played a huge role in supplementing materials for both me and my daughter as we immerse ourselves in the language and heritage.  In my quest to only speak Spanish, I've discovered just how difficult English can be to speakers of other languages.  If you've never really thought much about your foreign language, bilingual, or multicultural collections, I hope I can help shed some light on these critical materials.

The argument against foreign language collections usually comes down to two things: money and language.  I'll talk a little more on money later, but let's discuss the driving force behind the language.  While the concept of libraries in general are not American, from the Andrew Carnegie Libraries of the 19th century to the New York Public Library's iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman building, the history of public libraries are rooted deeply into America's past.  With the largest amount of immigrants being English speakers well into the 19th century, English, has also become a long standing American tradition. Combine the two traditions and you get a library full of books in English.  That may have suited early 20th century America, with its relatively small population of ESL speakers, but for the 21st century America that boasts a 30% Spanish speaking population (Making it the world's 5th largest Spanish speaking population) and with Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean speakers each in the millions, foreign language materials are needed now more than ever.

But shouldn't English materials suffice? After all, libraries have long been cornerstones in helping newcomers learn English.  If you've ever studied a foreign language, then you know how tedious it can be.  Now imagine learning a foreign language and being unable to escape back into your own language.  When we learn Spanish, French, or German in high school or college, classes last for one hour before we are able to carry on our lives in English again.  But if you've ever studied abroad in a country whose language is not English, then you probably understand the frustration and loneliness that comes with language isolation.

For 2nd generation immigrants, the primary language as a child is not English (since ESL learners are more likely to speak their native language in the home.)  English is learned from watching television programs like Sesame Street and from attending daycare.  The 2nd generation can often benefit from foreign language materials in early childhood, but as the child advances in school, English becomes the prominent language.  While 2nd generation immigrants have learned to speak a language other than English, by the time they begin school, the focus of reading and writing is on English.  As any linguist will tell you, reading and writing are the last two steps of language acquisition.  Since most 2nd generation students continue reading and writing in English, language acquisition for their native language is never fully developed.  A lot of this can be attributed to the lack of materials available for students at this critical age.  Once the 3rd generation immigrant is born, preserving the native language becomes even more difficult.

For children like my daughter, who is 4th generation and has learned English as the primary language, the idea of creating a total immersion environment is not possible without the help of the library.  Your library most likely collects plenty of language learning books, CDs, and DVDs.  But learning the grammar rules of language are not nearly enough for acquisition.  This is where total immersion comes in.  In order to learn a language fully, there must be additional materials provided that go beyond the basics of grammar drills.  Whether the materials are being used by 1st generation immigrants or the 20th generation, the importance of literacy, whether it be English or other, is one of the cornerstones of libraries worldwide.

Unfortunately, the reality of library budgets across the nation are less than ideal. So how does one decide what to purchase?  A community friendly collection development policy is the best place to start.  If the collection development policy states that purchases are made based on the needs of the community and the community is 30% Spanish speaking, then a collection with only 1% of materials in Spanish may not be meeting the needs of its community.

When considering the total immersion approach, it is important to not only consider the percentage of native speakers, but also the percentage of language learners who may benefit from the material as well.  If 30% of a community's population are speaking another language, then it stands to reason that those in the community wanting to learn a language, are more likely to choose the predominant language to learn.  For example, if the second majority language spoken in the community is Chinese, then English speakers within the community are more likely to choose Chinese as a language they would like to learn.

Let your collection truly reflect the community you serve.  While I have specifically hi-lighted foreign language materials in this post, a community based collection is applicable to all materials.  You probably already have a good idea about the people you serve in your community.  Back up what you know with some facts and figures.  You can easily view U.S. Census data to determine the make up of your community.  Start with these figures to reexamine the library's collection. If, like me, you have no control over what is purchased,  you may at least have power over how the collection is marketed.  When making displays, ask yourself "do these books accurately reflect the lives and/or interests of my customers."

Multiculturalism is such a broad topic that I highly recommend Multicultural Communities: Guidelines for Library Services from IFLA.org for more information and research.

No comments: