LINGUIST List 12.751

Mon Mar 19 2001

Review: Corson, Language Diversity and Education

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  1. Mitsuyo Sakamoto, David Corson's book review

Message 1: David Corson's book review

Date: Mon, 19 Mar 2001 09:50:37 -0500
From: Mitsuyo Sakamoto <>
Subject: David Corson's book review

Corson, David (2001) Language Diversity and Education, Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates. Mahwah, New Jersey. xi+253 pages. $29.95.

Reviewed by Mitsuyo Sakamoto, OISE/UT


This book is comprised of seven chapters. Chapter 1 and 2 provide the
background discussion. Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 are the central chapters
in this book, covering various aspects of language diversity in school
context, and are followed by a concluding chapter.

Chapter 1 reviews the historical path that sociolinguistic and applied
linguistic research has taken over the years in understanding language as
part of social life. After a critical review of the positivistic,
orthodox paradigm, Corson notes how postmodernism has brought our
understanding of the issues concerning language diversity and education to
a more interpretive and discursive level. Corson introduces his readers
to a view that conceptualizes the "individual as an embodied being,
constantly building on previous encounters with the world in a search for
meaning and value carried out in an environment where social practices,
including linguistic practices, play a very large role: one that is both
constraining and enabling" (p. 9). Applying this notion to the school
setting, Corson notes how children need to interact critically with the
discourses around them while avoiding disempowering messages those
discourses often contain (p. 14).

Chapter 2 reviews the relationship between discourse, power, and social
justice. Building on Bourdieu's (1966, 1981, 1984) notion of linguistic
capital, Corson explains how "schools still operate as if all children had
equal access to the capital valued in formal education" (p. 23) when in
fact diverse sociocultural groups bring different linguistic and cultural
capitals that may be incongruent to that of school's. Corson further
calls for, this time building upon Bhaskar's (1986) notion of 'critical
realism', the necessity for "devolving real decision-making power to those
who are actually in touch with the things that oppress them, or with the
things that they value" (p. 31).

Chapter 3 discusses cultural identity, mismatches in discourse, different
cultural values, the effects of dominant discourse norms, and the power of
classroom contexts and teacher practices. The necessary step to change
the common school practices, Corson argues, is to encourage teachers to
"think about their own discourse norms, then ask themselves whether
culturally different children are receiving unintended messages of
domination, exclusion, or hostility from the way they interact with their
students themselves" (p. 64).

Chapter 4 examines the issue of non standard language varieties. Corson
admonishes how "the 'standard' variety valued in schools represents more
than just a convention. It is the model of excellence against which [the
students] own varieties are measured; it is deemed 'correct', while their
own varieties are less correct" (p. 71). In order to re-evaluate this
common school practice, Corson argues that critical awareness regarding
power and social justice needs to be incorporated in the curriculum of
teacher education (p. 97).

Chapter 5 reviews bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL)
education. This includes not only the education of immigrant children, but
also that of deaf children. The argument is that these children are not
being exposed enough to the type of discourse privileged at school outside
the classroom, and hence are at a disadvantage in acquiring the meaning
system necessary for academic success. Corson writes how "the pedagogical
signs and organizational structures in schools need to match, as closely
as possible, those used in the children's home community" (p. 119) and
that "being able to see part of the world from the different culture's
point of view is an ability that teachers need to strive for. Again, as
far as possible, the culture of the child needs to be in the mind of the
teacher" (p. 12). In actualizing this, Corson notes the importance of
soliciting the participation of and establishing partnerships with the
local community as one key factor.

Chapter 6 addresses the issue of gender and discourse norms. By citing
several research findings on gender discourse, Corson highlights the
differences in discourse amongst boys and girls, and how schools privilege
one over the other and reinforce gendered norms. Again, the author calls
for a critical re-examination of classroom practices in order to reduce
gendered school discourses.

Chapter 7 is the concluding chapter which brings the reader's attention
to research which explores language diversity and education from the views
of those who are oppressed in current discourses. As examples, Corson
introduces four recent seminal works: Rebecca Freeman's (1996) study on a
school's dual-language planning, Alice Eriks-Brophy and Martha Crago's
(1994) study on Inuit teachers-students interaction, Penny Eckert's (1990)
work on 'girl talk', and Monica Heller's (1999) study of language
practices in a francophone school in Canada.


In this book, David Corson emphasizes several points: that
acknowledgement, respect and incorporation of different discourse norms in
schools are necessary; research and policy making need to incorporate the
voices of those who live in the real contexts of immigrants and
minorities; and that establishing critical awareness is necessary among
teachers and students.

Corson presents these ideas in powerful, eloquent, engaging, convincing,
and enlightening ways. He articulately illustrates the power tension that
exists among different discourse users within the domain of education. He
includes many examples that successfully support his arguments, and his
references are current and thorough.

This book is written in ways that provoke profound critical thinking.
Each chapter is followed by a section entitled "Discussion Starters" which
consists of several thought-provoking questions ideal for discussions in
graduate seminars.

As much as I found this book compelling, I also found it somewhat
frustrating. I believe this is largely due to the open-ended nature of
this book, in a sense that it invites critical dialogues to emerge within
oneself as well as with others. Readers will quickly realize the
complexities involved in language diversity and education which afford us
no easy solutions. Examining the proper treatment of language diversity
in schools could be an agonizing and depressing endeavour.

Corson notes how our current practices can be challenged through critical
awareness on the part of teachers and students. Although teachers'
critical reflection and heightened awareness are important ingredients in
challenging the status quo, I feel that significant, major changes could
only be made by the students themselves (See also Freire, 1970, p. 27).
In order to change the implicit and systemic unfairness existent in our
educational practices, children not only need to be critically aware, but
be versed in and appreciate both sets of discourse practices. In other
words, children do need to be taught the dominant discourse - the
discourse of power - while maintaining and appreciating their minority
discourse (See also Delpit, 1995, p. 68). Otherwise, emphasis on
non-standard varieties of discourse alone could be, contrary to our
wishes, harmful to the minority children, subjugating them to a perpetual
inferiority. Rallying for the legitimization of non-standard discourses
alone, I am afraid, will get us nowhere.

Simpler said, minority children are required to "play the language game"
(Wittgenstein, 1953, 1972) of the dominant society in order to "survive"
the current education system. Becoming "bilingual" in dominant as well as
minority discourses, I believe, is the key factor in reducing, and
ultimately eradicating, prejudice against non-standard discourse. This
way, shift in power balance can be slow but assured.

In realizing and actualizing the empowerment of minorities, Corson
emphasizes the importance of consulting the participants in communities of
practice (p. 192). This, he notes, will afford us very different world
views. In order to exemplify his ideas, Corson shares four ethnographic
studies (Freeman, 1996; Eriks-Brophy & Crago, 1994; Eckert, 1990;
Heller, 1999). As much as I appreciate the contribution ethnographic
studies have made in enriching our understanding, I feel that ethnographic
research is still largely inaccessible to the public at large. That is, I
deem ethnographic studies to be still very much contained in the academic
realm, and the dissemination of any findings fails to actively include
those who have been left in the periphery of academia for so long. I would
like to see more collaborative and accessible research to promulgate so
that different worldviews can be shared more easily and readily among as
many individuals as possible.

As Paolo Freire (1970) notes, true critical reflection leads to action (p.
48). Through this book, I believe Corson succeeds in inviting his readers
to engage in such critical reflection.


Bhaskar, R. (1986). Scientific realism and human emancipation. London,
England: Verso.

Bourdieu, P. (1966). L'�cole conservatrice. Revue Fran�aise de
sociologie, 7, 225-226, 330-342, 346-347.

Bourdieu, P. (1981). Ce que parler veut dire: L'�conomie des �changes
linguistique. Paris, France: Fayard.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of
taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the
classroom. New York, NY: The New Press.

Eckert, P. (1990). Cooperative competition in adolescent "girl talk".
Discourse Processes, 13, 91-122.

Eriks-Brophy, A. & Crago, M. (1994). Transforming classroom discourse:
an Inuit example. Language and Education, 8, 105-122.

Freeman, R. D. (1996). Dual-language planning at Oyster bilingual
school: "It's much more than language". TESOL Quarterly, 30, 557-582.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: The
Continuum Publishing.

Heller, M. (1999). Linguistic minorities and modernity: A
sociolinguistic ethnography. London: Longman.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. (E. E. M.
Anscombe, Trans.). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (1972). On certainty. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks.


Mitsuyo Sakamoto recently received her Ph. D. from the Ontario Institute
for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Her areas of
interest are bilingualism and bilingual education, with a focus on social
aspects affecting L1 maintenance and SLA.
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