The Language of Literacy

I have been, and remain, skeptical of the claim that if one acquires literacy in a second language before one's native language, that this is automatically damaging or puts one at a disadvantage in all cases. Sometimes the claim is made even more strongly: that it is impossible to become fully literate if your earliest basis for literacy is a second language.

It has the ring of rationalization to it, like a conclusion arrived at precisely because one wishes to support efforts to include native-language alphabetization for speakers of minority languages in school curricula, so as to expand the domain in which minority languages may be used. This itself is a laudable goal. But furthering it with questionable conclusions based on debatable data sounds a bit like the discouragement of multilingualism on the strength of the now-antiquated notion (which used to be supported by now-discredited research) that you shouldn't raise a child with two languages lest they acquire an imperfect command of both. It also opens the language pluralist up to charges of dishonesty by nationalists and other linguistic chauvinists.

I'm not saying that native-language literacy instruction isn't easier for both student and teacher in many ways under many circumstances. Teaching literacy in a second language may, depending on circumstances, require different pedagogical approaches. If the teacher is unable or willing to employ such approaches, the student suffers.

My doubt rests on a few things:

The first is that being taught literacy in a language you don't know, or are only beginning to know, is different than being taught literacy in a second language of which you have a good functional command. Many studies of L1 vs L2 alphabetization don't tease out (at least not in any methodologically sound way) the variables involving how well the child learning literacy knows the second language in question.

The second reason is that learning literacy in a language or dialect other than the first one you learned has been the norm for most literate human beings until relatively recently. Until the past few centuries, very few of the many languages that people spoke were at all written down. Fewer still written regularly. And even fewer were the language normally employed on written media. Even if literacy in one's native language was eventually taught, this was not always the language in which literacy was first acquired, or most commonly used. In 19th century Russia, children of the nobility were frequently first taught literacy in French (and in some cases English) before Russian. In 18th century England, upper class children were sometimes first taught literacy in Latin and Greek before English. For a long time in traditional Ashkenazi society, the first language of literacy (among men) was Hebrew rather than Yiddish.

Many written languages with old and and widely-cultivated literatures, such as Classical Chinese, Latin or Sanskrit, came to be exclusively literate languages. That is, there came a point in history where the only way one would know them would involve acquiring literacy in some way, and in many times and places, virtually anyone who acquired literacy did so first in those languages. Those trained in such traditions may be more at home writing and reading in their non-native language, than in their native one. It was a commonplace that French scholars through the end of the 17th century were more at ease writing and reading Latin than French, and even complained of the difficulty of the latter.

Terms like "fully literate" or "complete literacy" can mean anything you want them to mean, and I'm sure there's some metric by which I might be said to not be fully literate in English.

But if the basic premises were as true as they are sometimes claimed to be, then many empires would not have been able to function as they did. (Compared to the incomputable amounts of Latin writing by Franks, we have literally one surviving example of written Frankish — on a dagger handle.) Billions of human beings have lived by literacy exclusively or almost exclusively in a second language. Much of the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula did that.

In the modern world, with classrooms structured as they increasingly tend to be round the world, it may well be more expedient to alphabetize children in their first language in all cases. I can see several strong cases — practical and ethical — for doing so. But the idea that full literacy cannot be acquired, or is especially difficult to acquire, unless it is first taught in one's "native" language just seems like convenient mythology supported by questionable interpretations of data.

It is sometimes said that one's first language is processed and stored differently at the level of the brain than other languages — but this is only true for some values of "first." It is also not true for all people, or for all language pairs. And it doesn't line up with what we tend to think of as discreet "languages." If you go by that metric then, for example, Standard Arabic and Dialectal Arabic are processed as two different neurological languages in an Arabic-speaker's brain, yet Russian and Ukrainian are processed as if they were the same in a Russian-Ukrainian bilingual's brain. 

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